Keep the peace

“When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. 
When you are you, you see things as they are, 
and you become one with your surroundings.”

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

By now you’re a trustworthy person who makes problems go away. What more could a client want?

In my role as a computer software consultant, I’m often paid more than twice the salary my client’s programmers make, and I also get to work on the exciting, new projects, while they get to maintain the old stuff. (This is like your spouse hiring someone else to design and plant a beautiful new garden, while you get to cut the grass.) So when I’m working at a client site, an important role for me is to not create any more problems for my sponsor than they’ve already created by the sheer act of hiring me. (I refer to the individual(s) who hired me as my “sponsor,” and I’ll use that term here.)

This means the following:

  • I dress well. I wear a suit until my sponsor tells me not to. Even then, I usually continue to dress very well. My very real excuse is that I often have to meet with other clients, and while I may be exceeding the dress code at this location, it’s often necessary when meeting other clients. (I don’t recall anyone ever being fired for dressing well, but I know of several cases where people not meeting a minimum dress code has caused problems for them.)
  • I’m not rude to anyone, and in fact, I’m very polite to people who obviously aren’t happy that I’ve been hired.
  • I understand my roles on the project, and the roles of other people. If I’m not sure, I ask.
  • I understand where my sponsor and project fall within the company’s organization chart. If I’m working for the Service Department, I understand that, and when someone from the Sales or Manufacturing Department asks me for something, I’m polite, but say that I’ll have to check with my sponsor (the Service Department) and get back with them.
  • I offer a variety of “peacekeeping” solutions to my sponsor, such as offering training classes and seminars for the other people on staff.
  • I don’t go over my sponsor’s head. For instance, I don’t “cc” people on emails unless my sponsor has told me to. I avoid anything but polite conversation with my sponsor’s supervisors. I want the higher-ups to know my name and what I’m doing, but the person who hires me should always get all the credit.
  • I keep my workspace clean. If everyone else has a clean workspace, but mine is very dirty, that’s a poor reflection on me and my sponsor. At the very least, consider yourself a guest in someone else’s house, and act appropriately.

So the first thing you do at a client site is simple: Don’t create problems for your sponsor.

Avoid office politics and traps

You also need to avoid office politics and traps. These come in many forms, including:

  • A manager of another department may be a “political animal,” and they may try to get you involved in their turf wars. I politely decline to help them in their climb up the corporate ladder, and report all incidents to my sponsor.
  • Discussions of religion, politics, and even sports may lead to a quick end to your consulting relationship. Avoid them.
  • Office gossip. You have no role in office gossip or politics, you’re just a visitor. Keep your ears open if you like, but your mouth shut.
  • People will come to you with resumes. Sometimes it will be their resume, and they’ll want to work for you. Politely say that can’t happen, it’s in your contract that you can’t hire them. Other times it will be the resume of “a friend.” In all cases, handle these situations with care.
  • There will be times when you’re having a bad day, maybe a very bad day. If you’re working at a client site, I encourage you to get away from there. Don’t dump your problems on your client.

New opportunities

I alluded to this briefly, but while you should never create a problem for your sponsor, you should also keep your eyes and ears open to new opportunities.

In a perfect world you’ll solve a problem for Department A, and your sponsor will then refer you for a problem in Department B. While it often works that way, I’ve also won new business by being aware of new business opportunities at a client location by simply keeping my eyes and ears open, and by making friends.

The funniest (and most profitable) example of this I can recall is when I kept running into a Senior VP in the hallway of a Fortune 500 company. My work had nothing to do with his department, but by the sheer act of constantly running into him in the hallway, we finally had a conversation one day. He stopped me in the hallway and asked who I was, and what I was working on. I introduced myself, and told him what I was working on. He said something like, “You’re always smiling and you seem like you’re in a hurry, so I had to ask who you are.” I told him I’d try to slow down a little, and he said, “That’s all right, I like to see it.” And then he said with a wink and in a hushed tone, “Keep smiling, people will wonder what you’re up to.” A few years later I received more than a million dollars in business from this gentleman.

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