When I launched this blog, I promised to talk about the career Jeff and I have chosen, one that others, particularly those just starting out, sometimes lust after. Freedom, independence, travel - and the biggest of the biggies - working with a wide array of very interesting, very smart, and exceedingly kind people in various sectors. All true.
Before going on to my rant (it's coming), let me recount some of the more fascinating assignments: a 14-day, 5-Asian-country "mission," as they call them, for the UN Development Programme; a three-month, day-in and day-out gig working with a "strategic initiative" for a firm that saw itself becoming part of a "networked community;" several journeys to the Swedish countryside to educate executives on virtual working; a speaking tour across Japan accompanied by an entourage; and a nearly year-long stint setting up the first global software organization for the computer company that makes my favorite products. I get that wonderful swirl in my tummy whenever I think of these experiences, remembering conversations, meals, and the warmth of connection, i.e., I've made many close friends around the world.
But, independent consulting also brings difficulties: no predictable income, promises from clients that never prove out, and, inevitably, working with uninteresting, not evidently brilliant, and perhaps unkind and rude--or at least thoughtless--people.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Lisa Kimball, who's been traveling this same path for many years (sometimes even with the same clients), sent me a link to a post that speaks to the last part of the previous sentence: How to identify the three types of flaky clients. I read it, winced, and filed it, deciding not to post about it as it would only make people feel bad. You have to swallow a lot in this kind of business, not the least of which is the kind of flakiness described in the post. What are the three? "Wet," meaning they stick around but melt before leaving any accumulation of income; "tiny," the type that string you along with small, empty promises, meeting to meeting, but never produce a contract; and "icy," who are, in two words, downright mean. Which brings me to this post.
Client flakiness can be unnerving and disappointing and a real hit to the bottom line. But what really irks me are the people who act as if because they are "the client"--which, often, they are not, i.e., only a potential client--they are entitled to behave in ways they never would with people they actually work with. Sorta like the way anonymous posters behave online saying things they would never say to your face. Know the type?
Not so long ago, we attended a meeting with a group of very high-powered business people. The kind with multiple degrees, stellar resumes, heads of this and that unbelievably important thing. Extremely clever with words. Highly polished. In other words, very very very smart. We hadn't asked for the meeting. Rather, a colleague, a truly wonderful woman who fits all of the previous descriptions - brilliant, innovative, multiple degrees, extremely learned, etc. - introduced us to the CEO of her company, who has an urgent need for what we do. We had an electric meeting, said CEO becoming so enthusiastic about our work in collaboration - a big challenge for his company with its many locations and many partners - that he quickly arranged a meeting with his senior people.
Now, before I go into detail, let's review my considerable bad here: I did not properly vet the meeting. I should have had another call with the CEO to confirm its purpose, why he'd invited the people he had, how to engage them, and what report, if any, he wanted back. Instead, I accepted the meeting while standing in the blazing sun running through a dozen messages during a break at a very important day-long meeting. In short, *I* was not thoughtful, intelligent, or considerate.
On we go: Having attended roughly 10 million such meetings, I'm always prepared for the unwilling attendee. Most times these people remain quiet, more recently with arms extended below conference-table-level as if you can't see that they're actually reading their mail on their Blackberrys (in olden times--say, three years ago--they pretended to be taking notes while actually they were making lists).
The meeting in question was no exception. Several arms stretched below table level from the get-go but we soldiered on ignoring their ignoring us. Occasionally one of them would raise their eyes to correct something I had said (can't remember them correcting Jeff, actually, probably cuz he's smarter than moi). Every now and then it appeared that one of them was actually paying attention because the question related to what we'd said. If you've ever presented at a meeting that others didn't want to attend, you know how this feels.
Then came the corker, the remark that has festered, the moment that typified the experience: I was explaining a technicality (normally, we try to avoid technicalities but, as I said, an attendee had just gone out of his way to tell me I was using the wrong word) when a young man (at least I think he was young - you can't really tell anymore) stopped me: "You've got seven minutes to show me your thing," he said. (Get your minds out of the gutter, readers. He was referring to software we've developed.)
I feel compelled to reiterate that the theme of the meeting was collaboration. Means working together. Usually is suggestive of being polite, cooperative, that sort of thing.
I'll leave that in a paragraph of its own just so you can ponder it.
Well, when I was younger, I probably would have gotten flustered at this, tried to accommodate him, apologize, in other words, accept that this was in any way a legitimate thing to say to someone who's gone out of their way to share their best thinking with you, given up their valuable time (yes, the consultant's time has value too), and chosen to pollute the environment with their non-hybrid vehicle. But, coupled with the person who literally was doing his mail on the table, the one who'd corrected me, and the person who began the meeting by announcing that he was leaving, I said, in short, "No."
Every thing you'll ever be taught about business consulting is that you never contradict the client. You always find a way to make that person feel that what they're saying is appropriate, if not fascinating, revealing, extraordinary. But, this was just rude. No, I wouldn't show him my "thing" in seven minutes. We'd continue our discussion at our own pace. Had I been alone, I honestly believe I would have left.
Because that too is what this kind of career gives you. The freedom to walk out, fire a client, even a potential one.