Cultural Empathy

A client of mine gave me a very nice compliment today in a meeting – he said something like “You very naturally used the word colleagues instead of employees, and that is something very unique to our culture. How do you adapt like this?” . My honest answer was “After a long time spent in consulting, it is second nature for me to adapt to the client’s culture. I don’t do it consciously”. He suggested that I should blog on it, and I agreed – I think it might help someone if I shared my line of thinking here.

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A good consultant is a change agent. I say that a bit “tongue in cheek” because for the longest time I have teased my colleagues who are experts in change management that “change agent is someone who can write an SOW selling change management” 🙂 . The primary value a consultant brings to a client is to help bring a point of view on how best to transform from where they are to where they need (not just want)  to go .

Change is darn hard. I don’t like change very much either. I like Carnatic music , and I like Indian food. It took a lot of effort for me to try Italian food and Western music.  I am glad I did because it exposed me to a lot of pleasurable experiences that I would otherwise miss on. But even today – if I have a choice, I revert to Carnatic music and Indian food 🙂

Knowing that I find change is hard for me – how do I influence change for someone else ? Let me go back to how I started liking Western music . It happened initially because a young aunt of mine that I was very fond of (I still am) started playing western music when I would vacation at her house. She and I had a lot of common interests and I got a feeling that if she likes it, maybe I should try it too. And I did. But the turning point for me was a lecture I attended in 2000 in Colorado where the speaker did a compare and contrast between eastern and western classical music. That helped bridge the gap for me significantly and I started appreciating western music a lot more.

That is roughly what I – often not even consciously – do when I am consulting. Every client has a unique culture. I try to understand and adapt that culture so that I have a good chance of walking in their shoes and seeing problems as they see them. It also helps build trust to a large degree. Once I have an appreciation of the problems and have built the trust – the next step is to step back and find a bridge from their current world to where they ought to be. When you build that bridge – or roadmap as we consultants say – then the future becomes less of an unknown. And when it less of an unknown, the resistance to change is lower and we can all move forward.

There is a small risk involved here that consultants should watch out for – and I have paid a price in my early career for not being aware of it. A consultant is only useful if they appreciate the culture of the client, but can remain objective about the end results one should drive to. It is quite easy – especially over long term relationships – to go native and think exactly the same as your client. The way I deal with it is to make sure that I always have a diverse team around me to keep me honest. Another strategy is to change roles from time to time so that you are forced to shift focus and learn something new .

One last point to finish my thoughts on this – often time is not your friend when it comes to getting to appreciate your client’s culture etc. This is one area where I think social media has helped me build empathy in quick time. I share my thoughts on a wide range of topics over linkedin, twitter and this blog. When I walk into a meeting with someone I have never met before in person – it is quite normal to expect that they have googled me and would have found some POV that I hold. Whether they agree with it or not – it provides an instant start to the relationship and I can build on from there.




Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

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