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Making a difference – the apprenticeship

Making a difference - the apprenticeship

In the Blog, It all started When  I quoted Helen Kellar and it has been a guiding principle for me always –“Life is a daring adventure or nothing!” The journey to Management Consulting through process consultation has been amazing.

I also mentioned in that blog that I stopped work to do something I loved after that first program. In saying that the next stages were especially demanding. I wondered if I would ever find the path.

Getting started in one’s career when the path does not exist is a real challenge.

What was my work? (later I discovered this was a vocation)

I discovered there was such a career as training and development and personnel management and that being a ‘Change Agent’ was an option. There were emerging bodies of knowledge that I needed to master. There was so much to accomplish, to master. I was on my way.  But to where?

I had decided what I was going to do for the rest of my life.  I had to get started. I wanted to make a difference?

My first projects were reviewing workload measurement systems in a government department and this led to a project about performance appraisal. These were very simple.  Very few people knew about or understood these concepts and practices in the mid 1970’s. In addition to the management and organizational development program (written about earlier), I attended a number of short training courses – an Industrial Engineering  program and a number of ‘Train the Trainer’ programmes.

I had to find a way to do what I wanted to do for a living! I saw a job advertised in staff development.  On the basis of very little experience, I was appointed as one of the first generation of staff development and training people in the Public Service. The problem was, no one really knew what we were supposed to do.  Conduct needs analysis, train the workforce, career counseling, address performance issues, encourage people to take on tertiary education were some of the tasks.  But I had learnt about management, organisation development, managing change, interpersonal skills, the need for supervisor training and job design.  How could I reconcile these competing expectations?

I was going to be a change agent!

It was tough – very few people to talk to! Very few people who knew what to do? There were no precedents. I established some networks of people in a similar predicament and we met on a regular basis – all a little lost but trying to make a difference.  We convened a forum which became known as “Trainers Days”.  We met quarterly.  There were 10 to 20 people in the same position.  In the same window of time,  I bumped into a colleague who was a management consultant.  It sounded like an interesting job and he seemed to be doing what I imagined I was wanting to do.  Until that time I had never heard the term.  He suggested I apply for a job in the infrastructure business in which he had been working on a project.  His project has been an organization review and one of the recommendations  his firm had proposed, was the establishment of a personnel function in which there were a number of positions.  One was a Career Development role. Not really knowing what it was, I applied and was successful!  It was a tough gig because there were competing views about what it was meant to do and I had my mission – to be ‘a change agent’.   The first two years in the role were a serious struggle.  I dreaded writing the monthly report having to explain my achievements.  There were few.

By this time, I was married with two children.  In my personal time I had completed a Business Administration degree; attended multiple programs on marriage, organization development, group process, and human potential.  It was a learning frenzy.  I was going to be “a change agent”.

It was stressful and challenging – working out how I was going to do this thing for a living.  But what was it?

  1. A Change agent?
  2. An Organisation Development Consultant?
  3. A Management Consultant?

These were new fields of work. These jobs did not exist in many places. During this time, I was a staff member on a range of management/ leadership programs and personal skill development programs.,,These were leading edge at the time.  Few organizations / businesses were doing it.  All of the time I was searching for the ‘it’.  What was it I was going to really do? More than once I suffered a form of ‘burnout’ and was told to take time, slow down and not be so hard on myself.  There was desperation about it and then…..

A project was established which involved a whole team of internal consultants (about 10).  A leader was recruited from outside the business and the rest is history.  The story he told was seductive. He suggested that we were the first generation of people to do this sort of work and he challenged us to be leaders.  He talked about lighthouses and being competent.  In this field we could not make a mistake.  He said: “It does not matter what you do. You can’t make a mistake.  Nothing like this has ever been done and  no one knows what you should be doing!”

The project had multiple objectives, which involved:

  1. Building a management system
  2. Building a Management Information system and
  3. Preparing the business for the introduction of a major computer installation
  4. A leadership and Management Development stream

The project extended over about two years and I had finally found “a place in the world”.  I knew I was good at this and I knew I could do this!

There was still much to learn.  I remember we sat down with an  OD Intervention book and ticked off the interventions we used.  I have to say he was a great leader and had a way of making the theory become real.

It was this platform which established the platform for my role as a management consultant and a change agent.

Some of the tools I remember:

  • Management and leadership development
  • Socio-technical system design
  • Management by objectives – the management system
  • Including establishing KPI’s for each business.
  • Organization design
  • Role clarification and negotiation
  • Conflict resolution
  • Team building
  • Job design
  • Works system design
  • Strategic planning and
  • Self-directed learning

In was during this period that my life in consulting really started.

