Shoot the messenger? Maybe the time is right?


As a business consultant, I have advised entrepreneurs, CEO’s, fortune 500 companies, and all types of groups for over 20 years. The playing field has shifted, perhaps permanently.

I now watch the results of a relentless explosion of so-called guru-led coaches and consultants, and I also see the growing field of unemployed c-level executives who must now somehow miraculously transform themselves into high paid consultants,

I am left with a stunning conclusion. The old adage of “shoot the messenger”, referring to when the innocent harbinger of bad news is shot for bringing bad news to a leader, may actually be a good thing in today’s era – because the messenger may have changed.

First, there is a big difference between being a c-level exec and being a consultant: One is used to making decisions, the other is use to making decisions and then delivering deliverables to c-level execs so they can make decisions. Some ex-execs make great consultants, some consultants make great execs. But the field is now over-crowded and the distinctions are blurred.

Second: Consultants are supposed to be objective. That is their mandate and skill. They aren’t trying to leverage a consulting gig into a job, as many jobless-turned consultants hope. They also aren’t following a Guru script, where objectivity is lost in inexperience and the simultaneous quest for an upsell. Consultants should bring expert knowledge to a situation and deliver advice.

Their success is dependent upon the quality, consistency and dependability of that advice, often in situations of conflict and duress, fighting battles that their employers cannot or will not fight. Good consulting can often be the sacrificial lamb to end an internal conflict, where the messenger is sacrificed for the better good of the employer. How many management consultants have left a successful gig, having solved the issue, resolved contentious internal organizational debate, only to be given a heartfelt thank you and an exit letter. The consultants’ job is to have a target painted on their forehead, being ready to get shot.

Third: Being a good consultant takes training, education, experience and practice, in order to scope a project, analyze it, collect information, interface with staff and develop results that can then be delivered without, hopefully, getting anyone, including the messenger, shot for the news. Very often the news is bad. Sometimes the news points a finger at the people who hired the consultant. It is no different with small or large companies. Sometimes the consultant simply has to tell the client “your baby is ugly”.

With the new breed of “consultants” and “coaches” being freshly minted by the bad economy and the plethora of Guru’s hawking “insta-coach” programs, it is increasingly difficult for consumers to know who is credible and capable. It is even harder to trust the advice they receive, when much of it may be taken from training playbooks from a $3000 seminar.

Perhaps it is now appropriate to “shoot the messenger”, because rather than “shooting” a consultant who is delivering great, but uncomfortable advice, out of frustration, the business leader may be “shooting” an inexperienced unqualified or inappropriate novice and doing the right thing, protecting against untrustworthy advice, staying out of harm’s way by firing unqualified bad messengers.

Good leaders keep the messengers who give them good advice they may not want to hear, very close. Trustworthy advisors are hard to come by, even if the advice is hard to take.

In today’s environment, however, this is becoming increasingly difficult to discern.

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