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Consultancy skills for HR professionals

Calling all HR Professionals: Would you trust your Hainanese Chicken rice stallholder to take out your appendix?……Probably not! It’s a specialist operation that takes years of training in which to develop the skills and knowledge to become a surgeon. Yet often we are thrown into situations where we are expected to perform a role for which we have no training at all and to learn on the job and just be expected to get on with it!

HR managers are often in precisely this position, where they are expected to act as professional consultants but without the training and education to be confidently proficient.

As a 'Straw Poll' I asked the 24 participants on our Hong Kong 'Think Tank' on Consultancy Skills for HR Professionals to tell me what training they had as HR people. The answers revealed that only two in the group had had any training in consultancy skills despite the fact that their role as internal consultants requires a high level of ability to engage with and win the respect of the clients they are serving. In my time in Asia and the rest of the world, I have encountered so many HR Managers who express bewilderment and frustration that they struggle to gain credibility, are not afforded the respect they deserve, not listened to, not valued, taken for granted, get dumped with the unpleasant tasks like handling grievance, resolving conflict running exit interviews etc. There is a clear learning need here and one that I wanted to address on the half day Think Tank.

So what is going on? The reasons why internal HR often have such a difficult time are not immediately obvious but we know that respect has to be earned and that in turn relies on being able to do a superb job. This is what we all strive to do but how do we achieve this in the context where we have no training as a consultant. It’s rather like asking the Hainanese Chicken Rice chef to take out an appendix!

In my own experience (as one of the many who is also untrained in these skills), when entering into a client engagement for the first time, I have often felt the same feelings of concern that I’m not respected or valued – so how much more difficult for an internal HR 'bod' it must be! I have analysed some of the recent engagements and tried to come to some meaningful conclusions about why some are successful and others are not. Why do sometimes you seem to 'hit it off' and other times you just don’t click? When problems occur during  the engagement (and they do!) what is going on? Is it simply a personality clash? Or is the client simply difficult to deal with? My view is that it’s more about the style you adopt and how you manage your client’s expectations.

So we need to be very clear about how we will add value to the clients needs – to help them move from problem to solution. We know the value of a skilful 'pull' approach using questions will always help, but I believe the most crucial thing we need to get right is our 'style' of consultancy.

Broadly speaking there are three styles in which you can contribute as a consultant:

1. As the Expert: you know the answers and will provide these solutions – often as a prescriptive 'tell' - a download of information. IT consultants and doctors would often use this approach. The danger here is to 'push' our knowledge. To help the client understand the problem try to moderate this with some questions.

2. As the Doer: you will come in to do what needs to be done to solve the problem for the consultant. Unless you are clear about this and make it plain to the client: are you the 'Doer' or the 'Expert' you may run into the very real accusation of “I thought you were doing that!” If you assumed that your contribution was as an expert when the client expected you to take the practical steps to solve the problem.

3. The third style is the approach taken by the consultant as the person who helps with the Process. So you neither set yourself up as the expert, and certainly don’t solve the problem for the client – you just help with the process. An example of this approach is as a 'coach' or 'counsellor' who would typically use a 'questioning' approach to help the client solve the problem and reach their own solution.

There will be occasions when you adopt more than one style. For example, you might go in as the expert on Performance Management, and help the manager using a coaching approach. Or you might even help run some appraisal interviews yourself. However the important thing for your client to be delighted is that you are clear about the style you adopt at any point in time and make sure the client is getting what they need.

During the Hong Kong Think Tank participants had the opportunity to share their own specific issues as internal consultants in the “en passant” process, during which peers shared an issue in the context of consultancy style and behaviours. The participants gained from the insights of other professionals struggling with the same issues. As one participant put it: “I can’t believe I got such useful advice and support from people I have only just met that afternoon”.

Impact’s Think Tanks use our unique methodology where peers are given an ideas sharing platform. Originally developed in our innovative Warsaw office, this event attracted a great turnout, obviously intrigued by anything that would help them become more effective in their organisations.

Jim Hick is a Country Manager in Singapore and currently working in Hong Kong.