Whether you’re a consultant or a contractor, the amount of power or influence you have on a contract has nothing to do with the amount given to you. It all comes down to the about of perceived power your client, reporting supervisor, or even co-workers have of you.
Companies hire contractors for different reasons than they hire consultants. As such, their perceived power is different. Many times, contractors are hired to supplement the current full-time staff by adding additional resources to one or more projects. In this case, a contractor’s perceived power is, at most, the same as that given to the full-time employees they are working with. Consultants, on the other hand, are often hired for their expertise in one or more subject or functional areas. A consultant’s perceived power is at, or even above, that of their reporting supervisor.
JUST A CONTRACTOR
When consulting in some larger work environment’s, consultants are often treated the same way as contractors. My assumption is because these companies have so many different contracting companies come in to help with resources, they simply don’t know who is hired for what. Although equality in the work force is supposed to be a good thing, when it comes to perceived power this is is not always good.
In this kind of environment, contractors (and therefore consultants) are perceived as powerless. You may even hear one or more managers at the work site say they do not have to listen to or do anything a contractor/consultant says since they are “just a contractor.” As a professional, try not to take the remark personally; it has nothing to do with your abilities or skill set.
Companies that have managers with the “just a contractor” mentality have probably had a bad experience with contractors in the past. If you find yourself in this kind of environment, be sure to do your best to try not to confirm their negative and false stereotype.
ACHIEVING PERCEIVED POWER
Many times, consultants are hired based on the reputation of the company they work for. The greater the consulting company’s reputation, generally the higher the perceived power of the consultant. This is great if you work for one of the “big six,” but if you don’t, then your perceived power may have to be earned the old fashioned way; through hard work. Unfortunately there is no “magical” way to earn perceived power. Perceived power is earned as a direct result of the work you produce for the client.
One way to achieve perceived power is by simply being competent in the functional area you were hired for. It can also be earned by being professional in your behavior and communication. In other words, remember these three rules:
- Communicate the status of your projects with the client often.
- Never let your client be caught off guard by potentially bad or negative news.
- Whatever you do, make sure your client does not hear the bad or negative news from their supervisor prior to you telling them. If/when that happens, not only may that destroy any perceived power you have, it may destroy your individual reputation and/or that of your company.
Another way to achieve power is by suggesting new ideas. Sometimes it takes an external person to point out the obvious. You can also achieve perceived power by continually suggesting ways to improve current processes. Remember that your success depends on their success. It is very important the suggestions you give, and decisions they make, are based on your valid and justified research.
LOSING ALL PERCEIVED POWER
Unfortunately, there will be times when it does not matter how successful you are or how much the client has benefited from your services. If a full-time employee “has you in their sights,” your perceived power, no matter how great it once was, could be reduced to very little or none at all. I have seen this happen to some of the best consultants I’ve ever worked with. It does not matter if the employee’s logic for wanting you gone is justified or not, you might as well start looking for another client to work at.
From what I’ve been able to observe, this occasionally happens when things are starting to progress faster than a manager is wanting it to. As ironic as that sounds, sometimes a really great consultant can do his or her job too well. This in turn makes the manager feel his or her job may be in jeopardy (always remember, there is no such thing as “job security”). From the managers point-of-view, it comes down to the basic battle of “he goes or I go.” You can guess who wins that battle (hint: it’s not you).
ABSOLUTE “PERCEIVED” POWER
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying from Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Absolute power, even if it’s perceived, can also corrupt absolutely. It does not matter what your true power or influence is; nor should it. In most environments, it’s all about perceived power. If your client perceives you as an expert, you are. If they perceive you as just a supplemental resource, that is all the power or influence you will have; unless you earn more.
All-in-all, consulting can be a very rewarding experience. Remember, consulting is not about you or your success; it’s about your client’s success. Your reward is how their success can be directly related to some of the work you’ve done for them.