On consultants and owning the change

I’m a massive supporter and satisfied beneficiary of effective support for social entrepreneurs and social enterprises provided by organisations such as SEL and SSE but I’m also amused by the apparent preponderance of social enterprises providing consultancy in how to do social enterprise.

In fact, if we temporarily ignore The Co-Operative Group, The John Lewis Partnership and assorted ethical banks, it would be interesting to know the comparative percentage of social enterprise income generated by social enterprises that tell other social enterprises how to do stuff, as opposed to social enterprises actually doing stuff. Interesting but maybe a bit frightening.

Frightening because while helping people to start and develop businesses (social enterprises or otherwise) is a potentially vital service (with fairly low barriers to entry), it’s also a service that it’s very difficult to deliver usefully.

This was well illustrated by last night’s episode of Mary Queen of Shops. Mary Portas is my favourite TV business guru by some distance – not least because she shuns Gordon Ramsey’s swearing and shouting for a glorious array of illustrative facial expressions.

Yesterday she was trying to help Angela, a lady who had been running a south London bakery for 36 years (a core message that she emphasised repetitively and with gusto) but needed to sell more bread and cakes. The essential problem, which Mary put across far more tactfully that I’m about to, is that Angela was providing a service for the era before supermarkets worked out how to sell bread.

Mary wanted Angela to start providing a specialist, more upmarket range of bread (especially) and cakes to give customers a reason to come to Angela’s shop rather than buying from the supermarket. Angela wanted to carry on selling the same stuff she’d always sold while miraculously increasing sales through giving the shop a lick of paint.

By the end of the show Angela had ordered the cameras out of her shop and, unlike in the more formulaic reality business shows, there was no redemptive success other than a tense final meeting where Angela and Mary agreed to part as friends on Angela’s condition that Mary left her alone and stopped trying to tell her how to run her business.

We never got to find out whether Mary had the right ideas about how to run an independent bakery in Wimbledon but the point is that it doesn’t matter. If you’re providing business consultancy to someone or some people who have a significant personal investment in their business then being right is, almost, the least of your challenges.

The job of consultants in this kind of situation is not to tell people what to do – someone who wants to be told what to do is unlikely to have chosen to be a social entrepreneur or small business person, and if they have the best advice may be for them to stop and get a job – but to help the client work out for themselves what needs to be done and how they can do it.

There does seem to have been an increase in the availability of business ‘coaches’ from various points on the motivational speaking spectrum but I’ve got a feeling that the ranks of business advisors in general could also benefit from an influx of people with a background in social work to complement the people with a background and certificates in business.

Mary Queen of Shops didn’t do anything wrong in the case of Angela and her bakery. The most sensible approach – other than the tactful persistence that Mary attempted – would have been to leave Angela alone for while until she decided (or otherwise) that things were going so badly that change was essential. That’s not really possible when you’re working to a tight deadline to film a TV show.

The underlying problem was that any questions about the contemporary market for bread in Wimbledon were completely squashed by the weight of 36 years of a lady’s life during which her identity, her sense of self and sense of a life fulfilled, were inextricably linked with her shop. If a business is about the people who run it and the business is going wrong, then pointing out what’s going wrong involves – to some extent – saying things that the people on receiving end will construe as ‘you’re shit’.

The social enterprise sector positively encourages the growth of businesses that are about the people who run them and their personal stories and motivations. That’s generally a good thing but it makes the job of consultants and business advisers even more difficult than it would usually be.

The consultants who succeed most often will be the ones who are best able to enable people to own positive changes to their business without telling them what to do. But more importantly, allied to that, the social entrepreneurs who succeed most often will be the ones who can put their stories and experiences at the heart of what they do without being crushed by the personal impact of accepting robust advice that says that those stories and experiences aren’t enough, in themselves, to make a successful business than delivers positive social impact for others.


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4 responses to “On consultants and owning the change

  1. forlorn

    This consultancy stuff sounds like the grotesque legacy of Thatcher’s 1980s enterprise Britain. If you can afford the services of a private-sector ‘business guru’ then your business must already be doing well…As for state-funded business consultants, those folks are probably going to be culled when Dave & Nick hack away at Quango Britain. Maybe these consultants should go to a consultant to find out what to do when they end up on the dole….


  2. Couldn’t agree more with much of what you say here, David. Certainly, our approach tries to be the opposite of short-term directiive consultancy, and much more about learning behaviours, increasing knowledge and skills, + deriving and owning your own solution.

    Presumably after 36 years, it will take a significant journey to change Angela’s mindset + behaviours, which a short, sharp directive shock will never do successfully. And she’s got to understand why + how (and which) changes to make.

    That’s equally why a short, 2 hour one-off meeting with an advisor or or at a lecture is less likely to create real change than a series of meetings, or a programme elapsing over a duration.

    Fascinating stuff: I’m off to iPlayer when I get home to check it out!


  3. beanbagsandbullsh1t

    Thanks Nick. It’s a cracking bit of TV.

    I’m dubious about whether sharp, directive shock ever works well as advice – I can imagine situations where it might work if consultants actually comes in and make the changes themselves.

    @ forlon – I don’t think Business Link will be going anywhere under the new regime. All the parties support generic business advice, as far as I know.


  4. I’m not sure about the figures regarding the amount of SE consultants floating about but I know in my own case I have often been asked for advice about starting a social enterprise or running one and in most cases I offer it free. It goes something like this. ” Treat it as a business, make sure your product or service is the highest quality you can make it, promote it in the most cost effective manner you can, do your figures and make sure the concept works, make sure your practises are above board and treat people fairly”

    I do get slightly bemused by those wishing to start social enterprises (no doubt with the best intentions in the world) who put no thought into how they are going to actually sustain it! I think in the back of their minds they think that because their intentions are good someone at some point will pop up and fund them.

    In my experience I have been much better served by the thought train that says “how am I going to earn some money here” as opposed to “where is my next funding stream coming from.”

    Start up funding for social enterprise makes sense to me and maybe even a top up at the appropriate moment but the well will dry up eventually and I always thought there was an “enterprise” in “social enterprise”.

    As for “owning the change” I think that’s a given. Consult widely then make a decision and run with it!

    I have to admit here that at the beginning of my own particular foray into social enterprise I did think some kind soul would fund my good intentions but I have learned over the years that in life as in business, self reliance is the starting point and seeking advice and asking for help are necessary.

    Listening to and acting on advice given is a necessity at times and we all have to be man (or woman) enough to face up to that.

    Generosity of time and spirit it seems to me are as lacking in the world of charity2charity and social enterprise2social enterprise as they are in the world of business2business. We all just get too caught up in the “high value” of our particular org as compared to that of others and forget common decency and helping your “fellow org”.

    Meanwhile our “beneficiaries” look and think “Ok it’s still dog eat dog out there!”

    I could offer consultancy services but why when the advice to most I have to offer has been gained by what I’ve learned in my own particular experience and can be delivered through a response to a blog written by a guy I admire and with the most atrocious grammar!! (on my part)


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