Two speakers stepped up to their podiums, 10 metres apart, to tell us their story—a remarkable story that involved both of them. In the audience we were 100 members of the Society of Organizational Learning. One of the speakers was a senior executive of British Petroleum (BP) and the other was Richard Pascale, a widely admired teacher and consultant who had guided BP’s leadership team through a remarkable turnaround. The audience had come to listen to him and to learn the story of the BP turnaround.
Richard Pascale was respected in business circles as a great turnaround consultant. He had worked early on as a consultant with McKinsey. A respected professor at Stanford Business School for twenty years and currently an associate fellow of the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, Pascale is a well-known author too. His book Managing on the Edge (1990) is a bestseller as was his earlier book The Art of Japanese Management (1981) which he co-authored with Anthony Athos.
Pascale chose to tell the story in an unusual way—as an interaction between a client and a consultant. The conversation began with the stage lights on BP’s executive. He recounted the discussions within the BP team when they realized that the company was in trouble. They knew they needed help. They met with many consultants who were keen to help—for a substantial fee of course—and they even engaged some to help BP improve parts of its operations. However, what John Brown, the CEO of BP, was looking for was a consultant who could help the leadership team improve its own competency to lead. BP researched and requested Pascale to meet the team in London, if he was willing.
The spotlight shifted to Pascale, who recounted what was on his mind when he had received BP’s request. He had worked with many CEOs and their teams before. They all seemed to enjoy the scheduled meetings, and he was paid well too, but not much changed in the companies’ operations following the meetings. Pascale had enjoyed the preliminary meeting with BP’s team. They exuded an energy that excited him. They were also very direct with him as they sized him up. He, on the other hand, was curious about what was going on in their minds.
The spotlight shifted back to the BP executive on the other side of the room and we heard what went on in the minds of the team members as they assessed their prospective consultant. They had spent a lot of money previously for the services of globally acclaimed consulting companies, but to no avail. Now they were looking for a consultant with a difference. Though they were not sure at this point, Pascale did seem different.
The spotlight moved back to Pascale who described the contract made between him and the team. They would begin working together, but if any side was not satisfied, they could walk away.
The spotlight went back and forth a few times as the two speakers wove their stories together. The company was turning around well. Pascale was flying into BP’s meetings frequently. The chemistry between the client and the consultant was working very well. A strategy was adopted. It was being implemented. Signs of success were beginning to appear.
Then the spotlight went off for a brief while and the audience heard Pascale’s voice coming from the shadows. When the lights came back on him, we saw a sad-looking man whose energy had gone out of him. Pascale said the meetings with BP had become less frequent. Pascale was a professor in Stanford in California. One day he learnt from a friend that BP’s executive team was meeting in California. He could have easily attended that meeting. Why was he not invited? Was this a signal of his failure to live up to BP’s expectations? He called the team leader who immediately invited him for dinner with them.
Pascale said he was surprised by the bonhomie with which he was received when he came into the room. The team seemed to have had a good day together and were happy to see him too. They were not avoiding him. However, he felt neglected so he ventured to ask whether his services were no longer useful. When he asked, he was met with a surprised silence.
He recalled his feelings of confusion and hurt. The spotlight remained on him. Then another spotlight came on the BP executive. He turned from the audience and looked calmly into Pascale’s face across the room and spoke to him.
Wasn’t it the consultant’s aim to help the team to learn to work effectively together, find its own strategies and start implementing them? Isn’t that what they had asked his help for and what he had clearly said was all he wanted to do? In fact, they had selected him over other consultants who had offered to provide many other services for the company. But BP had not wanted that. It wanted to be self-reliant. Why then was Pascale unhappy to find the BP team looking confident and not needing to lean on him any longer?
Having posed these penetrating questions to Pascale, the client stepped off the stage.
Pascale then turned to his audience, who were mostly consultants in organizational learning. He asked them to reflect for a moment why they had chosen to become consultants. The gist of their responses was that they wanted to help their clients to become more confident and more capable of achieving their goals.
