Becoming A Strategic Counselor
Advising others on the issues, problems and situations that truly matter is one of our most challenging professional activities. It takes a special breed of individual to counsel those who do important work affecting the lives, lifestyles and well being of other people, organizations, cultures, even societies.
Because it’s useful to examine the principles and behaviors that drive the advice these unique counselors and consultants provide, let me distill my observations of these special people into some serious guidance and key principles to help the staff who coach, counsel and befriend those having operating responsibilities.
THE COUNSELOR’S PRIME DIRECTIVE
The prime directive in all advice, counseling and staff work is to serve others first − for their benefit and from their perspective. The primary role of staff functions is advisory and consultative.
Supporting that directive is the commitment to provide simple, sincere, sensible, and constructive advice and counsel.
• Simple counsel means doing only the important things, the most crucial things, first. It means striving for the successful forward increment rather than the global solution. Incremental progress is far more readily achievable than either the silver bullet or big idea.
• Sincere means providing advice and counsel you can talk about with others with a straight face, that you know works based on your experience and the experience of others, and that other powerful forces can endorse.
• Sensible advice means fundamentally sound advice. This is advice that at first glance, second glance and third glance is unchallengeable and unassailable. It makes sense, even though it may infuriate some or seem over-simplified to others.
• Constructive advice means avoiding criticism, which is always negative, always remembered over anything else the counselor or coach provides, and turns out to be confusing and generally destructive. Criticism is easy and cheap. Anyone can do it. The counselor who inspires is the counselor who can translate adverse events and circumstances into helpful, positive, constructive advice.
There are three tests useful advice meets. Such advice is practical, pragmatic and purposeful.
• Practical advice means just that − tasks that are achievable, positive in nature and that employees and even critics can endorse to some degree.
• Pragmatic advice recognizes that only certain outcomes are possible, that no matter how spiffy, creative, or exciting your ideas might be, those affected by the advice as well as those acting on the advice will look at it from the perspective of whether it can actually work in their real world.
• Purposeful advice has self-evident forward focus and positive momentum. Counselors and consultants are strategic operational assets. When activated, strategic assets are fundamentally positive and energize the organization and its constituencies.
There are lots of distractions in consulting, and lots of clients who have great difficulties, problems, shortcomings and blind spots. The consultant’s obligation is to identify and provide candid, constructive advice that fills those deficiencies, while stabilizing or moving the organization ahead. Only advice that moves the organization in a forward direction is actually helpful.
From the client’s perspective, the expectation is that consultants will contribute frequently; provide focused, useful information; be forceful enough to move their recommendations through the organization; and be fair in the application of their ideas and concepts.
• Frequent contribution means the successful consultant is the individual who makes frequent incremental, often unsolicited recommendations and suggestions.
• Focused advice means just that, advice that is understandable, shows the way, helps the client or customer think and act in the future tense, and works toward a few (or one) important goals everyone recognizes.
• Fair advice means that which is politically acceptable (as opposed to factionally correct) and politically useful (as opposed to politically disruptive). It provides information that is useful (as opposed to manipulative) to many stakeholders.
• To successfully serve others requires special talents: initiative, intuition, ingenuity, inspiration, imagination, urgency and loyalty.
• Initiative: The most common criticism I hear about outside and inside advisors is that though ideas abound, few seem capable of picking up an idea, developing it and moving it forward without prompting or specific direction.
• Intuition: Those who run organizations, especially large organizations, have a limited tolerance for intuitive solutions and recommendations. Ration your intuition. Build support for what you intuitively believe or suspect. Present intuitive recommendations using a process approach so that you can be understood and your ideas acted upon by those you counsel.
• Ingenuity: Everyone, especially clients, loves nifty approaches and interesting ideas. Ingenuity comes from using already known information to develop new and different approaches to resolve old and persistent issues or problems.
• Inspiration: This is a quality that can be learned and developed. Those who inspire help others see (from their own perspectives) truths and choose beneficial behaviors and beliefs. Identify those who inspire you. Learn how they do it. Focus on how they do it. Then use that knowledge to develop your own inspirational style. Inspire others.
