7 things that can go wrong with leadership consultancy and how to fix them


A leadership consultancy project can be a complex beast, with many moving parts. And even with the best of intentions, from inside the organisation it’s easy to find things overlooked. Tangents can strike from all angles, pushing you off course. And day-to-day events can take over, shifting priorities and distracting minds.

Armed with an appreciation of some of the common pitfalls, however, it’s still possible to navigate the dangers and deliver a first class transformation that achieves your goals and inspires your staff in equal measure.

Pitfalls and Priorities

  1. Failing to engage key stakeholders up front

One important ingredient for project success is stakeholders that have bought into what you’re doing. People with a vested interest in your plan and a desire to see it succeed. But have you worked out who your key players are? And more importantly have you fully understood what their personal definition of success looks like?

Leadership consultancy is always subjective. By their nature they will impact people in different ways. Engaging in a meaningful way involves understanding and empathising with people’s differing perceptions.

It’s important to identify who needs to be involved, but also what their motivations are and to what extent they should hold a place at the table. And remember that these motivations may be business-driven, but there are likely to be personal interests in the mix too, be it status, values or financial gain.

So what should you do?

Avoid limiting yourselves to email communication. Crowded Zoom and Webex meetings that don’t give space for dialogue will leave you in the dark when it comes to the emotional, perceptual needs of your stakeholders. You must get to grips with how people feel about your project and find out what, precisely, you can do to make sure it matters to them.

In the COVID-19 situation that might mean getting in a digital room early with just a few people, carrying out stakeholder mapping to work out who should be involved. Prioritise the list of key players you come up with and dig deep into what drives them.

2. Not having a systemic approach

When approaching leadership consultancy, it’s imperative you keep your plans in the context of the organisation as a whole. Don’t push through changes that impact company culture without altering the structures to support them, and don’t concentrate on the structures you want to strengthen unless you’ve considered the cultural changes that will be necessary to help embed them.

So what should you do?

Audit the existing processes and structures to understand the status quo.

Edgar Schein gives us a framework for understanding the inner workings of culture, describing the three dimensions as:

  • Level 1 – ‘artifacts’ – the things you can see and hear; the dress code or shared language patterns.
  • Level 2 – ‘values’ – employees’ mindsets, thoughts and attitudes
  • Level 3 – ‘assumed values’ – actions or activities that have established themselves as the norm over time. They cannot be seen but are implicitly understood by those within the organisation.

It’s an interesting perspective from which to get some much-needed clarity. How do people behave versus how they think they behave?

3. Overpromising (and under delivering)

It’s easy to talk the talk, promise the earth and get your audience excited for change. But if, in reality, there’s a disconnect between this vision for the future and what is possible given current market conditions and cultural norms, the end result will fall flat fast.

Take for example the leadership model whose definition is driven by HR beliefs with no consideration for the overarching strategy of the organisation or external market conditions. Or the one that doesn’t allow for the existing culture. It’s easily done if people get carried away by ideas without someone stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

Don’t create a vision so big that the cultural shift for your organisation becomes a treacherous chasm that would be impossibly painful to traverse.

So what should you do?

The main antidote to overpromising is ensuring that the broad plan is sound and reasonable before it is shared. Manage expectations early, both upwards and downwards so there’s no danger of setting up future disappointment.

Start with the end in mind so you have a concrete idea of what the final deliverable and its KPIs will look like before you begin. And when you hold an initial ideas gathering workshop, always ensure there’s someone there with a handle on the bigger picture. Someone to act as the devil’s advocate. Not to put a damper on enthusiasm, but to challenge it in a way that supports robust outcomes and questions ‘magical thinking’.

4. ‘Foreign organ rejection’

The human body is driven by a need for self-preservation. Thus, without the correct drugs and procedures that take into account vital signs and current state of health, any transplanted organ is likely to be rejected; to be seen as unwanted. The body will put up a fight.

