Leadership Consultancy – The Essential Guide


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

Organisations are shaped by leaders who in turn are shaped by the structures and culture of the organisation they are part of. It’s a circular system of influence. One that is difficult to accurately assess when you’re caught up in it. That’s where leadership consultancy comes in.

What is leadership consultancy?

For every instance where leadership plays a part, leadership consultancy has an opportunity for potential impact.

Leadership consultancy leverages your unique strengths

Andrea Cardillo, a TPCL Managing Partner in Italy, defines leadership consultancy as “a consultative and facilitative process to support organisations to understand what leadership models and structures would best serve the business strategy, leveraging on the unique traits and strengths of a particular culture.”

Leadership consultancy is a holistic way of looking at your leadership capacity and turning it to your ultimate advantage. It is not a training program, nor is it executive coaching, It is a way of tackling the entire system of leadership and aligning it with what the organisation is and aspires to be.

You can’t transfer or replicate solutions from one organisation to another. For this reason, consulting is about having good conversations – an in-depth dialogue between the external consultant and internal leaders. We always need to find a uniquely nuanced strategy that is optimised for the situation. And this comes from digging deep into the organisation’s own leadership solutions, history and potential.

Leadership consultancy discovers potential

Often organisations harbour a huge capacity for leadership, but only a fraction of it ever sets sail. It’s only through asking difficult questions that we can understand this untapped potential.

The right questions reveal where assumptions are holding an organisation back. For instance, people may assume that leadership is centralised. That leadership is only for senior managers, while the role of everyone else is compliance.

We have found that many managers assume leadership is not a primary part of their role. When we asked managers in one organisation to rank the priorities of their role, most listed managing and the completion of tasks in their top two. Very few managers ranked leadership high. Because they didn’t prioritise it, they did not invest in it, and they were less likely to display initiative or make courageous decisions.

Often people associate leadership with a set of skills they may or may not be developing. But they don’t realise the importance of taking ownership of their role as a leader. If you don’t perceive yourself as a leader, you inevitably will not act like one. And if an organisation is largely made up of people who do not act like leaders, their leadership capacity is stunted.

If we’re going to find, harness and maximise the leadership capacity already in our businesses, we need leadership consultancy to bring our potential to light.

Leadership consultancy brings awareness

Leadership consultancy helps you intentionally realign your leadership model with your aspirations, so that your structure doesn’t unconsciously distort your vision.

Even if you don’t believe you have a leadership model, you do. Even if you don’t intentionally think about it, its impact will unintentionally affect everything in your business, particularly in HR.

Everything from your talent management strategies to compensation and benefit streams can be linked back to your leadership model. Any recruitment strategy you create will also be inescapably influenced by it. Engagement, operations, financial performance – everything is affected. Leadership consultancy helps to uncover this correlation.

Leadership consultancy makes organisations robust

No single human can navigate through life while remaining unchanged. How much more the case for organisations, which are formed by hundreds or thousands of people, all experiencing different personal changes. Once you factor in the effects of internal growth, departures and shifts in the market, it is clear that no organisation is ever in stasis.

Leadership consultancy helps guide businesses through change, preserving their best qualities while enabling them to stay effective. Businesses cannot just do as they always did because a strategy formed two years ago is unlikely to have the exact same effect this year. Likewise small businesses cannot retain the same leadership model after they double in size.

The irony is that by refusing to adapt, you can actually lose the unique qualities that make your organisation special. But at the same time, you cannot move forward authentically without reference to the past. This is why leadership consultancy is essential. It helps untangle what is important to an organisation’s identity from attitudes that prevent the organisation thriving through change. It keeps the core of the organisation robust.

How leadership fits into the bigger picture

The issue of leadership is often only narrowly understood. Many see leadership as a position, others as a set of skills, a capacity to influence, but all of these perceptions miss the nuances of being a leader. And the complications.

Leadership is a dynamic relationship. It is fluid, impacted by organisational culture [link to previous blog], by the needs of others and by world events. So much affects the leadership in our organisation that it can feel impossible to untangle. But we need to untangle it. And when we do, we are able to deeply connect individual talents and values with organisational purpose and strategy, developing a system that enables all leaders to thrive, while adding real value to clients and key stakeholders.

