An organizational development consultant can’t save you

Organizational development consultant

There’s often a belief in business circles that an organizational development consultant can save you. The logic kinda goes like this:

  • Our financial returns haven’t been as good as we’ve seen in previous years
  • We’ve been reading and seeing that “culture” is supposedly more important now
  • We kicked that to HR for a while but there was basically no ROI
  • Of course, we as senior leaders cannot be bothered to think about or address culture
  • There’s real work to be done! Gotta prove that growth!
  • Let’s hire an organizational development consultant

Those bullet points just described three major jobs I’ve had in my life. I guess I’m a pretty simplistic person, all told.

Here’s a sentence I once said in a job interview: culture is a lot like pornography. (I did not get this job.) What I mean is: you know it when you see it. It’s not a list of adjectives on a wall somewhere, even though that’s how most senior leaders construe it. Rather, hierarchy has created “monkey see, monkey do” for many. So what is culture, really? It’s the behaviors of the senior leadership team filtered and extrapolated at every other level — and with varying degrees of experience and context thrown in. That’s the simplest definition I can find for you.

And at that point, an organizational development consultant isn’t coming to save you.

Organizational development consultant: “Workplace Poker”

One of my big beliefs about work is that we want it to be logical (that’s why we put process around everything), but it’s not logical. It’s emotional, because it’s made up of people.

Well, now there’s this guy Dan Rust. He wrote a book called Workplace Poker. The subhead of the book is “Are you playing the game, or just getting played?” In one sentence, I think that’s how a lot of people think (and worry) about their careers. Rust just gave an interview to Wharton. There’s a zillion money quotes in this article, including:

If you remember Jane Goodall, in the 1970s she was studying chimpanzee behavior. If you read through her actual notebooks, she observed horrendous behavior in chimpanzees at certain points. I mean, chimpanzees killing each other. Murdering each other’s babies. Chimpanzee rape, all kinds of things. But she simply observed without judgment. I’m not saying that we are apes in the workplace. Maybe some of us are, but mostly we’re not apes in the workplace. But my point is she was very objective in observing. So, if you can step back and just say, “I’m going to set the judgment aside,” it’s amazing how that one step alone clears your eyes. You start to see things that you never saw before in terms of the dynamics because you’re no longer bringing your expectations into the picture.

You know, until now I had never equated white-collar cubicle work with chimp rape — but …

Organizational development consultant: Understand why culture cracks

A bad culture can take two forms. There’s a “people” form and a “process” form. Executives tend to worry about the process form. That means decision-making is too slow, information is silo’ed, and as a result, you’re losing market share to competitors and upstarts. This is an “all hands on deck” situation for most senior leaders. Of course, once all those hands get on that deck — I’m not entirely sure the plan that results will be any better.

Bad process cultures result from:

Bad people cultures result from:

In both contexts, a lot of it comes from how senior management models behavior and shows what is important. Very few management teams do a good job of that — which again should make you wonder: what the fuck is a Chief Strategy Officer?

Organizational development consultant: Understand the rationale

In general (it varies by org), here are the rationales I’ve seen and heard for bringing in an organizational development consultant:

  • “We have the money, so why not?”
  • “HR was supposed to own this, but they flopped”
  • “I don’t have the time to handle this stuff. I’m driving the ship!”

Those are the three big, conventional ones. Let me give you a fourth and a fifth that are true, but most execs would never say in public:

  • “I could give two shits about this stuff. I’m trying to make money.”
  • “There are some ideas I have about culture, but I’d rather someone else propose them so that when they tank, I have a scapegoat.”

I’m probably a bitter person, but I’d say Bullets 4-5 are way more truthful than Bullets 1-3.

Organizational development consultant: What’s the process when he/she arrives?

So if you hire an organizational development consultant, what happens?

Here’s what I’ve seen. (Bear in mind this is just one person at three organizations.) The organizational development consultant comes in, and they’re basically a spreadsheet jockey. They meet with execs a little bit, and then they predominantly do surveys. If they have one-on-one convos with anyone, it’s probably either:

  • The execs
  • Those that report to the execs directly

This all makes sense. That’s how they’re getting paid. But I wouldn’t say it’s a very good indication of the “culture” at a given place. And look, I understand the rationale for bringing in consultants on employee survey deals. You don’t want the employees to think the execs are running those things, because then the employees won’t be honest. But it’s very hard to be external to a place and come in on a six-week deal — as an organizational development consultant often does — and truly understand the “culture,” especially if you only speak with the execs.


Last place I worked brought in an organizational development consultant and his team. They literally only spoke and met with the executives, including flying out to retreats with them. One time, this issue got raised. “Why can’t anyone else meet with the organizational development consultant?” The response was garbled, but quick: “We need to resolve things as a leadership team first.” That came at Month No. 19 of them working with the consultants. You see the arc of the issue here?

Let me make it clear for you: if your relationship with an organizational development consultant is perks-driven on both sides, that’s a farce. You might as well rename the job “Ass-Kisser, External Division.”

Organizational development consultant: You just got smacked in the mouth

Here’s another good quote from that Dan Rust interview with Wharton. It’s shorter:

But there’s a tough dynamic that smacks some people in the face when the world of work isn’t what they were taught in their MBA program.

Yep. Don’t even get me going on this shit. I took business school classes 2012-2014. Most marketing professors are still teaching a 1974 funnel — which probably somewhat explains why so many company websites are horrible. You take a finance class and all the future target-chasers of the world are in here giddy with glee over “analyzing the numbers.” Not surprising: rich, white men rule the world and will for a bit longer.

Unless you take specific HR or org development classes, no one is talking about culture. It just doesn’t exist. Numbers! The 4Ps! (By the way, the 4Ps is also outdated.) Margin plays! Revenue growth!

And that’s why we need to hire an organizational development consultant. Because the way we educate our future business leaders? It has absolutely nothing to do — even remotely — with the work world they enter. That’s a topic for another post, however.

But for now, go hire an organizational development consultant — he can’t save you, but you can’t be bothered.

Ted Bauer

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