Another person just walked by my office. The fourth one this morning.
Where were they going?
I stepped out into the hallway in time to see them disappear into Kathy’s office, just as the previous person was coming out of her office.
What was going on?
A few weeks earlier I had moved to Houston to take over a small consulting practice that was part of a large accounting firm.
Part of my job was to reshape the practice to be able to take on larger IT projects. Which meant that some of the current staff would have to go.
I thought that Kathy would be one of the first to go. She didn’t seem to fit in.
This team of consultants solved business problems through the use of information technology. They designed and built computer systems for their clients.
Kathy was a former school teacher and accountant. She was older than most of the staff and given the absence of a technical background, she did not fit the profile of a business consultant.
I had been told that her job was to write procedures to support the systems the other consultants designed.
To top it off, her time was rarely billed to the clients and she did most of her work in our offices. Being non-billable is a death toll in the consulting business.
I had to figure out why Kathy was so popular.
I walked down the hall and took my place in the line that had now formed outside of her office.
When I finally got in to see her, I discovered that she did not just write procedures. She did the majority of the writing for the consultants.
- She wrote proposal letters
- She wrote arrangement letters
- She crafted presentations that the other consultants delivered to their clients
- She documented the work of the consulting staff
Kathy was articulate and very intelligent. Kathy was the go-to person!
Strong communication skills are frequently lacking in IT organizations, Kathy was critical to the organization, she was a keeper. My initial judgement fell away as I realized how essential this incredible woman was to our organization.
I started insisting that all of Kathy’s time be charged to our clients.
Kathy started going with other consultants when they visited their clients.
Gradually, she began to give the presentations she wrote instead of handing them off.
We signed her up for classes to strengthen her technical skills and she signed herself up for leadership and public speaking courses to improve her self confidence and presentation skills.
Kathy began to take on more responsibility with client engagements. As it turned out, our clients appreciated her intelligence, creativity and straight forward approach, in addition to her strong communication skills.
Everything was moving along nicely until the announcement that we were merging with another large professional services firm.
As with most mergers, one of the first orders of business was to consolidate our staff. Consolidation usually meant reducing excess staff and eliminating those who did not fit the vision for the practice. As we were the smaller of the two firms, the partners in the other firm had the upper hand and would be making many of the decisions. Protecting Kathy in that environment would be difficult. To make matters worse, she broke her leg a week before the merger and was forced to spend several weeks in a wheelchair.
As expected, our new partners took one look at Kathy and decided she had to go. Fortunately, we had placed her on a large project and were able to convince our new partners that our client would not tolerate us cutting her loose. That bought us the time we needed to complete her transition into a business consultant. We really didn’t want to lose her! They had to see that.
The first few months as a merged firm were a little rocky, but things began to come together nicely. As we approached Christmas, the managing partner held a holiday party that would bring our entire combined consulting staff together. The party would begin with key people from our larger projects presenting the details of their project to the entire group.
We strategically chose Kathy to make the presentation for the project she was working on. She had a senior role on the project, so was able to present the key elements and articulate the business benefits we were delivering.
As Kathy walked proudly to the podium, I could see the smirks on our new partners’ faces. They rolled their eyes and whispered to each other. I believe they thought this was going to give them what they needed to finish the job they had started a few months earlier and cut Kathy out of the organization. They were in for a shock.
Kathy proceeded to make one of the most powerful presentations I had ever seen. She commanded attention, she was engaging, the entire room was enthralled and the partners who wanted to fire her stood in stunned silence.
When her presentation was complete, the whole room erupted. I had never seen anything like it.
Later that evening, the partners from the acquiring firm approached me and apologized for doubting my word. I told them to tell Kathy.
When I found Kathy, I greeted her with a big smile and a high five.
Kathy went on to have a long and prosperous career with that firm. She was ultimately promoted to a senior manager position. I can’t think of anyone who had worked harder to earn the respect that was so deserved.
Value comes in many forms. It takes many shapes. It may even have gray hair. When you find those people who change the way your business runs, don’t judge them; get to know them. Encourage them. Understand them. If they deserve it, promote them! Regardless of how they appear on the outside.