Adapting to world events

The impact of the financial crisis of 2008/2009 can still be felt today. Many organisations we work with say the issues never ended. They’re still driven to double and triple check everything they do. To proceed with caution in all things so that from the top down, the organisation can feel assured about the success of every endeavour, no matter how small or large.

Financial pressure created a preference for safety over innovation. Our organisational structures shifted towards survival. And quite apart from the skills leaders may or may not have been taught, their capacity to lead became constrained.

If the tolerance and celebration of risk-taking took a hit from the financial crisis, it will be important to evaluate what impact that the coronavirus has both now and in the future. Whether we are affected by decreased demand, quarantine or halted production, we will unconsciously adapt to the new rules of play. It will be essential for us to keep asking questions, to consider the impact of the changes we make and to hold onto the core values and purpose that makes our organisations what they are.

Considering every need and impact

Traditional leadership focused on the need to increase sales and efficiency. But this focus is too narrow for our changing world. Now the wider world affects leadership and leadership affects the wider world.

Too often we have focused on the means of creating profit, without considering its impact. Leaders have been driven by shareholders’ ends, without questioning those ends. And this has left its mark on the environment, the market and society.

If leadership is a dynamic system, it is more than a function. It is not about making things happen but asking what should happen in the first place – and why. We cannot consider ethics as an afterthought. Ethics aren’t something to temper the impact of profit-making. They can be the entire reason we are doing business in the first place.

We need to take our values and purpose seriously, to focus on what matters most. There are environmental and social ends we care about that we have compromised – consciously or unconsciously – because we have perceived leadership too narrowly. We have focused on the immediate and missed out on our reason for being.

This is where leadership consultancy is essential. It connects us back to the people we are serving, to the values that define our personal and organisational vision. No organisation aspires only to meet the bottom line. We know that we have a more important part to play. Leadership consultancy realigns us with the purpose we may have forgotten.

Crossing the unknown

The etymology of the word leader is rooted in the role of a guide. The kind of person who would help you cross an unknown land – perhaps a forest or mountain range – from one point to another. What kind of person would you want for a guide?

Today we are still crossing the unknown. There are world events and changes that threaten to be unnavigable. There are systems and cultures we work in that permeate our thinking so that it’s hard to separate our own priorities from the demands of the day. It can be hard to remember why we’re even travelling at all. On an organisational level, leaders can stay lost in the woods, perhaps forgetting that they ever meant to journey to another destination. It’s easily done. After all, this isn’t a reflection on our ability, but a reflection of the dynamic and ever-shifting system of leadership.

That’s why we do leadership consultancy. It’s about helping entire organisations to cross the desert safely. To remember what’s important. To hold fast to their vision despite the many obstacles and get to their destination: a place that has a real and good impact on the world they are a part of. They’ll end up making a profit as well. But they do it without compromising.

We want to ask you the hard questions, to help you understand the importance of reflection. We won’t forget the needs of day-to-day business, but we’ll integrate them with an understanding of human behaviour and mindsets – connecting the day-to-day to the bigger picture, to your reason being, to the people you serve. We won’t just stop at self-discovery, or structures and process, we’ll help you follow through to support behavioural changes in your people.

Why you should consider leadership structures instead of leadership styles

It’s an oft-repeated maxim that leaders create other leaders. But without the right structure in place, you might wonder why it doesn’t seem to work.

Structure drives behaviour. If you are not intentional about the former, you will not be able to shape the latter. Too often, in a rush to create results, we focus on symptoms rather than the underlying causes. Next to organisational culture, organisational structure is one of the most significant influencers of them all.

The pathway defines the traveller

On what basis are people promoted in your organisation? Is it because they have displayed initiative or because they have been loyal? Because they have been innovative or because they have mastered the status quo? The way we review people will determine who they want to become.

It is not the fault of the builder if the architect has supplied flawed blueprints. Our promotion and reward system maps out a route for those in our organisation to follow. If the route to the top is fraught with caution and loyalty, we can hardly expect them to suddenly develop a taste for risk-taking and originality once they get there. The pathway to responsibility determines the quality of the people who will eventually take hold of it.

The entrypoint affects the endpoint 

It is common to recruit people based upon their technical skills and expertise, but at the hiring stage we often undervalue emotional intelligence. And this has more impact than we realise.  Later, when we want to develop these individuals into leaders, they won’t suddenly develop social skills or the ability to inspire others. We end up with many specialists but few leaders.

