The King’s Speech – a case study in consulting to the powerful

I finally saw the King’s Speech last night. Though the film’s historical accuracy has been called into question by some it is still a good story. As a case study in consulting to the powerful it is excellent. Anyone who is involved in consulting or coaching with senior executives should go and see this film. Without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t seen The King’s Speech, here are the consultancy lessons from it.

Insist on an equal relationship

No matter how powerful your client, even if he is a duke or a king, equality is essential in the consultancy relationship. As soon as a consultant becomes subservient, he becomes that bit less effective. Having an obediant consultant, while it might feed the client’s ego, will not provide him with the challenges he needs if he is going to make a significant change. Subserveint consultants don’t aks tough questions and without tough questions, nothing changes.

Don’t compromise on your ground rules….

This assumes that your ground rules are there for the benefit of clients, not to feed your own ego. “My castle my rules,” says Lionel Logue in the film. If your methodology requires the client to sign up to certain ways of doing things then, if you don’t insist on these rules, you are diluting your approach and short-changing your client.

….or on your methods

You will often come across clients who ask you to “just do the mechanical bits” when you know the problem runs much deeper. A classic case is the client who wants you to redesign the performance management system when the real problem is that the managers don’t like tacking performance issues. The ‘mechanical bits’ are only half the battle. Unless you tackle the uncomfortable stuff the client tries to avoid, client will still be left with the problem.

Your client will get angry with you

Or, at the very least, irritated with you. If this doesn’t happen, you are probably not doing your job. One of the best consultants I ever worked with brought me close to punching him on a number of occasions. This is because good consultants ask the questions the clients don’t want to answer and takes them to places they’d rather not go, even though they know they really need to go there if anything is to change.

When clients need to make significant personal or organisational change (and you rarely get one without the other) they find it uncomfortable and anger is often the result. The consultant needs to roll with these punches. It will get worse before it gets better. But hang on in there – it will get better.

Prepare to be attacked

Powerful people are not used to being challenged. As the pressure of the change situation builds, they often revert to type. At some stage during the process, the consultant will be hit by the full force of whichever tactic the powerful executive uses to get his or her own way. Assertions of status, blustering, bullying, emotional blackmail and even physical intimidation may be deployed as the client’s level of discomfort rises. In such circumstances, the client may seek to shore up his own position by demeaning the consultant. Assaults on the consultant’s capability are not unusual, as in “Who the hell are you to ask me such a question. I’ve run more successful businesses than you have.” This is both a put down and an avoidance tactic. Ad hominem attacks are a great way of venting frustration while, at the same time, ducking an uncomforable question.

The scene in the park where the future king pours scorn on the speech therapist’s qualifications, career and even his lowly social class is a textbook example of this behaviour. Logue asks the duke some questions he needs to answer but really doesn’t want to. His response is explosive and hurtful.

Consultants need to be prepared for this and avoid taking it personally. The worst thing you can do is follow what is often your instinctive response (well, it’s mine anyway) and respond to the challenge in kind. Powerful people tend to like fights. They’ve usually had lots of them; that’s how they get to be where they are. By trying to defend yourself, you are getting into combat with your client and, paradoxically, taking him back into his comfort zone.

Sometimes you have to back off a bit but you need to be able to maintain the challenge even while you are being attacked. You do this by sidestepping the attacks and bringing the focus back to the client.

In my view, this is the most difficult part of consulting to powerful people and it is very easy to go into flight/fight mode – either rolling over and becoming subservient or getting into a full-scale row. In situations like these you need to remind yourself of your intent. You are not asking questions to score points, or to deflect the client’s attacks, you are doing it to help the client. If he lands a few blows on you in the process, that’s just an occupational hazard.

Beware of the collusion of friendship

Just as dangerous as succumbing to bullying or aggression is the collusion which might arise when you become friendly with a client, as often happens. Friendship might cause you to go easy on a client and limit your challenges. This does neither of you any favours. If you become really good mates with a client, it might be time to change your professional relationship and suggest he works with someone else. This didn’t happen in the film when the King and Lionel Logue became friends but I’ve seen it happen to others.

So there you have it – just a few reflections from seeing the King’s Speech. It’s an entertaining film and an interesting insight into a period that is now slipping beyond living memory. It’s worth going to see if for those reasons alone. But as a consultants’ case study in how to work with powerful people, it offers some excellent insights. Lionel Logue showed how to do all of the above, even under the intimidating gaze of some of the most poweful people in the land. Well worth a few quid and a couple of hours to anyone in the consultancy game. Highly recommended!

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5 Responses to The King’s Speech – a case study in consulting to the powerful

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The King’s Speech – a case study in consulting to the powerful | Flip Chart Fairy Tales -- Topsy.com

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  3. Fine post, sir!

    I think there’s mileage in the idea of covering other films of relevance to consultants.

    Here are two you could try: Office Space; and Metallica – Some Kind of Monster (<< seriously!).

  4. patrickhadfield says:

    Thanks for this – I loved the film, but hadn’t thought about it in these terms. I think you are right – there are lots of lessons to be learned!

  5. Jenny says:

    Great post – I just saw the movie and the parallels you draw are really valid.

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