I’m looking forward to a conversation with a client tomorrow. He’s a very bright, committed guy and we’ve done excellent work together in the past. But there is one catch, and it’s in the way that services like mine are often contracted. Here’s what I mean.
Tell me if the following conversation rings a bell for you, whether you’re on the client or the consultant side.
Client: “We have an executive retreat coming up and we’re looking for a facilitator. You come highly recommended. Would be you interested? Are you available?”
Consultant: “When is it?”
Client: “Next week.”
Client: “We need a one-day team-building workshop for twenty people. What would you charge and when could you run it?”
One of my favorite versions of this was at a prestigious international investment bank in London. This was years ago when I was just starting out, and most of the people I worked with were support staff: IT, Marketing, Legal, HR, etc. My business partner was proficient at getting us meetings with prospects who might want some training for these groups, and I would be wheeled in to uncover the real need behind the training request.
After the opening pleasantries in a room high overlooking London, we encouraged our contact and the executive sponsor to describe what they wanted. Flush with enthusiasm, they described a day-long session for about 200 support staff, using words like “stimulating,” “motivational,” and “thought provoking.” Good food and a nice venue were also important. As the description was winding down, our contact remembered an important final thought. “Oh, and it has to be fun, that’s really important.” “Yes,” chimed in the executive sponsor. “Fun. Very important.”
I asked whether anything like this had been done before. “Oh, yes” we were told. They had had trainings in prior years from representatives of the best-selling business authors of the time. I won’t name names, but these were the people whose books I was reading to get ideas. I was impressed and a little daunted at the shoes we might be asked to fill.
“And what results or changes did you notice after those events?” I asked. There was a pause for thought. The two of them exchanged inquiring glances. “Well, nothing specific really,” said the executive sponsor, “but the seminars were very popular. Everyone really enjoyed them.”
As I say, this was still early in my career. I winced internally at what I knew I was about to say. “What if I suggested giving us a small team to start with, instead of going straight to doing an event for these 200 people? After all, we really don’t know much about their work or their challenges, and I’ve seen trainings miss the mark on that basis before.”
Encouraged to elaborate, I warmed to the task of turning a potential sale of several tens of thousands of pounds into something that would net us far less. But I knew it would be better work.
“Rather than having us give a generic message to a large group who we don’t know well,” I said, “what if you gave us a team or a business result that you wanted improved, and we used that as a way of getting to know you better. You’d come out with a problem solved or a more effective team, and then anything we did for the group of two hundred would be more relevant, more realistic and practical.”
“Well, now that you mention it, there is one team that could do with a team-building session.”
Now we’re talking, I thought to myself. An actual business need, something they want to improve. Even so, we were still inside a paradigm where an ‘event’ seemed like the answer.
The conversation went into a creative mode from there where we talked about the team in question, their challenges, and how it would help the business if they had a breakthrough. I’ll spare you the verbatim replay, but we left with an agreement to interview everyone on the team, including some of their internal customers, and to then reconvene and decide if a team-building event or some other action would have the biggest impact.
Note – This was the last time I left a contracting meeting without asking the following question:
“Often when we interview a team there is feedback for their leadership, in this case the two of you. Are you open to hearing that information if it comes up?” This is of course one of the most important points of leverage and I now always ask this.
In the end, the team interviews themselves were 80% of the needed intervention. It turned out that members whose performance was undermining the group work product almost unanimously wanted to be in different roles. The two leaders also needed to align on the feedback they were giving team members, and to give that feedback more regularly. One member needed to be put on a performance plan.
So we wound up solving their problem with no need to ever have a team-building event.
Bottom Line: Don’t think in terms of holding events to get outcomes. Focus on the outcomes you want, and then interview some key players before you decide whether an event will deliver your ROI.