Our preoccupation with hard skills and hard data means that we can become deficient in the soft skills that are so integral to great leadership. It doesn’t matter what style of leadership is modelled on an executive level, if to get there you first have to suppress those same qualities.

In an attempt to temper these trends, organisations often turn to leadership training. The hope is that a three-day course or weekly meeting about the merits of innovation or endurance will be enough. But you cannot change the course of a river by persuading it to go uphill. If you want real results, you need to dig out a new channel.

The smallest thing affects everything

Structure is everywhere in organisations. While there are large overarching structures that affect everything, micro-structures also reveal important trends.

How is a typical meeting structured? Is it a dialogue or a series of monologues and presentations? What space is dedicated to challenging leaders or ideas? To learning? To feedback? The smallest social interaction can reveal whether we are encouraging people to compete or share, to protect their interests or grow together.

Changing our leadership structures

How can we begin to change our leadership structures? How do we construct something new without succumbing to the same traps? We have to confront what is unspoken, uncomfortable and underneath the surface.

Is there an emotion that is not okay to feel if I don’t want to be put aside? Our structures and  microstructures both reveal and determine how individuals and teams interact, whether or not anyone ever asks for help, and how we respond to failure. If everyone is preoccupied with appearing to be in control, you can bet that no-one is growing into a good leader. But if we confront the problematic aspects of our structures, if we question our underlying assumptions, it might get uncomfortable, but we’ll end up with a distributed leadership culture that enhances our focus, promotes good relationships and fosters good leaders. Maybe even great ones.

When to initiate a leadership consultancy project?

Leadership consultancy is an essential part of creating and supporting a growing and thriving business. So how can you know whether your organisation is at the right point in its evolution to warrant the investment of time and energy required?

A leadership consultancy project can offer:

Support to help navigate change

Organisations do not exist in a silo. There is rarely a time when things stand still. More often they are trying to keep up with a dizzying level of change, whether due to external forces or internal ones: whether it’s a new CEO with big ideas, a pivot to respond to emerging market forces or embracing new technology to automate business processes.

It’s these changes that might result in a need for a new approach, a new strategy and a change of behaviour and direction.

Advice for evolving businesses

Growing organisations go through stages of evolution that fundamentally change the way they operate. The strategy and business processes that have seen you through a stage of consolidation and steady growth will be quite different to what is required to help ramp up and sustain rapid expansion. But as that growth begins and you’re battling the day to day, it may be difficult to take a step back until it seems too late. Fire-fighting becomes the norm, with little time to work out how to get back on an even keel.

Likewise, entering into a merger or acquisition scenario will likely throw a curveball at your carefully curated culture. Forcing the blending of different behaviours and attitudes that may or may not work harmoniously alongside one another. Add multiple regions or an international expansion into the mix too and getting the two accounting systems to talk to each other may become the least of your worries.

Guidance when things just don’t feel right

Good people started to leave. Then it was tough to replace them with new talent. There’s a niggling sense of misalignment and a feeling that the ‘sparkle’ has gone. But no one is sure exactly what’s wrong, what needs to change or where to even begin.

A leadership consultancy project is not a quick fix. But it could give you the answers you’ve been looking for. An external pair of eyes can often see much more clearly what is going on; by asking the right questions they can make explicit what is already implicit within the business.

Who should be involved internally?

They say the best ideas emerge when different perspectives meet. That’s why building a multi-disciplinary team can often lead to the best outcome for your leadership consultancy project. Create an internal team that includes comms, HR and senior managers combined with a cross-sectional sample of other functions working on the ground. Make it a solely HR endeavour and it almost certainly won’t work. Instead, select stakeholders from across the organisation who can offer honest insight into the current mood towards leadership and culture, and a vital breadth of opinions about what’s needed to make things better.

And who should be brought in to support?

And while internal teams provide the background and insight, external players can use their experience to help guide the organisation towards identifying the changes that are needed to meet its future goals.

Strive to include organisational design consultants, experienced facilitators, leadership consultants, coaches and comms agencies to help your messaging land. They’ll act as neutral observers, devil’s advocates and cheerleaders. They’ll offer analysis, guidance and advice based on both theory and experience.

Of course, the ideal is to find a company like TPC that has strengths in management consultancy, organisational design and the training side too. That way they won’t only conduct analysis and create the model, they’ll help you put a training strategy in place to make sure it becomes successfully embedded in your organisational cultures and behaviours. 

