Consulting manager: dictator mode vs. democracy mode

By | April 25, 2015

Increasingly, I have been using this simple, but stark, analogy to talk about team management.  Increasingly, seems like there are two ways to get outcomes.

  • Democracy mode (what do you think?)
  • Dictator mode (do what I say)

As a manager, I want to get the most our of my people.  Get them focused on the goal, trust them to do the heavy lifting, and really own the results.  The problem occurs when that general openness, affability, and penchant for humor is misinterpreted as low standards or a slack work environment.  It is not.

It is not a difference in communication style.  Either you have earned and kept my trust, or I will have to really manage you. . which is painful for me and painful for you.  If I am prescribing all the actions, the end-product will be worse.

How can 1 person’s brain > the creative energy, passion, and hard work of an entire team?   It cannot.  That said, there are two ways to get results, both needed. . .

Democracy mode.  One thing I love about consulting is it is full of smart, intellectually curious, driven, and creative people.  Basically, I want my teams to understand the mission, understand the context, develop rapport with me and the client, then basically go out and do their thing.  Leaders make leaders.  You want to surround yourself with people who are smarter and work harder than you.  

This graphic is simple, but the idea is that the consulting team (red line) gains more certainty over time.  In the early days, it is a lot of data gathering, research and thinking. Over time, the team becomes more confident and their hypotheses pan out.  For large parts of the project, a manager’s job is to let their people do the work.  Let them go. 

Consultants mind Democracy mode

I love democracy mode.  You get to know your team; learn their work ethic, logical structuring, and how beautiful their mind is.  Basically, why box someone in who has the capacity and willingness to rise to the occasion.  Love the energy of a new project – willing to do the work, hungry for client face-time, eager to win. Democracy done right.

Ideally, each consultant writes up their own work stream plans and charter.  They give the manager the confidence that they know what they are doing and deserve trust. They check-in from time to time, but they think ahead of me AND the client.  Like boy scouts, they are prepared.  We are proud of consultants like this.  Hire as many as you can find.

The less I am involved and the better the results, it is a win-win for everyone. Consultants get exposure, experience, and a sense of accomplishment.  I get results with less of my time spent.  I can focus on coaching them on ways to get the extra 20% out of their performance and keep them humming.  Let the consultants do the work.

So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.  – Pete Drucker

Dictator mode.  This is where senior managers sadly, earn their paycheck.  This is when the project needs a strong hand.  It needs structure and scope.  The client does not need to see the confusion within the ranks of the consulting team.  The team does not need to “spin” because they are following wild leads or have not done the homework.  In parenting talk, this is the tough love part.  “You need to listen to me because I am your parent.  End of discussion.”

Projects have life-cycles. There are ups and downs and each of these management “settings” have their time and place. Generally, I operate in democracy mode because for three reasons:  1) I am an optimist and will err on the side of trust  2) I am lazy and would much prefer work-stream leads to worry about the details 3) I love coaching, and would rather spend my time on the person, not the content.

Does this always work.  Hell no.  As I tell people, I love 100% consulting about 60% of the time, and 100% hate consulting 40% of the time.  It definitely attracts people who like the buzz of work, natural dopamine from achieving stuff.

Consultantsmind Dictator Mode

1. Start of the project:  At the beginning of a project, there is a fair amount of unilateral decisions that need to be made.  What to put in the proposal?  Who to staff on the workstreams?  How to restrict / entertain different personalities, requests,and variances.

For big 4 or big 3 consulting firms, these norms are already hard-coded.  People know what professional expectations are.  People know what not to wear to the client site. People know what an acceptable status report looks like.  Less dictator mode needed.

2. When people get stuck.  Somewhere in the middle of the project, junior consultants start to spin, get lazy, or loose focus.   Late on a Wednesday afternoon, if you ask them, why are you doing that [activity], they explain that it is a part of the work plan, or someone told them to do it.  Wrong answer.  If you don’t know WHY and WHAT, your HOW will suck.

  • If your manager is worrying about it more than you are = problem
  • If you are not proud of the work you are doing = problem
  • If you are scrounging for work to do = problem

3. The final push.  For me, every project has an “oh sheesh” moment, when the team gets spooked by a vocal client, or a stumble in the data.  Negativity can be contagious. The most confident (almost arrogant) consultant can quickly become a naysayer and timid sheep.  This is where experienced managers – who have developed rapport with the client – need to step in and start ordering people around.   Got to keep people producing.

Here is the point:

  • Nothing is better than a well-functioning team that operates 90% of the time in democracy mode.  Consultants are SMART and problem solvers
  • Know yourself.  Dictator mode comes hard to a lot of people, including myself
  • Inspire.  Try to coax people into a more self-reliant, confident and accountable posture.  Ask them, “Are you proud of your work?”
  • Be comfortable not knowing details, “No that is okay, I don’t need to know. As long as you are confident in the data and analysis, that is fine.”
  • Be humble. “Look, you know the content better than I do, what do you think?”
  • Be stern if necessary.  “Look, you have not done the research and it shows.”
  • Roll people off the project if needed

What are your thoughts on this simple idea of democracy mode and dictator mode of consulting team management?

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7 thoughts on “Consulting manager: dictator mode vs. democracy mode

  1. Ergen

    Thanks for your articles) They are amazing. About dictator vs democracy mode: I think it is possible for one to survive without the other. The best way is to mix both of them and use each when appropriate.

    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Yes agreed. There are times for both. Also, different people require varying levels of motivation and supervision. Drucker said that “professional workers cannot be managed”, but sadly not all workers act professionally all the time.

      1. Ergen

        Consultantsmind, if I understood correctly from your info about your yourself, you work in the Big 4. I would like to read about the differences between cultures, environment, etc., between Big4 and Big3. In addition, it would be interesting to know about expenses vs wages of consultants in the US. I am a consultant aspirer who does not live in the US and who plans to study mba to transit to management consultant. So it is difficult to understand what kind of expenses one can have in the US. Thanks.

        1. consultantsmind Post author

          So the best place to understand differences in cultures is quora.com LOTS of first-hand responses on the different cultures. Also, books like VAULT and WETFEET are famous for their analyses.

          In terms of expenses to live in the US, it REALLY depends. Cost of living in Chapel Hill (UNC) will be a lot less than New York City (Stern).

          Once again, Quora.com is a great place to look.

      2. Lindsay

        I agree, I think the best managers and consultants have to know when to use each method. People react differently to different leadership tactics. It is the emotional intelligence that great leaders have that allow them to figure out when people have to be in either the dictator or democracy mode. Really good article and very true modes.

  2. Lew Sauder

    Great article. I love the line “If you don’t know WHY and WHAT, your HOW will suck.” I’ve found that the most successful managers know when to be dictator and when to practice democracy. They also know how to do them when the time is right.

    1. consultantsmind Post author

      Yes, and trust me, I am still learning every day too. Thanks for the comment, have a productive week.

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