The project where I learned that patience can be your edge in consulting [Part I]
More than a decade ago, when I was still young and had lots of hair, I was running a project for a large bank.
This was my second gig as an engagement manager: I was enthusiastic and quite knowledgeable in my domain, but a bit green when it came to handling difficult people.
Because Destiny always has a way to help you when you need it most, in that project I had plenty of complicated stakeholders to deal with: from clients to my own team members.
My client counterpart was a 50-year-old man with a ton of experience and a massive pedigree. He was a former management consultant too: he knew what he was doing… but he also knew what I was doing.
That guy, call him Frankie, was an extremely detailed person, with a strong personality and, at times, ways that could seem too direct to many - especially in the Anglo-Saxon culture.
Somehow, to my surprise, we managed to establish a fantastic relationship based on trust. I was ready to learn a lot from him on how to run a program of that size and complexity.
And, I think, he was keen to learn from me everything I knew about that specific industry domain which I truly was a world-class expert at (I'm not special: it was simply a very small niche, with a handful of professionals worldwide that could understand it and had real-world experience in it).
He also didn't like my boss and, as soon as he could, he got rid of him, which made my role even more critical - but that's another story.
At some point in the project, it was clear to me that we would need to replan because a bunch of activities were taking too much time and all dependencies were pointing to a delay.
Because I was young and inexperienced, and maybe too transparent, I went to him and told him how reality was panning out.
We needed to replan, and shift our timelines to the right.
As I found out later on in my career, many clients would have taken that opportunity to use me as the scapegoat for the inevitable executive complaints that such a move would have attracted.
Frankie, instead, listened to my reasons attentively, asked a couple of questions, and then he said: "Don't worry, keep going. We'll manage this issue differently."
He didn't give me any details right there, and I didn't want to push too much in our first meeting where we were discussing this situation.
So, I let it go.
In my mind, I had informed him and I trusted him enough to know that, if sh*t hit the fan, he would not pretend we never had that conversation.
A few weeks later, it only became more evident that our delay was unrecoverable.
One morning at 8am (he was always in the bank very early, so I was early too) he called me into his office and announced to me that we were going to replan.
"Oh, that's what I told you like a month ago" I couldn't help saying.
His response was: "Yes, but back then, the time was not ripe yet."
When the time isn’t ripe
I found out that since the day I had shared my concerns with him, he started an undercover operation to understand how all the other teams in the program were doing.
When he discovered that at least a couple of other teams were way more behind than us, he was satisfied that the reason for the program delay would eventually come from those guys - not from us.
He explained to me how a request for shifting timelines originating from us would have quickly become a political point, and it would have been intelligent from our side to ensure we were not the ones pushing for it.
And there was no need to do it, because it was apparent that some other teams we were dependent on would have been forced to announce a delay before us.
Now, this situation is not at all uncommon in large, complex programs: but it was uncommon to me at that stage of my career!
The practical lesson Frankie gave me was incredibly valuable.
And he didn't have to, because he could have easily blamed the delay on me. After all, I was the external consultant, getting paid a lot of money to take the risk off him.
"The time was not ripe yet" is a quote I think of often, and Frankie is the guy that comes to mind every time I reflect on it.
Some of us are born with a high degree of patience. Others don't have it.
I wasn't born a patient boy, but with time I had to learn how to embrace patience as a tool in my arsenal - at work and in life.
People say that having children teaches patience like nothing else. And I agree - but back then I was a single young man with a lot of energy, so I needed another trigger to be taught the value of patience.
Some of us might see what Frankie and I did in this circumstance as a classic episode of office politics, perhaps bordering on unethical territories.
That would be, I think, missing the point.
Frankie had a number of options in front of him that day when I explained to him my reasons to call for a delay. He chose the one that would hurt me the least. And while doing so, he was showing to me how to strategically think long-term about messaging and positioning.
The way he handled the situation demonstrated the importance of protecting your team and stakeholders.
His decision to delay the push for replanning until it was politically opportune shows a deep understanding of how corporate dynamics work.
The aspect of covering for your team, while not immediately apparent in terms of project management, is a vital skill in fostering a loyal and motivated team.
I realize I have a lot more to say on specific takeaways on this story.
But this piece is already longer than my standard, so I am going to break it down in 2 parts.
See you all next week.
Be patient (pun intended).