This can happen too with leadership change that is perceived as being ‘forced in’ against the will of the people, particularly when no respect is shown for current or past efforts. In this case, it’s not the people at a top-level that might sabotage the project, but those on the ground. Those who haven’t felt a part of the proceedings.

So what should you do?

The trick here lies in really getting a handle on the culture of your organisation before you begin. Start with an appreciative enquiry-based approach so you learn about positive qualities and stories. Then use these strengths to write the script for your next phase.

Do you view your product creation as particularly innovative? Why not bring that innovation into other areas? Create innovative work processes or training. If things have been tough and your story is one of endurance, tell a tale of determination instead. Use the best of your past to create your future.

5. Analysis paralysis

Yes, you want all the information to hand, but there is such a thing as too much data. When your level of data collection is too broad, it’s very easy to lose your way in the numbers. Everybody wants answers to their own agenda, and unless you tie down exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve you’ll never get down to action.

So what should you do?

Show the team you mean business by creating some early wins. Pick off some data points that will spark interest and create enthusiasm for the work you’re undertaking. And keep referring to that end goal. What is it you’re trying to achieve, and how will what you’re doing now get you a step closer?

6. Overcomplicating matters

When things don’t seem clear or straightforward it can lead to a solution founded on confusion. And if things don’t seem clear to start with, how can you know whether what you’re delivering is what anybody actually wants? Are you responding to the problem with a concrete solution? If it’s merely conceptual it’ll be difficult from the start.     

So what should you do?

We always talk about the importance of distilling complexity down to its essence. And this is the time when that particularly matters. Create a model that’s so intuitive, so simple, that everyone involved in the project understands it. If that can’t be done, then it’s a sign you need to work the problem through some more.

Ensure that there is a constant focus on the ‘why’: ‘Why are things being done?’ Don’t end up just going through the motions, undertaking a project for the sake of it. It’s not worth it. You might achieve compliance in the short term, but there will be no buy-in or ownership, meaning longer term it’s unlikely to stick.

7. You’re winning minds not hearts

What do words like innovation and excellence say to you? Do you think they sound good? Or a little bit ‘blah blah blah’? If the final outcome introduces concepts that create a disconnect from the values and purpose of the organisation, they will only speak to minds but not hearts. If you sound like you’ve swallowed a management textbook when you speak, you’ll quickly alienate those you should be inspiring the most.

So what should you do?

Effective leadership is about creating a connection with the values and purpose of your organisation and those within it. Take some time to deep dive into the language being used within your company. Mirror phrases, behaviours and beliefs that feel unique to the environment you’re nurturing. And use jargon or metaphors only where you’re sure they’ll connect and be understood.

Are your leadership consultants doing their job?

One final important point, if you’re working with external consultants you must expect, and even demand them to challenge you. To push hard and get to the bottom of the way things currently work, and your thoughts and desires for the future. Only by diving down to the epicentre of the culture can the consultancy team extract those nuggets of gold to inform a new leadership model.

At TPC Leadership we’ll ask the uncomfortable questions because we realise the importance of going deep into your business before we begin. We take a pragmatic business approach combined with a deep understanding of human behaviour and mindset. What we offer is not just a review of structure and process. Unlike many leadership development teams we are able to take it from the very first idea, to working with teams and individuals to integrate behavioural change into your organisation’s everyday.

We can help your organisation steer clear of these common pitfalls of organisational change. Contact your local TPC  Leadership team to learn more about the way we work.

If you’d like to find out about what it’s like to work with our experienced multidisciplinary team, please get in touch.

Co-written by: Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner TPCL Italy Linkedin profile here

& Christian Scholtes, Managing Partner TPCL Romania Linkedin profile here

Navigating change is now more important than ever. This post is part of a series of six TPC Leadership original articles on leadership consultancy – and its role in helping organisations engage with the bigger picture while staying adaptable to the present moment. 

@Copyright TPCL (2020)

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