Governance: Consultant/client relations – where does the power really lie?

Take-Away Line

Whether as a member of a board or as a consultant to a board, groups find ways of limiting individual power in ways that can be surprising and uncomfortable, even apparently irrational.  There is a strange symbiotic relationship between a consultant and a client board (in the case of governance), each having power and influence in the relationship and each having a vulnerable side, something that needs to be understood better.

Privileged and influential access

One of the great things about being a consultant to governing boards is the unrivalled access you have to a wide range of the most experienced people working to lead their organisations to deliver great things.

Take annual governance reviews[1], for example.  In such exercises, a consultant will typically have individual access to each member of an organisation’s governing body, drawing together conclusions about the current state of play and the priorities for the period ahead for that board.  Few organisations want to be on the wrong side of ‘good governance practice’ these days, particularly in regulated sectors, where the knock at the door of the corporate constable (aka regulator/inspector) would be a sign of things having already gone amiss.

So, putting in place good practices which predict good governance and certainly promote it, is now more or less universally accepted as ‘the right thing to do’.  In such situations – and assuming the consultant is able to add value – it is clear that she or he has some degree of influence, even power.  In cases where the consultant is drawn in to fix something that is broken, because, for example, board relationships are fractured or there is fundamental disagreement about strategy or the inspector has already made that feared call, the consultant has significant influence and, on rare occasions, working perhaps with funders or the regulator, can have impact on the fate of individual board members or even the future of the organisation itself.

Yet, of course, the consultant simultaneously has no power whatsoever!  He or she is a hired hand, typically paid to carry out the board’s bidding.  And it is the board itself that decides the consultant’s fate and can, indeed, have considerable influence on her or his professional reputation.  Mess up and your next year’s billing may directly be affected!  Thus, there is a strange symbiotic relationship between a consultant and a client, each having power and influence, each having a vulnerable side in the relationship.

Putting the boot on the other foot

Many consultants to boards are also members of boards.  Their interest and knowledge in governance can be of value to boards and such experience also serves to enrich their practice.  Nothing like doing what you say others should do to learn the value (or not!) of the good practice you so earnestly espouse.

I spoke to a consultant colleague recently who both works with boards on their development and is a member of three boards in non-executive capacities.  Ever keen to draw on the skills of its members, one of the boards of which she’s a member, a professional association, called on her to support their strategic planning.  It turned out, according to my colleague, that while the said body was in fine financial fettle, its longer term future was by no means secure: membership numbers were falling and its offer was stale.

My friend researched, spoke with board colleagues, discussed with the membership and proposed some pretty profound solutions.  Along comes a board meeting and she presents her findings once again, hoping that she would find commitment and, more than that, the sense of urgency and energy that the necessary changes would require.  After all, the process had been a long one and she thought she had gained more or less full board commitment along the way.  And she had done all this gratis!  Now she wanted to turn that commitment into shared action.  The future was bright, she argued, but we will all have to put some effort in to realise it.

Her hopes were not immediately realised.  Not at all!  The board was grumpy, wriggled and more or less refused to endorse the ideas other than in a vague general way that in no respect gave my friend the feeling that sustained and committed action would follow.

Experienced board members (and consultants) reading this will quickly realise that refusing the final fence is not totally unusual in a long process of strategic importance, and may suggest that the process itself was not quite right in the first place.  To take a team, be it executive or non-executive members, from intellectual engagement to emotional commitment that will lead to enthusiastic action subsequently can be tricky, especially at the point when traction is required.

Where’s the real power?

For my friend, however, there was another point. Had she been working with this board in a consultancy capacity, her day job, and her input had been specifically commissioned, the endorsement of her findings would more likely have occurred.  In this instance, as just one member of a board of many, she not only felt disappointed at the response but also at her apparent powerlessness.  Had she been too clever and not given her colleagues enough space to create new options?  Did they just need more time?  Was there a fundamental cultural problem with the board?  What did she think about her future on the board if there wasn’t agreement in the end?

Acting, in Belbin terms, as a ‘plant’ or perhaps in Freudian terms as an alter ego is typically the role of the consultant, but it can also be the role of one of the members of a particular team to push for the things that lie somewhat hidden from the others.  But when a member of a team tries to do this, as many of the ‘plants’ in groups among you may recall, there can be some uncomfortable consequences for them personally.

Perhaps the good news here is the hard but necessary realisation that in all groups there are limits to individual power that are healthy in the long term, even if it doesn’t always feel like it at the time.  Let’s see how this story rolls forward…must make another call to my friend.

Debating points

  1. Whether as a board member or a consultant, what examples can you think of that help get a board over the final hurdle in a long process, especially of strategic realignment?
  2. From your experience, how does it feel when you ‘stick your neck out’ be that in a consultancy role or within a group?  What tends to happen?

[1] As recommended by the Walker Report into corporate governance (2010) and now incorporated into many of the governance codes, including the Corporate Governance Code, the National Housing Federation’s Governance Code, etc


About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
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