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Get yer hands dirty [why all consultants should run a 'real' business for a while]

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable describing myself as a ‘consultant’. It brings to mind Mckinsey-style ‘we don’t get involved in execution’ types who blow in to tell you all the things you should be doing then blow out again leaving you to do it all. Anyone who as ever worked with me will know this is not even remotely what I do.


Truth is, I love the nitty-gritty, messiness of execution. I believe this is where most of the magic happens. My controversial opinion is that ideas are the easy part. If you’ve ever sat through a brainstorm or ‘blue-sky thinking’ session, you’ll know how many people have ideas to ‘throw in’ and how few of those ideas end up being workable.


The execution of ideas is where the rubber meets the road and all the unruly humanness of the real world gets in the way of perfect blue-sky ideas. But it’s also where greatness begins and where ideas can make a real difference in the world.


When working with large companies I have always put a lot of effort into developing relationships beyond the office of the CMO and getting myself deep into the bowels of the organisation. Colleagues have often questioned why I am ‘wasting my time’. But this is where I can identify and try to work around all the real-world friction points that might stop good creative work from finding its way through. The mistake many consultants make is in thinking clients are just being annoying and cowardly in refusing to accept good ideas. Problems of budget, procedural practicality and the differing agendas of multiple internal stake-holders, are real. Unless you get yourself in there and really learn about these roadblocks you won’t be able to navigate around them and you’ll be jammed up by your own frustration.


The more understanding and empathy you have for the day-to-day rigmarole of your client’s job, the better chance you have of crafting solutions that will run the gauntlet of approval and get released into the world. Regular readers will recognise a theme I have written about before.


This is why I believe all consultants would benefit from running a business themselves for a while. Of course, many of us have run our own consulting businesses — design studios, branding and ad agencies and the like — but I’m talking about a real, at-the-coal-face, customer-facing business where you are both exposed to and responsible for, the needs of the end-user.


In 2013, after a decade or so of running an agency that I co-founded in London then working for a big international brand agency in NYC, I took a huge and unusual sideways step out of my career and into my husband’s long-term dream of running a small hotel on a Caribbean island. The eco resort we developed and operated was heartbreakingly hard work and life-changingly gratifying in equal measure.


At the time it felt like I was walking away from my ‘career’ and all its accumulated experience with no particular plan to make my way back.


Of course my skills in marketing and brand building served us well when developing a brand of our own but nothing really prepared me for the vast range of other skills I would have to acquire at break-neck speed. After a couple of years of painful initiation into construction management, customer experience design, staff training, health and safety, supply-chain management and a whole host of other skills (goat husbandry, off-grid power generation, bar tending...) we could step back and admit it was going OK. At least that’s what our customers were telling us.


Just as things were hitting some kind of a rhythm, in that way that the world has for disregarding our best laid plans, a very big hurricane in 2017 brought our island dream to an abrupt halt. A few years of cleaning up and trying to rebuild while fighting with the insurance company — only to then be hit by a global pandemic that has all but ended Caribbean tourism — I now find myself building a consulting business from the ground up, again.


Contrary to what I might have feared about returning to a career after a 5 year hiatus, I don’t find myself having to explain away the gap in my resumé. Instead I have found that the experience I gained, the lessons I leant and the new skills I developed have become perhaps the most important part of my story that I now present to clients.


I’ve always told anyone who will listen that a brand is the combined total of every experience a customer has with your organisation. Now, I have a much more detailed and empathetic understanding of what all the parts that make up that combined total are. And how to manage them better.


I have gained a level of understanding about the design of great customer experiences beyond what I even knew existed before.


I not only have specialist skills and experience in hospitality and tourism but the minutia of customer service detail needed in these particular industries has broadened and deepened my knowledge of how customers interact with products and services across all industries.  


Having nurtured a team who had never even set foot inside a hotel into outstanding professionals who are regularly showered with glowing Trip Advisor reviews and generous gratuities, I now have more nuanced and practical recommendations on how to train staff to rally around a brand idea and craft a unique style of customer service for any organisation.


The overall lesson comes from recognising that all the stuff you bump up against during the execution of your ideas makes your product better. They are not problems, they are opportunities to improve and the way in which you respond to them is where your offering becomes special and unique.


Not everyone has the chance or the means to launch their own thing. But you can also tap into this experience by spending more time with your clients and really getting inside their organisations. Be led by empathy, not frustration. Get in and get your hands dirty.


It will make you better at what you do, and will probably make you a better person too.

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