Becoming a 'Flawless' Consultant

Peter Block's classic approach continues to resonate

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Jun 19, 2012
HR consultants know that while consulting can be very rewarding, nobody ever said it was easy. Much of the challenge is inherent in the nature of the work, which involves, above all else, achieving results through others in situations where the consultant might have influence—but rarely control.

The consultative relationship is germane to the work of HR consultants. Interestingly, though, a wide range of other professions and professionals are engaged in consultative work. In fact, Peter Block’s work would suggest that each and every one of us at some point in our business interactions is engaged in consultation.

Block is the author of Flawless Consulting (Pfeiffer, 2011), now in its third edition. In it, he describes consultants as literally anyone who is attempting to influence without direct control or authority. As he said: “When you don’t have direct control over people and yet want them to listen to you and heed your advice, you are face to face with the consultant’s dilemma.”

Bill Brewer is director of client relations for Designed Learning, a company that teaches consultancy skills based on Block’s Flawless Consulting model. Brewer has worked with Block for more than 20 years and speaks with hundreds of HR leaders each year, counseling them on the approach and how to apply it effectively to their work.

The term “flawless,” stresses Brewer, doesn’t mean perfect. “What we mean is being authentic. One of the key things I think internal and external consultants learn from the book and from workshops is ‘I don’t want to jump to conclusions.’ This is not the place for shotgun diagnosis.”

In many consultative situations, said Brewer, the actual problem is never clearly defined, articulated or agreed upon. “Part of flawless consulting is getting agreement with the client for us to do what we call discovery or analysis—to get our own independent picture of what’s going on before making a recommendation. If I just go with what the client says, I may or may not be right.”

Contracting and Consulting

And, of course, as HR consultants probably well realize, many times what the client thinks is the problem is not the real problem after all.

Jeff Evans is director of organizational effectiveness at Cleveland Clinic in the Cleveland/Akron area and has been working with the flawless consulting approach since 1991. It is a process, said Evans, which “really stands the test of time.”

For Evans, one of the most powerful phases of the model is contracting, which involves “getting agreement ahead of time as to how we are going to work together, not just what we were going to get done.”

Contracting, said Brewer, is the first phase in the process and involves “a social agreement on how we’re going to work together.” Phases include:

  • Discovery and inquiry.
  • Feedback and the decision to act.
  • Engagement and implementation.

The philosophy behind flawless consulting is helping those who do not have direct control over others learn how to influence them effectively. Those without control are called consultants, whether they are inside or outside the organization and whether or not they are serving in a purely “consultative” role. In other words, anybody could be a consultant if they have occasion to attempt to influence the behaviors, attitudes or actions of others.

HR consultants certainly fall into that role whether inside or outside an organization; the tenets of Block’s model apply very directly to their work. The process provides a step-by-step methodology for exerting influence and achieving desired results that meet client and consultant needs.

John Kelly works in organizational development at Schneider Electric in Chicago and teaches the flawless consulting approach. It’s an approach that he has been using for 12 years, and he’s passionate about its power.

“It just works,” said Kelly. “Each year that goes by I get a deeper understanding of it, and in each interaction I learn something I could have done better or differently. It’s been very powerful—probably one of the biggest influencers of my ability as a consultant.”

What makes it work so well? Kelly pointed to the “one-two punch of questioning and listening or problem-solving.” While he’s improved and learned over the years, he said that, at the start, “in less than 30 days it totally shifted how I viewed myself.” The process, he said, helps consultants “really figure out what the business need is.” Then you address that need rather than what the client might have asked for.

Adopting the Method

Kelly said the flawless consulting process works not only as a proactive approach but also as a review to identify ways in which certain consulting engagements might have broken down. “It gives me a roadmap to help me stay sure-footed,” he said. “If things start going wrong, I could step back and see where I’m going off track,” he added.

Clients don’t necessarily know—and really don’t need to know—that you, as a consultant, are using the model, noted Evans. It’s simply a methodology to provide the consultant with steps for moving through important stages of the consultative process.

“If you’re really going to utilize the model effectively, you really need to spend some time understanding the logic behind it and some of the nuances that go along with it,” said Evans.

How? Read the book, said Kelly. Beyond that there are seminars like the ones he teaches. And, he stressed, consultants can learn from others who are using the approach. “Get together with others who are doing the same thing and share experiences.”

Evans agreed. “For myself, as I practice my craft, it really takes me back to the basics. Every once in a while it helps me to go back and review—go back to the basics.”

The basics, noted Brewer, involve working more collaboratively with others so that your expertise gets used. For HR consultants, truly, that’s what their roles are all about.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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