Business and Leadership Thought Capital

Disruption Starts with You

a magician pointing his hands

At the core of everyone’s personal and professional journey lies a set of beliefs that start forming the minute we are born. Events occur along the way that cause us to question assumptions about ourselves and the world, often forcing us to replace those assumptions with new ones that will help us better achieve our goals. Teachers, leaders, coaches or consultants inspire us to seek higher truths. (In fact, we first experience what it means to disrupt ourselves when we start the process of education, given that the act of learning is all about continuously replacing mindsets with ideas that might prove to be more useful for the future.) In the wake of negative experiences we wonder if “the system” is really working in our favor or whether it needs to be disrupted. The best of us rise to the challenge and change situations that are unsustainable.

Maybe because of my education, my parents, or my own ambitions, I understood early on that personal and professional fulfillment was predicated on how much I was willing to reevaluate myself, my beliefs, and my view of the world at regular intervals. If I hadn’t put myself through three or four major life-changing events and a series of smaller disruptions, my life would have been far less rich and wonderful. I’m only fifty-eight and hope this continual process of learning and growing will never end.

The first active disruption was entirely my decision. I went back to school to get an MBA at the age of twenty-eight after being a musician in Germany. Despite leaving the country I had called home for eight years, ending a relationship that I had been in for most of that time, and having to learn a whole new set of skills, it was, relatively speaking, an easy undertaking. I had a clear vision of why I was doing this and what I wanted to become.

After a one-and-a-half-year stint at Deutsche Bank, I disrupted that path and became a consultant when the bank bought the leading European strategy consulting firm at the time, Roland Berger. After years of professional uncertainty, I had found the perfect fit. I was working at the highest levels of business solving strategic and operational issues important to CEOs and their C-suite executives. My teams and I were there to help leaders make the right decisions in the face of uncertainty and complexity. I was on a roll, and it felt like heaven.

I capped my two-decade career with a stint as the CEO and President of the trade association for the consulting industry, the Association of Management Consulting Firms (AMCF). But the industry was changing—high-end strategy consulting wasn’t growing as a segment, and large, one-stop-shop monoliths like IBM, Accenture, and the Big Four accounting firms were taking over. I had also grown and matured as an individual. The psychological and emotional payoff was wearing thin, and I felt I was stagnating as a professional and leader.

I decided a few years ago there had to be a better way to make a positive impact on leaders and their companies and proceeded to disrupt and transform myself yet again.

This time it was anything but easy. Even though I believed I had thought through this decision in great detail, I didn’t realize the extent to which I was going to have to confront a lot of behaviors and attitudes that had not only slowed me down over the preceding years but also were negatively influencing my personal relationships. Particularly painful was dealing with my almost obsessive need to be right under all circumstances—an occupational hazard for most consultants—and to deflect responsibility for a lot of my actions. It took me years to fully comprehend and change these ways of being.

I stopped accepting assignments that required me to do certain tasks that had at one time defined me as a “high-end” consultant but which could now be done more easily and cheaply by younger consultants or off-shore resources. This included intensive research-based work and producing reams of documents and presentations. I knew, however, that I wanted to continue doing the parts I enjoyed most—formulating and maintaining close and trusted client relationships, developing solutions that were creative and strategic and working on a wide variety of topics. I also came to realize that I had twenty-five years of valuable experience as a leader and CEO which I could draw on to help business leaders.

That process led me to become more of a business coach than a consultant. Coaches are supposed to get into the trenches with their clients and actively help them achieve results. Good coaches don’t need to deliver reams of paper to validate their recommendations because they are trained to draw the answers out of their clients and not simply tell them what to do. Coaches can go places psychologically and emotionally where consultants are not always allowed (or even well-equipped) to go. And indeed, this reinvention has made my work much more meaningful and relevant. I no longer feel bogged down by the need to be the smartest guy in the room. I have also learned to challenge clients far more effectively than before. This has made it much easier to get them to change their frames of reference, so they recognize—and eventually implement—opportunities they may never have considered or believed possible.

I want my clients to have the same liberating, productive, and transformative experiences I’ve had and will hopefully continue to have during my life and career. Even more importantly, I want them to understand they are the only ones responsible for making.

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