Harnessing Vulnerability In Consulting

As a young person, I considered being vulnerable one of my fortes. I was very good about sharing my insecurities and emotions with others in hopes of connecting and bonding. However, once I became a consultant (which for me happened straight out of undergrad at age 24), I lost a lot of my willingness to be vulnerable.

Why did I feel the need to shed this vulnerability? In short, insecurity. I wasn’t sure that I was worthy of the role I was given at such a young age. I was nervous that my clients would be upset that they were given a young, inexperienced consultant. I was terrified of making a mistake, having a client come up with a better idea than me, or (gasp) losing an account because of something I did.

Looking back, the back pain that I developed in 2008, two and a half years into my consulting life, should not have come as a surprise to me. I was putting an immense amount of pressure on myself to completely control the tenor of every client encounter, to smooth over any rough edges, to wow them with my work, and never let them down. It should not have been a surprise that my brain started being unable to store all of the stress and tension, and it started finding a home for that tension in my body.

The trouble for me is that old habits die hard. I am still extremely hard on myself in my role as a consultant. I aim to be everything the client could possibly want, and hold myself to impossibly high standards, aiming never to let the client know I am fallible.

I’ve begun to identify two issues at work in this situation:

  • I have a lot of thoughts that lead to stress, tension and difficult emotions (e.g., “If I’m not perfect my clients will think I’m wasting their money.”)
  • I don’t necessarily cope well with the emotions that are caused by those thoughts (e.g., experiencing anxiety when presenting a new design to a client).

I want to speak about how to better cope with emotions in subsequent blog post. But for today, let’s talk about the thoughts themselves, the ones that eventually cause emotions. How can one reduce insecurity and the fear of being seen as fallible? How can allowing oneself to be more vulnerable with clients actually reduce the number of negative thoughts one has to cope with?

I started thinking about vulnerability in a professional context when I first saw Karen McGrane’s talk from the 2013 Dare Conference, “I suck, and so do you!“. In her talk, Karen talks about a common problem amongst many digital workers, but particularly among consultants — deep insecurity. She talks about the loop: “the idea that you’re only worthy if you’re doing things right, … that your value to the world is that you have the right ideas.” She talks about how important it is to have the willingness to be vulnerable and imperfect while consulting, and why self-compassion is paramount.

Karen’s talk made me take stock of my situation a little bit, and how much I was using external validation as a means to derive my self-worth as a consultant. Her stunning display of vulnerability, speaking about her own break-down and her journey towards self-compassion, lit a spark within me to explore being vulnerable again. However, I still didn’t really consider what it would mean to be vulnerable with my clients.

Enter my second step on this road: the book Getting Naked by Patrick M. Lencioni. The book is a fable about how a boutique consulting company uses vulnerability to create authentic, trust-filled relationships with their clients. The principles in the book are based on those practiced in Lencioni’s own consulting company. Specifically, he describes the need to avoid three key fears in consulting:

  1. The fear of losing client business
  2. The fear of being embarrassed in front of clients
  3. The fear of feeling inferior to clients

To do this, he describes a number of techniques, such as:

  • Asking dumb questions
  • Making dumb suggestions
  • Celebrating your mistakes
  • Admitting your weaknesses and limitations

He explains how each of the above techniques (and several more) actually can strengthen the bond between consultant and client:

  • Asking dumb questions: Say you ask five questions and three of them are dumb. Lencioni argues that the benefit of asking the other two good questions is worth it. He points out that the dumb questions will be answered quickly, and that no one will remember them for long.
  • Making dumb suggestions: As with asking dumb questions, the argument here is that  it’s better to make all the suggestions one has and not hold back on the client. It’s better to risk asking a couple of dumb suggestions than to not make any suggestions and miss out on the good ones.
  • Celebrating your mistakes: Making mistakes is inevitable. It’s better to call them out and take responsibility for them, rather than hide or downplay them. Lencioni points out that clients don’t expect perfection from service providers, but that they do expect honesty and transparency. (Not hiding mistakes I’m good with, but I am going to have to take his word on the “not expecting perfection” point.)
  • Admitting your weaknesses and limitations: Says Lencioni — since we all have weaknesses, it’s better to be open about them than to end up in a situation of having to do something we’re not good at.

Essentially, Lencioni is giving me (indeed, all consultants) permission, and indeed, a reason to be real and vulnerable with clients. He basically claims that all of the things I have implicitly been worrying about for my almost-nine-year long consulting career, like making mistakes, are things not to fear but to embrace, and that they will only strengthen the bond a consultant has with a client.

I am eager to test out Lencioni’s approaches for myself, being more vulnerable with clients, and not stressing so much about any dumb ideas / questions / designs I may throw their way during the process. As usual in life, this is something that’s extremely easy to say in principle, but much harder to do in practice. The fact is, however, that being easier on myself is critical to my physical and mental health, and that vulnerability seems to be a significant key to achieving this.

I hope this post may be valuable to some fledging (or not-so-fledgling) consultants out there. I would highly recommend both “I suck, and so do you!” and Getting Naked if you are interested in learning more about the value of being vulnerable as a consultant. Getting Naked is particularly great because instead of writing his ideas in a standard business book format, Lencioni delivers his message through narrative, in the form of a fable. If you do read, please let me know what you think and what implications there might be for your own consulting practice!

For the second in this series, see Coping With An Addiction to External Validation.