Consultant or Sycophant? How to Tell If You’re Getting the Best Advice

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(DGIwire) — Many leaders and managers surround themselves with yes-men, butt-kissers, devotees and others who are excellent at praising powerful people. Having been on the receiving end of accolades, I can certainly validate that hearing others declare your ideas brilliant can feel absolutely wonderful. I’m the first to say I much prefer praise to criticism. It’s nice to bask in the glory when others are recognizing your greatness, talent and smarts…but it’s only a fool who wouldn’t also realize that sometimes such adoring cheers are dangerous, could be part of someone else’s personal agenda and, consequently, may actually prevent your ultimate success in real time.

Separating truth and fiction while recognizing sincere versus self-serving advice from consultants are crucial management skills. So how do you learn to recognize the sycophant consultants, those who flatter to keep fees coming in their direction, from those who actually have you and your company’s best interests at heart?

In theory, a consultant is supposed to always have the client’s best interests at heart.   Yet money is involved, so this fact alone can skew intentions and actions. A consultant has bills to pay and every client is actually another “boss.” It’s not easy to tell your boss that they are wrong—regardless of your role in the food chain. But this is what good consultants must sometimes do, even when there is a high probability of losing the client and fee if the advice does not seem like what a “team player” might propose.

Businesspeople at a MeetingMost executives that I have had the opportunity to counsel already have their own answers in their hearts and guts. If not, they wouldn’t have risen to their coveted leadership status and be running the show at their respective companies or departments. Others seek and openly want guidance. This said, I believe overall that what most executives want, and maybe need, is to be able to converse with someone they can trust: a sounding board, counselor and advisor who can be relied on to be thoughtful and probing. A consultant who positions herself as a devil’s advocate, who is removed from whatever the situation is that requires advice and counsel while providing perspective from a 30,000-foot level.

A good consultant helps clients think reasonably and works hard to eliminate emotion from their advice. This ability comes from taking the time to understand the client company, its positioning, needs, challenges and advantages—as well as how its business fits into the overall competitive landscape. Good consultants should be able to emotionally distance themselves from the immediate, close-up problems and/or concerns while also offering alternative perspectives and possibilities. A good consultant recognizes that the final responsibility for the ultimate decision is the executive’s. Yet by observation and distance, a good consultant can help identify the nature of large problems, various scenarios and counsel through their observations, analysis and proposed solutions.

It is not the job of a good consultant to always agree. I certainly know I’ve annoyed clients due to my lack of agreement at times—and that’s probably putting it mildly. Still, it remains the job of a good consultant to point out assumptions, objectively see facts and provide all-sides-of-the-equation scenarios whenever possible. This certainly might involve saying what needs to be said and raising issues that need to be assessed—even if and when it becomes uncomfortable, unpopular, seemingly unsupportive or confrontational to the general discussion.

Although it’s nice to be “yes-ed”—the best advice that any of us can ever receive forces us to think and question our decisions, hopefully before they are cemented. A good public relations consultant will often advise counter to the advice of those closest or most impacted by any given situation. A good PR consultant may also recommend seeking the advice of others. A good PR advisor does not have all the “answers” but they should have lots of questions. When strong advice is offered, it is not because the PR expert is trying to be difficult. Instead, it is often that they are best able to emotionally distance themselves, bring years of experience gained from similar situations from their past work history, offer a high degree of practical common sense, understand strategic visibility in the media and possess an understanding of human nature that enables them to serve as valued and trusted “consiglieres.”

Dian Griesel HeadshotDian Griesel, Ph.D., is president of Dian Griesel International (DGI). Dian and her trusted team of visibility strategists are retained as the marketing and public relations execution team for a variety of companies, brands and select individuals. Dian’s most recent book is ENGAGE: Smart Ideas to Get More Media Coverage, Build Your Influence & Grow Your Business. For more information about DGI’s consulting and professional services, contact Dian Griesel at 212.825.3210.