In the marketplace, as I understood it, there were very few consulting firms.  PA Management Consulting was one major one.  There were some smaller local firms and there were the Big 8 Accounting firms who ‘dabbled’ in a form of consulting.  Some large organisations had internal consulting units.  Consulting, as we know it today, did not exist.
Making a difference - the apprenticeshipThere is a profound distinction between different types of consulting. There was the traditional consulting model.  Content expertise is the dominator and consultants enter a system consisting of a series of interviews (internally and externally);  do substantial desk research and write a report with recommendations; present the report and move on.  The major consulting firms still use this as the dominant model. It is commonly known as the doctor – patient model.

The second model is process consulting.  The consultant enters the system and works with the system, in a collaborative manner, to enable the system to solve its own problems. Often this takes the form of a series of workshops where the problem is identified; a desired future state is articulated; the current state is clarified and the problem is worked on until a resolution and/or reconciliation is achieved.  In this model, the consultant has little content expertise but has a robust understanding of social process.  In the process- consulting framework, the goal is always to leave the system with a greater competence.  It is a form of action learning – planning – doing – reviewing – learning and then back to planning.

In my formative years, it was the process-consulting model which I chose as a means of fulfilling my mission.  It gradually became clearer.

“In the process consultation model, the consultant acts as a facilitator by providing the client with the methodological tools for assessing or defining the problem and locating the best potential solutions.” Schein

 In these early days of consulting, I unconsciously developed a framework to guide my reading and learning. The Business administration degree was a platform because understanding the body of knowledge emerging in management and business was the essence of real credibility.  To be a process consultant, it seemed to me there was another whole body of knowledge to be mastered and skills to be acquired. When I look back now, it looks like the diagram below.

making-difference-the-apprenticeship-03Over a period of time, I explored all of these concepts and the techniques and tools associated with them and it was just the start.  My rationale for doing it this way and my pathway emerged daily.  It was never clear. Even now, 40 years on, the journey is a continuing search.

This learning journey is seductive. The learning from my work and my clients and the life process is never ending.

Over many years I have attended workshops by thought leaders:

  • Edgar Schein: Process Consultation
  • Malcolm Knowles: The Adult Learner –a Neglected Species
  • Sherrod Miller: Couple Communication
  • Roger Harrison: Organisation Culture

More recently:

  • Jim Collins – Good to Great
  • Herman Simon – Hidden Champions
  • Vern Harnish – Scaling Up

Attending business school programs – IMD Switzerland, Wharton Business School, Entrepreneur Programs at MIT, study tours and visiting businesses are a part of my ongoing Professional Development  program.

I read an article in this period by Stanley Davis. It was unusual in that the bibliography was not the traditional list of books to read.  It was an essay, which commenced with this missive: “Why ruin your fun with my bibliography?  My only advice is to keep your reading playful and powerful, and read as much outside our field as in it.”  Selected Bibliography. Transforming organizations: The Key to Strategy is Context, Organisational Dynamics 1982

What a challenge!

In all of this, I had the support of a great mate –my wife Sally.

Together we decided to make a commitment for life and so it is – Married 40 years.

We wanted to have a great marriage and in so many ways we were ill equipped. So Sally and I together explored Marriage Education and attended many programs to get a good understanding of what it took to build a great marriage.  We produced one of the first Marriage Enrichment programs in our community.

Making a difference - the apprenticeship

When looking back on this time there are some important principles which emerged:

  1. Having life priorities and a personal mission
  2. Taking responsibility for my own learning
  3. Being aware that I did not have the answers (good questions are important)
  4. The consultant is the intervention
  5. Deal with issues honestly and confront the brutal facts.
  6. Boundaries on problems are critical.  Who owns the problem is a great question.
  7. Trust the process
  8. ‘Never let the bastards own you.’
  9. Leadership is about how you lead your life (it is not just what happens at work).

I often think about those early words about being the first generation of people who are doing this for a living! By definition there are obligations!

As my working life has continued, the growth in the Management Consulting profession has been enormous. I have not bothered about the whole profession as it has evolved.   Being self-employed, I have had plenty on my plate.  Now it is interesting to reflect on the nature and scale of it all.  One of my projects in the blogging journey is to document the ‘consulting’ journey as I have experienced it.  It is an exciting journey still.

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Ben Kehoe