The project where I learned that patience can be your edge in consulting [Part II]
Learning when time is ripe for action
Last week, I spoke to you about my client Frankie, the way he handled a difficult situation by not throwing me under the bus, and how he used patience to wait for the most opportune moment to announce a replanning in the large program we were delivering.
This week, I wanted to talk about the lessons I learned through living that and some of my thoughts on how, over the years, I got to see patience as an edge for great management consultants.
To be patient or to be impatient: that is the question
Impatience is the stereotypical trait of the hard-charging consultant.
The pressure to deliver rapid results for our clients can promote a bias for action over reflection. However, I know now that while decisiveness drives change, patience is responsible for lasting impact.
One of my take-aways from the experience with Frankie is that, through patience, consultants can gain an underappreciated edge.
Patience is the tempered blade - strong and flexible, sharp and controlled. Impatience draws superficial solutions, with sub-optimal timing, that fail to address root causes.
Patience opens pathways where impatience sees only obstacles. As I learned by observing and reflecting on Frankie’s behavior, skilled consultants avoid forcing solutions through brute will alone.
Instead, they lay the groundwork carefully because they understand that directly attacking resistance only strengthens it.
Ironically, patience also enables speed - if viewed correctly.
Impatience seeks immediate linear progression. But exponential change layers patient foundations.
Like compound interest, progress accelerates later through upfront enablement. The wise consultant has to play the long game - not falling prey to the common disease of short term-ism.
The inexperienced me wanted to announce a delay in our delivery straight away. My more seasoned, and more patient, client had the ability to pause and think strategically about the consequences of such action.
Critically, patience builds trust and psychological safety.
Leaders who allow time for alignment and error recovery are followed with enthusiasm. Conversely, impatient leaders induce fear and anxiety. Patience gives breathing room for engagement and innovation to emerge naturally. It avoids aggressive timeboxes that counterproductively stress teams.
As most parents would know, patience denotes maturity. Projects are not our children (or maybe they are?!) and yet being patient is what distinguishes strategic consultants from tactical experts. It takes self-awareness to resist being reactive.
Thinking of the way Frankie acted, I could learn that patience comes from the confidence to guide change at the organization’s pace, not at your own timeline.
All that the story about Frankie does, is demonstrating patience in action from an experienced manager. When me, the eager (yet inexperienced) consultant, worries about project delays and suggests immediate replanning, Frankie advises for patience - recognizing the time is not yet ripe.
Frankie displays patience on multiple fronts - opposing the young consultant’s bias for rapid action to “fix” the issue.
He takes time to subtly gather more systemic understanding of the reality at play across multiple teams - the undercover operation I spoke about in last week’s piece. He patiently sieves through those insights to equip himself with the information needed to guide the optimal response.
When eventually executing the replanning, Frankie gives me another quick lesson: he times the intervention with savvy pacing.
He waits until the moment is politically ripe so that it flows with the prevailing organizational currents rather than fighting against systemic inertia.
Ultimately, my experience with Frankie taught me that patience in consulting involves three key attributes:
mastering strategic timing,
understanding organizational ways of working.
You have to know when to act and when to wait, when to speak up and when to listen, when to move and when to pause because the time isn’t ripe yet.
As I mentioned in Part I, this is a quote I think about often.
In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, about 15 years after the Frankie situation, I found myself giving this advice to one of the senior members of my team.
Bear with me - it’s a quick story, and I’ll close after it.
When the time isn’t ripe, 15 years later
Jenny, a consultant, had worked on a project managed by Lara, a senior manager, a couple of years ago.
Back then, Lara had some feedback on Jenny: Jenny’s performance was lacking, which caused problems for the project delivery that Lara had to mitigate.
Unfortunately, Lara had never documented any formal feedback on Jenny’s work, other than a couple of one-on-one conversations.
Two years later, when staffing a new project, the name of Jenny came up since she was on the bench.
Lara didn’t want her on the project - she preferred to hire an external candidate. However - with an aging bench and utilization pressure - there wasn’t any alternative: Jenny was going to join Lara’s project.
Of course, Lara could have complained, escalated and whatnot, but with no documentation of past problems it would have been futile.
Time wasn’t ripe yet.
Six months later, guess what happened?
Jenny’s poor performance resurfaced, Lara had to work triple shifts to ensure quality delivery and - finally - the client requested Jenny to be off-boarded.
When Lara came to me to inform me of the situation and ask for advice, I could only remind her of what had happened a couple of years earlier.
Without formal records, Lara was unable to justify not hiring Jenny onto the new project just six months ago, but this time, she needed to act differently. The poor performance had to be documented.
Time was indeed ripe.
Here you go: this is another manifestation of the need for managerial patience. Lara could not act on her frustrations right away during the project staffing because previous performance issues had not been captured correctly.
Acting hot-headed likely would have damaged Lara’s own credibility and case down the line.
Holding her tongue and gathering solid documentation to back up any complaints was the most sensible way.
From Frankie to Lara, 15 years later.
Hope you enjoyed this 2-part newsletter on the value of patience in consulting.
If you lived through similar situations, I want to hear and learn from you in the comments!