‘What is the mission of a medical doctor?’ he asked.
‘To make their patients healthy,’ the audience responded.
‘Isn’t your mission the same?’ he asked. ‘If your client is unwell, you must restore them back to health. Isn’t your job done then? Haven’t you fulfilled your responsibility when your client feels confident that they do not need you any longer?’
Elections for the mayor of Mexico City were coming up. The incumbent mayor wanted to win of course. However, citizens were not satisfied with his performance. The quality of municipal services was not commensurate with the taxes and service fees they paid. They complained that the municipality’s payrolls were bloated with salaries of staff who did not serve them well. An opposition candidate said he would improve the services if he was elected. The writing was on the wall. Unless services improved rapidly before the elections, the incumbent mayor would lose.
He commissioned two management consulting companies to assist. One was ADL, where I was working. ADL’s Mexican consultants had recently concluded a successful engagement with Cemex, the Mexican cement company, to rapidly improve the performance of its cement plants. It had deployed a bottom-up approach, with an effective methodology for engaging the workers to make improvements. They proposed to use this tactic to improve the city services. The mayor was intrigued by it but did not want to take any risk, so he hired another company also.
The other consulting company had a large practice for improving government services using the conventional approach of ‘process re-engineering’. It provided its credentials to the mayor, and he was impressed. Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 22 million (in 2020). The mayor assigned a greater part of the city to this company to make improvements on and only a small part to ADL.
The ADL consultants began their assignment in earnest, as they had at Cemex, by engaging all employees as well as their managers to understand their individual aspirations and find out their views on what changes were required. The managers complained about the lack of funds to improve the infrastructure and lazy, uncooperative workers.
When the workers were asked what they aspired for most in their lives, they said it was ‘respect’. They not only wanted respect from their managers but also, surprisingly, what mattered most to them was to get respect from the citizens of Mexico City. They felt that, like their managers, their neighbours too did not respect them and thought that municipal workers were overpaid and generally lazy. Some even said their children were reluctant to admit in school, whenever a discussion came up about the poor services in the city, that their fathers were municipal workers.
The ADL consultants asked the workers to think about why the citizens did not respect them and what needed to be changed to earn back their respect. They were encouraged to list the requirements in two categories—the actions required by management and others, and the actions they could take themselves. ADL helped them to sort out these prerequisites in terms of impact they would have—to get them citizens’ respect and the feasibility of taking the actions quickly— in terms of the costs involved and management approvals necessary.
The citizens were complaining about the tardiness and surliness of services. Precisely the reason why managers too blamed the workers as the root cause of the municipality’s poor performance. In this, the managers and citizens seemed to be aligned.
A deep introspection revealed that the reason for workers’ stubbornly resisting to improve their services was because they disliked their managers and did not want to cooperate with them, and not because they did not like the citizens they served. Often, the citizens would be angry and rude to them and that offended the workers. However, they did admit that the citizens’ complaints against them were justified.
Some groups amongst the workers decided to conduct an experiment to see if they could earn the respect of the citizens by changing their own behaviour. The operators of the toll booths in the area did a quick survey, on their own, and asked the citizens what improvement they could bring about in their services. The changed attitude of the toll booth workers pleasantly surprised the citizens and this began to change the citizens’ attitudes towards them. The workers analysed what needed improvement urgently and asked ADL to arrange for quick training for them, as well as help them to make small changes in their workplaces to enable them to provide services more efficiently.
The managers were unfamiliar with this positive side of the workers. They too, cautiously, changed their attitude towards them and decided to cooperate. The toll booth manager expedited procurement of new uniforms for the workers which they had been demanding for some time. The citizens were very happy to see noticeable changes in toll booth services within a few weeks.
The workers carried out another survey and made further changes. The citizens noticed that too and were beginning to talk to the workers with new-found respect. Observing the success of the experiment in the toll booths, other sections of workers followed their example. A bottom-up process began scaling up.
