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Critical Choices That Make (or Break) Your Consulting Firm

Whether your consulting firm employs 100, 10 or 1 consultant, your firm has a culture. That culture is a clockwork of choices that determine your firm’s long-term success and how rewarding it is for you to lead the practice.

If you don’t actively craft your consulting firm’s culture, you still have one. Like a dinner of whatever’s left over in the fridge, it reflects your tastes, but it’s happenstance, usually uninspiring, and typically lacking in tiramisu.**

You may have elegantly crafted mission, vision and values statements. Those are a good start; however, they don’t capture your consulting firm’s culture.

Culture reflects behavior when your mission, vision, and values conflict.

Your consulting firm’s culture is about choices. Specifically, your choices because you’re at the top.

To actively shape your consulting firm’s culture, follow the steps below:

First: Objectives and Values

  1. Explicitly write down your consulting firm’s objectives and values. There’s a good chance you’ve done this already.
  2. Stress test them. You must believe that your consulting firm’s values will help you achieve your objectives, or else you’ll fail at one or the other. If your objectives are in jeopardy, will you still live by those values?

Second: Conflict Hierarchy

Prioritize your consulting firm’s values by setting pairs of values against each other.

  1. Pick any two of your values.
  2. Imagine an example of those values in conflict. For example, let’s say your values include “Delight our Clients” and “Care for our People.” A conflict would be if a deliverable due the next day is currently at a B level of quality but could be made an A if your team—including someone who has an important reason to be home—pulled an all-nighter.
  3. Write down the conflict(s). You’re going to need these later
  4. Write down your choice in each conflict. Which takes precedence? Does allowing a team member to go home (“Care for our People”) win or does delivering an A (“Delight our Clients”) rule the day? Do not let yourself off the hook with a compromise. Force a choice.
  5. Repeat this exercise until you’ve developed a clear hierarchy, with each value explicitly taking precedence over the value below it. (Yes, there will always be exceptions. Use the most common, mundane examples you can find.)

Third: Keystone Choices

Illustrate the behavior you expect with instructive examples.

  1. Choose one-to-three examples for each value that illustrate the behavior you expect when that value is in conflict with others.
  2. Select mundane, common examples of conflict. The type that can occur every day.
  3. Write out these scenarios in as concise, clear language as possible. Don’t worry about every nuance.

This may seem like a lot of work. Here’s the good news: if your leadership team consists of a handful of people or just yourself, you can knock this out in less than a day.

It’s a day that will pay out with a more productive consulting firm. You’ll enjoy fewer hiring mistakes, fewer internal conflicts, less stress and, ultimately, a far higher likelihood of achieving your objectives.

Below are a few examples of values that could be important and in conflict.

Delight Clients vs. Work/Life Balance

Independence vs. Collaboration

Professionalism vs. Family Atmosphere

Innovation vs. Efficiency

Integrity vs. Drive for Success

I’d love to hear your example: What are two values that are important in your consulting firm, and which takes precedence.

  1. David A. Fields
    October 3, 2018 at 2:31 am Reply

    Stark shifts in culture and language can be disorienting. Arriving in London last night after a month in Italy, I automatically thanked the English passport control officer with “Grazie.” (And as lovely coasting next to the Thames in a black cab is, it’s a bit jarring after boating to Capri!)

    Lazing on boat to Capri

  2. Kyle Gillette
    October 3, 2018 at 6:46 am Reply

    Hey David,

    Quick thought, can you turn your questions into a PDF values/conflict worksheet to make it easier to follow your process?

    I just finished writing my values and never considered the potential for conflict. Thank you for the insight.

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:25 am Reply

      Good idea, Kyle. We’ll add it to our collection of exercises and worksheets for small consulting firms.

      Yes, realizing that conflict is where culture is defined, was a helpful insight for me too. Since we all obligate ourselves in so many ways, conflicts are bound to arise. We’re defined by those obligations we choose to honor.

      I appreciate you chipping in the suggestion, Kyle.

  3. Ian Whitfield
    October 3, 2018 at 11:06 am Reply

    You’re my kind of guy … wish I was in Italy, instead we got 15″ of snow yesterday :(. Love your articles David, one of the few that I read and keep. Enjoyed your book as well, practical. Thanks for what you do!

    • David A. Fields
      October 10, 2018 at 6:22 am Reply

      Wow. 15″ of snow?! Glad I didn’t read that before I boarded the plan back to the States or I might have stayed in Italy! Thanks for your support, Ian and for being part of this community.

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