• Imagination: Louis Pasteur, the great French scientist, was reputed to have said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” How prepared are you to hypothesize useful ideas, alternatives and insights about the issues, concerns, problems and work of those you coach and counsel? Do you read the publications they read? Do you consume information of the same type and nature that those you counsel do? Can you hold a conversation on an operating topic that informs the other person?
• Urgency: Can you bring substantive intensity to your work? Can you drive issues, questions and individual forces forward? More importantly, can you give useful information on the spot, every time? If you need time to think things over or to develop or refine a document, you have yet to become a truly strategic staff person.
• Loyalty: Advising at very senior levels automatically makes you the eyes and ears of those you counsel within the organization. Advising and coaching senior people means being utterly candid. Do you observe and report, or hide and ignore?
THE COUNSELOR’S WORK STYLE
Serving others requires a work style that is:
1. Independent, but able to act and think aggressively.
2. Cooperative, but focused on the goals of those you serve.
3. Goal and accomplishment oriented on a daily basis.
4. Systematic and positive in approaching tasks, work and problems.
5. Pragmatic focus on doing the doable, getting the getable, achieving the achievable, and seeking the findable.
THE COUNSELOR’S COMMITMENT
Those who successfully serve others have a work attitude that says:
1. When I am here; working for you is number one.
2. I plan to be here a lot and, if necessary, available the rest of the time as well.
3. I am committed to independent reading, discussion, issue sensitivity and personal learning that is of value to those I coach and counsel.
4. I will take the initiative to help those I coach and counsel move in useful new directions and rely far more on foresight than hindsight.
5. I recognize that going even a small extra distance will be the difference between mundane and magnificent results. Extra effort, extra sensitivity, extra focus is what makes the difference from the client’s perspective.
6. I am committed to relentlessly pursue personal positive incremental progress every single day, for myself and for the clients I coach and counsel.
7. I will provide information beyond the client’s knowledge, on the spot.
THE COUNSELOR’S VERBAL TOOLBOX
Leaders lead through their ability to verbalize the future, explain a direction, and describe a destination. The counselor also works in real time to help leaders lead in real time. The counselor’s verbal skills should be models the client can learn from and imitate.
The counselor has six powerful verbal tools:
1. Facts. This means data and authoritative information, developed and delivered appropriately and promptly, verbally.
2. Stories: These are structured verbal examples leaders use, which take audiences through ideas, concepts, problems, or situations vicariously, yet teach lessons, morals, or self-evident truths audiences can use to their benefit.
3. Questions: These are questions the leader can use to help engage others in discussions or conversations that move the organization forward. (It’s also helpful to provide suggested answers.)
4. Comparisons: This could be a best practice discussion or, more importantly, sharing your perception of how another leader or leaders handled similar problems from different perspectives.
5. Recommendations/Options: The currency of consulting and counseling is recommendations. Unless the way is absolutely crystal clear, it’s often helpful to propose a choice of options ranging from doing nothing, to doing something, to doing something more. Recommending options is a process that keeps clients and consultants engaged with each other. Recommending a useful series of actions along a timeline allows clients to generate momentum and forward motion.
6. Constructive Confrontation: Better to challenge thinking, ideas and concepts promptly. The ability to constructively change an individual’s direction, for their own benefit, is one of the most refreshing and important achievements a counselor can obtain. It is also one of the most challenging tasks.
Lots of mistakes are made in coaching and counseling. But, if you focus on those techniques and practices that do work and are helpful to clients, you won’t have much time to make mistakes and you’ll be invited back time and time again.
Here are five extremely useful resources for learning about consulting and coaching CEOs and leaders:
• Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, Peter Block, Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, latest edition.
• The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise, Peter Block, Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, latest edition.
• Anything by Peter Block
• Coaching for Leadership: How the World’s Greatest Coaches Help Leaders Learn, edited by Marshall Goldsmith, Laurence Lyons, and Alyssa Freas, Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, latest edition.
• Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will, Noel M. Tichy and Stratford Sherman, Currency Doubleday, latest edition, the story of Jack Welch’s leadership.
For more information on this and other communication management topics, visit the author’s Web site at www.e911.com.