Leader/Consultant Partnerships During Times of Change

By Kathy Miller on July 11th, 2013

Comparing Apples to OrangesIntroduction – Comparing consultants to leaders is like comparing apples and oranges — or Maybe not!

When faced with the need to lead your organization in a new direction, what do leaders do? Chances are, they bring in consultants! Change is complex, messy and painful. No one can blame leaders for seeking assistance. Nevertheless, only the leaders can make change happen. They can get help from internal and external consultants; however, they can never step down from the arduous job of leading the change process. They own it!

Common Error: Consultants

Too often, consultants offer elaborate theories of change management that are doomed to fail because they can’t be implemented quickly or effectively. Sometimes they take another direction and propose simplistic approaches to change that are equally disappointing. Yet these easy solutions can be seductive to leaders who long for painless change.

Common Error: Leaders

Leaders sometimes abdicate responsibility for implementing the changes and turn over control to the consultants. This is a mistake because outsiders alone can’t make the changes succeed. Successful change requires strong leadership and active participation of those in charge.

When change efforts fail or succeed minimally, the consultants might either blame the organization for being resistant, or the leader for lack of interest. The leader may well accuse the consultants of using the wrong approaches, or ineffectively implementing. None of these accusations can exonerate the consultants and leaders from their share of accountability for the outcome of the change process. We believe that leaders and consultants are in it together for better or for worse. It is a partnership. Each has a distinct role to play—roles that are often confused in client-consultant relationships, to the detriment of the desired changes.

Faulty Assumptions: Consultants

Based on logic, assuming that the leader is ready to change and to lead change. When leaders call in the consultants they may truly desire the change at a rational and unemotional level. They may project what consultants interpret as eagerness in describing what they are after. They may describe logically why this change is necessary and offer to commit resources to make it happen. The consultants are likely to take them at their word. The possible glitch is that what may first appear to be logical and straightforward may turn out to be complicated. Change triggers emotions. Successful change requires leaders to prepare for the unpredictable and painful personal and emotional challenges ahead. The consultants’ first task is to recognize and address the inevitable ambivalence that leaders are likely to feel as they tackle these challenges at an emotional level.

Faulty assumptions: Leaders

• Believing that the change will be simple. Change of any kind is more complex than many leaders anticipate. We all want to believe that change will be quick and painless. We want to think that we can announce the change, explain the reasons for it, and move on. However, realistically we know that change is a process that moves through stages. There are no quick fixes. The organization is likely to experience stops and starts in change processes. Even when making progress, people may slide back into earlier more resistant stages before moving on toward acceptance of the changes.

Presuming that people who are ambivalent about change will resist it. Almost all changes involve pros and cons. There are usually compelling reasons not to change as well as powerful arguments for changing. Leaders should view ambivalence about the change, both their own and others’, as normal, not necessarily a sign of resistance.

• Assuming that they can delegate the leadership of the change to the internal or external consultants. Only the leaders can actually lead the change. Others can play a role, but no one else can make it happen.

Many times leaders may not be ready for their own personal changes when they call in the consultants. They may expect the consultants to “fix” everyone else. In reality, the first request leaders should make of the consultants is to help them assess their own readiness to lead the change. What do they personally have to gain and lose from these changes? What are the likely pockets of resistance that they might encounter? What could go wrong for them personally or for the organization? And finally, what will the leaders have to do to ensure the success of these efforts? As consultants assist leaders in exploring and working through their own ambivalence about the changes, they increase the probability that the change process will be successful.

Advice to Leaders Getting Ready to Lead Change

Make your own choices—don’t abdicate. To effectively carry out your role as leader directing change, you must make choices. Taking responsibility for choice is a hallmark of mature adults. If you ask consultants for their advice, they probably will give it. They can help you with your decisions, but they can’t tell you what to do. Only you know what it is like to be in your shoes, in your organization, here and now. No one but you has to live in your position or live with the consequences of what you decide. These “experts” can help you articulate the available choices, and the pros and cons of each. However, ultimately, you make the tough calls and live with the consequences. That is what strong leadership is all about.

Avoid role confusion. Make clear decisions about how to use others in implementing the change processes. Set a high priority on defining roles and expectations that are crystal clear. For example, use others, such as consultants, to collect data, offer observations, provide norms, and help evaluate the costs and benefits of change. Do not depend on others to be the exclusive communicators or the only cheerleaders for the change. Do not expect outside consultants to obtain “buy-in” for the changes or to be the enforcers. Only those internal to the organization (especially you the leader) can play these roles.

Emphasize your need for the truth—good news and bad. You must be able to trust others who are assisting you with the change process, to tell you the truth. Do not discourage consultants from bringing you bad news. Listen to opinions that differ from your own. You need accurate information and varying perspectives in order to make sound decisions. Do not surround yourself with “yes-men” when you are embarking on change. Nevertheless, do expect your consultants to respect your rights and responsibilities to make your own choices.


Successful leaders of change do more than merely announce the new directions and then leave the dirty work to others. They embrace the responsibility for their own personal changes and for shepherding the organization through all stages of change.