How to Succeed as an Internal Consultant

Guest Post by Scott Elliott, Principal of Techzecs LLC.

You know who you are: you work in an enterprise at a staff level. Maybe you are called a Manager or Director in a matrixed organization, but with no direct reports. You have little spending authority or position power. You may not realize it but in fact, you are an internal consultant.

You know who you are: you work in an enterprise at a staff level. Maybe you are called a Manager or Director in a matrixed organization, but with no direct reports. You have little spending authority or position power. You may not realize it but in fact, you are an internal consultant.

It is common for internal consultants to feel powerless and dissatisfied with their jobs. They are often given the responsibility for some aspect of the business, but little or no authority over it. It seems very difficult for them to measure their contribution or value to the organization. How can they be recognized as successful?

Actually, such internal consultants contribute a major portion of the value for many corporations. The most successful companies know how to manage, recognize and reward their internal consultants, and the most successful internal consultants know how to motivate themselves and make exceptional contributions.

Here are the steps:

  1. Understand your personal competencies and passions

  2. Understand your job

  3. Align the job with your competencies and passion

  4. Use change models to leverage your power

  5. Empower yourself

  6. Plan, focus, and execute with quality and follow-through

  7. Build your Brand

The first step is to take stock of your own strengths and passions related to working at your company - what do you bring to the table? What do you enjoy doing well? Conversely, what do you not do well or not enjoy doing? Be honest about it, and perhaps even get an independent analysis from a trusted friend or colleague. Write these attributes down and prioritize them.

Next, take a hard look at your job description. Perhaps you have one overall, continuous job, or perhaps you have responsibility for a set of related or unrelated tasks. In any case, what exactly are you being asked to do? How will the results be measured? How will you know if the job was completed successfully? If not already done, write down (or rewrite) this job description and seek agreement with your manager, especially the metrics for success.

Now it is time to compare your job description with your list of competencies and passions. If it is a complete mismatch, it is really time to look for a different job. Usually people find that the lists match up well enough, but perhaps with a few gaps. It is very important to address these gaps. For example, maybe you must call and lead a series of cross-functional meetings, but you have little interest or experience in leading such meetings. There are a number of ways to close this gap, including using an experienced facilitator or taking training on leading effective meetings. The important point is to find ways to fill any important gaps between the job and your capabilities to fulfill it.

Most individual consultants are clueless when it comes to change management models – you should not be one of them!  The best change models are often the simplest.  They rely on three key steps:

  1. Orchestrating the pain message

  2. Providing a vision for the improved future

  3. Creating a path to get from today to the improved future

By understanding individuals who can make your project a success or failure, you can work on them to bring them along using a tool such as the attitude-influence map to pinpoint highly important people who have negative influence.  By meeting with them one on one you can use the change model to help them see the benefits of cooperation.  The key to the success of an internal consultant is to use change models as a lever, to move the support of people when you do not have hierarchical power.

The fifth step is to empower yourself for the job. To be empowered means that you have four attributes: the responsibility, the authority, the capability and the resources necessary to successfully complete the tasks. If you successfully closed any gaps in your competencies for the job, then you have the capability. The way to gain the responsibility, authority and resources is by negotiating carefully with your manager and possibly other people in empowered positions. You need to have them make it clear to the organization that you have the authority (at least by proxy) and access to the needed resources for the tasks. Trying to get things done without being authorized by the people in charge, or without the necessary resources, is always an exercise in futility. This is usually the area of most difficulty for internal consultants. You may have to be very tough on negotiating for empowerment - don't accept the old line: "just do the best you can - it'll be OK."

When you have a clearly defined job and you are fully empowered, it is time to plan and execute. Planning involves gaining commitments for the time of the people and resources needed to complete the task (if it is more than just you). Executing means following your plan rigidly and carefully, making corrections along the way if needed. It is not uncommon to lose some empowerment along the way, or perhaps the goal has changed. If either happens, it is extremely important to call an "out-of-bounds" meeting with the stakeholders and if necessary change the goal or the plan or get new commitments for full empowerment.

Whether the task is a major program such as introducing a new business process, or just a small study for management, it is critical to complete it with high quality and follow through.  For a big project, call a retrospective meeting to find out what went well and what could have been done better. For a small deliverable, do a customer survey for satisfaction with the result. Try to get honest feedback, don't just fish for compliments. Use the follow-up results to improve your planning and execution of the next program.

Finally, it is important to remember that - even though you are an internal consultant for a large brand - you have your own brand to build! Most companies now have an internal web space or wiki or similar means to post your bio and your accomplishments. Be sure to do a frequent and professional job of updating this space to market your strengths and achievements. Never be satisfied with just being a "headcount" or a "sunk cost" for your organization. If you leave the job or company, this bio will be a wonderful basis for your resume in looking for your next job.

Following these steps will enhance your career, your job satisfaction, and your life.