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Ten Lessons Learned From Thirty Five Years In Consulting

Joseph A Bockerstette, Partner


I have been a management consultant for most of my career, starting as an entry-level consultant for Main Hurdman (acquired by KPMG) and then moving over to Coopers and Lybrand (now PwC) for 10 years, where I became a Partner. Even though I left consulting for about 15 years, I continued to serve in consultative roles as a private equity owner and angel investor. I have found that once a consultant, always a consultant, and I assess business opportunities through a consulting professional’s lens. Because of this, I have come to rely on lessons learned to quickly evaluate business problems and opportunities.

When I joined Business Enterprise Mapping as a Partner in 2013, I reentered the professional services firm environment and have often applied previous consulting experiences to my current position. I offer these thoughts based on my own experience from 35 years of serving a wide variety of clients.


10 Lessons Learned in Consulting


1. Success depends far more on the client than the consultant.

If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that the successful outcome of any client engagement is far more dependent upon the client than the consultant. A client who is focused, committed and engaged with a will to achieve makes for a successful project. My firm delivers a standard methodology providing focused services time and again. The clients who are most successful assign talented personnel who are determined to take what we provide and implement change that delivers sustainable improvement.


2. Figuring out what’s wrong isn’t that hard.

Most people working in an organization know what’s wrong with the organization. The subject matter experts already exist within. So finding out what’s wrong isn’t really a special skill. All consultants have to do is ask and listen. Employees live it every day and suffer from the deficiencies of their company’s business model and culture. The hard part is crafting a solution that works and sticks.


3. Leaders don’t know how work actually gets done.

The further leadership gets away from the source of the work itself, the more likely leaders don’t know what’s happening on the front lines. It’s pretty common to hear a leader say that something isn’t being done a certain way when we know that it is. Stuff happens on the front line for reasons that make sense to those doing the work. The best leaders understand this and get involved where work takes place.


4. Leaders (and managers) often don’t understand process.

This is one of the more interesting learnings for me. While virtually every leader and manager will say they understand and believe in business process structure, over 70% of all business problems relate to some type of process deficiency. In addition, when we ask leaders who are the customers for business processes within their control, they typically don’t know.


5. Companies measure what’s easy, not what’s important.

I can rarely correlate what’s important to a business process, department, or value stream with what is being measured as the key performance indicator. Because measuring what matters is typically difficult to do, most organizations settle for measuring what is easy or not measuring anything at all. When talking with people on the front lines, they see the problems with their measurements and can usually explain why a measurement doesn’t adequately monitor performance.


6. Change is simple, just not easy.

Leaders want change, but hope it will come easy and without pain. Knowing what to change is usually not very difficult, but for a variety of human reasons, the actual change implementation is rarely easy. So what begins as something pretty straightforward often ends in a manner that is unexpected.


7. Leaders would rather hire superstars than solve problems.

Another interesting idea I have found working with large organizations is the belief that the solution to many important problems is to hire the “right person.” It’s ironic how an organization can employ thousands of people but they need that one additional “right hire” to make the difference. We have repeatedly seen that superheroes by themselves do not overcome bad business models, systems or processes.


8. Industry experience is overrated.

Fundamental business processes are surprisingly consistent and stable across a wide range of industries, business models, and company sizes. When we are asked about our firm’s industry experience, I can advise without reservation that it just doesn’t matter that much. In fact, it is far more likely new clients will find what can be learned from different industries to be more valuable.


9. Corporate politics stops most improvements.

This especially holds true as organizations get larger and more complicated. I have never seen a new client where the organization chart completely aligns with workflow. Because of this, the infamous “organizational silo” is a dominant cultural characteristic in most companies. The “what’s best for my area” often overwhelms the “what’s best for the company” when making decisions.


10. Great leaders find a way to deliver successful outcomes.

We can usually tell early in a relationship whether a client has the will to win or not. It is easily discernable in their decision-making, leadership style , and company culture. Conversely, when purpose, responsibilities and accountabilities are unclear, we can predict early on that the outcome will be less than the client hopes for.


These ten lessons learned are generalizations and, of course, they come with exceptions – some of which are spectacular. What I can say without reservation is they are common among the many different types and sizes of organizations where I have consulted and advised. One of the key lessons learned is that the value of consulting services is never greater than when the consultant is about to deliver those services. While clients initially hope to buy a solution for a fee, the reality is usually far more challenging.  The consulting opportunity is to create a long-term client partnership that adds value over many years.


Did you find this article useful? If so, consider downloading our Major Change Management Plan Template, which will help you ask the right questions to navigate the activities necessary to plan and implement successful change that creates value for your employer.