Take advantage of new technologies

Traditionally, leadership consulting has been delivered through workshops and face-to-face meetings. But even before COVID-19 it was not a requirement. With new systems and technologies such as social engagement platforms, what used to require hours of expensive face to face meetings, focus groups and away days can be delivered online. No doubt, this will prove useful for all of us as we begin to explore new ways of remote working as we come to terms with the restrictions caused by coronavirus.

Plus, when it comes to assessing employee mood and opinion, an anonymous online survey can often provide a better idea of what’s really going on inside the organisation.

The importance of setting the right goals and measuring results

No project within an organisation can be deemed a success unless its results can be measured. Equally no leader can lead without some idea of their expected destination.

As leadership consultants we can sometimes feel like detectives, asking questions of everybody who might have be invested in the project. But just as a detective is trying to get to the bottom of their suspect’s story, we too just want to understand the whole picture. We’re trying to uncover all there is to know about the current situation and establish the end point we want to reach.

And then we’ll put in place a mechanism for measuring when we’ve successfully achieved those ambitions.

How to ask the right questions

All of this is necessarily a series of questions in one form or another.

Andrea Cardillo, Managing Partner in Milan, starts from the end point. The fundamental question. What are the business goals the organisation is trying to achieve? And what challenges might prevent it being able to meet these? Think internally and externally here.

Next he looks at the behaviours that would best support the organisation to achieve those goals together with the culture and structure required to support those behaviours. And finally, the style of leadership that will allow for the creation of that culture.

It’s a systemic approach that can be summarised in four steps. Each of which, he suggests, can be defined by different KPIs and goals:

  1. The overall goals and the challenges to bring the vision up to date
  2. The behaviours supporting these goals
  3. The culture fostering these behaviours
  4. The leadership style promoting that culture

How to choose the right tools

As management consultants we have numerous tools in our arsenal; it’s just a matter of choosing the right ones. But in order to do that we must understand implicitly what we’re trying to find out. What are we trying to assess? Is it employee satisfaction? Happiness of customers? Business results? Behavioural changes?

This underlines the importance of being able to figure out precisely what the problem is or what we’re trying to do, because without knowing that we can’t hope to measure our success.

We might use specific KPIs to assess productivity, surveys to assess engagement or psychometrics to access potential. But the tool has to fit the job for its result to offer any certainty.

If the goal is a reduction in staff turnover for example, we could measure engagement through employee surveys. We may see a high level of engagement translate to a reduction in turnover or absenteeism. But to create the right tools we must understand what we’re looking to discover from the answers.

Remember it’s a marathon not a sprint

Success in a leadership consultancy project isn’t always seen in the immediate term. Changes take time to bed in, time to enter the organisation’s consciousness. Creating a leadership model is easy and can be relatively quick but translating that into HR structures or strategies in a way that cements a discernible change in culture can take years.

It’s only by tracking results over time and looking for consistent positive change that we are able to say whether the steps that were taken were the right ones, and whether our goals have been met.

It can be difficult to measure the specific correlation between an HR culture change and productivity. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

What can go wrong with a leadership consultancy project (and how to fix it)?

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 for things to be 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 possible to navigate the dangers and deliver a first-class project that achieves your goals and inspires your staff in equal measure.

Here are seven that we see crop up regularly:

  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 projects are 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 of the project.

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 ones, but there is more than likely a personal aspect too, be that status, values, or something else entirely.

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<link to blog: When to do leadership consultancy and who to involve>. 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 a leadership consultancy project, 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 mindset, 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 explicitly understood by those within the organisation.

It’s an interesting perspective from which to get some much-needed clarity. How do people actually behave versus how they believe 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 realistically 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 transformation required of your current reality becomes an impossible chasm that no-one will be able 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 KPIs will look like even 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 a leadership project 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 just too wide 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 is what you’re doing going to get you a step closer?

6. Overcomplicating matters

When things don’t seem clear or straightforward it can lead to a response that’s from a place of 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 of 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 it can’t be done, it’s a sign that you need to work the problem through some more.

Ensure 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’? In a leadership consultancy project, the final outcome will very often introduce concepts that create a disconnect from the values and purpose of the organisation. They 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 will consultants be able to 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.

Contact your local TPC Leadership team to find out more.

@Copyright TPCL (2020)

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