Michael Kaiser and the Cardinal Sin of Consultancy


Michael Kaiser published a new column on the Huffington Post yesterday that got me a bit riled up. He speaks of an organization to which he has consulted over the past year and their lack of follow-through. He makes a very good point about the rut organizations can get themselves into: plan and plan and plan but never actually make changes. This is a reality many organizations must overcome if they are to survive and this post could inspire such movement.

The problem is, he makes this point by writing about a client. A client with whom he apparently still works. This, in my opinion, is the cardinal sin for a consultant purporting to help organizations in crisis. How can an organization’s board, leadership, and staff have the vulnerable and difficult conversations about what is broken and how to fix it if they fear their story, however veiled, will be posted for the world to see, all before they have turned it around?

I understand that the description is vague enough that most of us cannot distinguish the clients to which he refers, but I have little doubt that those close to the organization can read it loud and clear. “Good!” I hear from some, “Maybe this is the kick in the pants they need to actually implement!” However, this is not the way a great consultant encourages growth. If, as a consultant, you feel you have reached a stalemate you have two choices: find a new tack to convince the leaders they are out of time for continued planning or, if you feel you have run out of ideas, resign. You do not vent your frustration at their lethargy by broadcasting it on the Huffington Post.

It would have been easy to adjust the article so as not to point even a vaguely directed finger; I’ve done a very quick and dirty job of it below. It would have made the same point without causing this breach of confidentiality.

It has occurred to me that Mr. Kaiser may not actually refer to one specific client, that he has changed the details to protect the guilty. Honestly, that doesn’t even matter to me. I would never trust him to consult with an organization with which I am involved; the risk is far too great for an organization at such a tenuous time.

The following is 95% Michael Kaiser’s words. I do not have permission from him or Huffington Post to copy or alter his words; I only do so to prove a point. He didn’t have to, or even appear to, breach trust.

I have been consulting to important arts organizations since launching the Arts in Crisis program and before. These groups face serious financial challenges which arise from poor public images that adversely affect fundraising efforts. You’ve seen it happen, over a decade, as fundraising efforts atrophy, the organization turns to cost-cutting as the approach to balancing budgets. As a result, the staff is overworked, the board members are scared, morale is low, much needed marketing campaigns are underfunded and the cycle of woe continues.

The irony is that some of these organizations still do important artistic and educational work. The most important challenge to fiscal health — creating strong, unique programming–is consistently met. The ‘solution’ to these organizations’ problems, therefore, seems so evident to me. The organizations’ leadership must:

• Implement a strong, proactive institutional marketing campaign

• Work diligently to engage new donors

• Strengthen the board

I talk with the leaders of these organizations for months about specific methods for accomplishing these tasks; together we create a detailed implementation plan. There is no disagreement among senior staff; they all agree that these steps are critical and should be pursued.

But nothing happens.

Every time I meet with them they raise questions about the wording of the plan, the timing for involving more staff and board members in the planning process, and the need for further discussion.

They simply cannot get into action and pursue any of these important strategies in a disciplined manner. It is extremely frustrating since they continue to fall farther and farther behind their competition and are getting sicker and sicker.

Too many people see planning as an intellectual activity rather than a roadmap for implementation. It is easy to have endless discussions about needs and problems and even solutions. It is much harder — and far scarier — to begin implementation. […]

I read The Art of the Turnaround almost as soon as it came out in 2008. It affirmed many things for me, shifted my thinking on others, and generally focused and energized me in a way that I needed at the time. I still refer to it often in conversations with our Board and other colleagues and I asked that our Board Chair read it as well. Mr. Kaiser has truly earned his reputation as the “Turnaround King” and has used his experience to help numerous organizations, not to mention inspiring the scores of other leaders involved in the Arts in Crisis program to share their expertise.

Please, Mr. Kaiser, you have the opportunity to continue asking the hard questions from a very public platform. You don’t need to stoop to this brand of catty, bordering on unethical, behavior. Set the example.

  • May 22, 2012
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