The mayor called for a midterm review of the progress of the projects with both consultants. The consultants of the other company, dressed in their sharp dark suits and ties, made an impressive PowerPoint presentation. The ADL report was presented by well-dressed presenters, who had some slides too, albeit simpler ones. In their slides they reported the surveys of citizens’ expectations as well as confirmations from the citizens of the improvements that were made. They also presented some ‘before and after’ photographs of the places where services had been revamped, such as the toll booths and the licence registry.
The mayor was clearly impressed. He thought the presenters were ADL consultants. He asked the ADL partner sitting beside him how they had been able to motivate the workers so quickly. The partner said, ‘Why don’t you ask the workers themselves. They are in front of you, telling you their story themselves!’
ADL had invested some of its consulting fees to buy suits and ties for the workers and had helped them prepare their presentations. The mayor jested that the workers could become ADL consultants and assist with the changes in other parts of the city.
Unfortunately, the mayor did not get re-elected and the overall change in the city was too insignificant to be noteworthy. However, Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory Y’ had been proved once again, that workers are intrinsically motivated and enjoy the challenge of work for their own self-respect. Yet, ‘Theory X’, that workers are intrinsically lazy and are shirkers, and therefore need ‘sticks and carrots’ to drive them, remains a widespread theory-in-use for managing workers.
All my friends are consulting in different ways for different people—for village communities, youth leaders, coalitions of business, or the government. They ask me for advice on how their work could have more impact. In other words, how they could be better consultants.
AV with his avocation for education is working alongside a large management consulting company that has a multi-year contract with a state government to improve the quality of education in schools. The consulting company wanted the government to increase its fees, with rising inflation, to compensate for the higher salaries it had to pay its own consultants. The government, hard-pressed itself, was not willing. So, the consulting company contracted with AV to provide it with three young consultants at less cost. AV thought this would be a good opportunity for his young team to learn the skills of consulting. However, he is disappointed.
He says his young consultants are working alongside the (more highly paid) young consultants of the larger company writing manuals of procedures for schools. Evidently this is what the government has hired them for, whereas the real need for improvement of schools, AV says, is to build the capacity of principals of schools and teachers and make school systems work. He worries that his consultants will not learn how complex systems are improved and the role consultants can play in them by working alongside the company’s consultants. AV wants to consult to fulfil his avocation; whereas for the company’s consultants consulting is only a highly paid vocation.
PN cares deeply for the cause of frontline sanitation workers. She tells me a heart-warming story of a young Dalit girl whose father cleans sewers in Mumbai. When the Covid pandemic struck and the prime minister called upon all Indians to honour the doctors and medical workers fighting on the pandemic’s front lines, this girl circulated a picture of her father. She said she was very proud of him because he too was fighting the war on the front, unprotected, to make the city clean and safe for everyone. PN has induced some large companies to pool their resources to help sanitation workers. Now she must get the companies’ executives to open their minds, listen to these workers and understand their realities before jumping to conclusions about how their money should be spent. They are pressing her to do the usual—that is, set up efficient systems for disbursement of their aid and count how many people have benefited. She knows this is not the right method but feels powerless to tell her clients; after all, it is their money.
AS’s model of change has proven to be remarkably successful in empowering rape victims to become leaders of change. Some philanthropists want him to scale it up. They are willing to give him money to hire more people, to brand his organization and enlarge it. He is tempted to do so because he wants to help many more people. However, he fears that if he takes their money and advice, he will have to spend his time in building a large organization rather than engaging directly with the cause he cares about.
Sadly, as consulting businesses grow, consultants often lose the plot. Whereas their calling should be the growth of confidence and capabilities (and indeed independence) of their clients, they begin to measure their success by the dependence of their clients on them and by the growth of the consulting business.
Medical practitioners have the same problem. They are expected to make their patients healthy quickly. If they have done their job well, their patients should not have to see them again. This may not earn them more fees, which repeated visits and many procedures would, and they may not become richer, but they will stay true to their avocation.
(This extract from Arun Maira’s book, The Solutions Factory: A Consultant’s Handbook for Problem-solving, has been reproduced with permission from Penguin Random House India.)