Real Leadership is Forged in a crisis

Steven Wilkinson on Using a Crisis to Your Advantage

Many business consultants are faced with the dilemma of maintaining business-as-usual or making significant changes in response to a crisis. Which path is right? Steve Wilkinson discusses ways to take advantage of a crisis.



I wrote this post with my friend and colleague Siobhan Maughan, Principal of the Dublin-based strategic marketing consultancy IntegratedThinking. We met at the DCU Ryan Academy’s Mentoring for Scale, which targeted fast-growth entrepreneurs in the Dublin startup sector. We both act as mentors in these monthly breakfast speed-dating sessions, where each entrepreneur has 30 minutes to present their current challenges to three experts in succession and seek their advice. Each interaction is a high-concentration challenging engagement, with both the mentors and the mentee (business founders) needing to focus hard and respond fast to squeeze the most juice out of the morning.

Our team has spent hours over the past two months – sharing our experiences and perspectives about the COVID-19 crisis and its effects on consultants, business advisors, and coaches. A subject dear to our hearts and of particular relevance to so many at this moment.

Our discussion has focused on the consultant business model, charge rates, and how consultants are accused of not doing what they make money telling other people to do, often at the expense of their mental health and energy.

Between us, we bring decades of experience of consulting with scaling businesses or supporting those businesses to capitalize on their “business model”. In this article, we will share with professionals what we believe to be timely and hopefully encouraging advice about using this in time of crisis to invest in your business, nurture and care for your most precious assets, and refocus on the upswing to come.

There could not be a better time!


The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

A well-known aphorism states that “the cobbler’s children have the worst shoes.”, in other words…

Those in a particular trade tend to be most neglectful of themselves and their requirements regarding that trade.

I guess that means that butchers get the scraps, not the filet, fishmongers eat hake and not salmon, doctors never take health advice, bankers have the least money and …!

Consultants rarely take the advice they are paid well to dispense to clients.

Sound familiar?.

We can prove the truth of this.
In a recent comprehensive study of SME businesses looking at profit margins across all industry groups from chemicals to consulting, it was found that the difference in profitability between the top 10% and the average (including the 10%) was a staggering 7x or 700% if you prefer a big number.


Nowhere has the discrepancy between the top performers and the average been as extreme as in the consulting profession …

The top 10% of consultants generate a 34% operating profit margin, and the average earns a paltry 2.5% – a 15x or 1,500% difference.

If you further imagine that the distribution of the “rest” of the consulting is not equal amongst the other deciles – you will – without straining your math’s brain cells too much. Arrive at the inevitable conclusion that most or at least a substantial proportion of those whose job is to advise others on the betterment of their operations – from IT to strategy – are the worst at applying that advice to themselves.

Consultants rarely take the advice they give, and they complain of high levels of stress, exhaustion, and a feeling of being prisoners of their particular hamster wheel – how can we change?


Consultants are first and foremost helpers with a strong wish to be seen as an expert in their chosen field.
They want respect for their experience, problem-solving skills, and influence.

In reality, though, they often feel that they could and should be generating more revenue for their efforts and that the risk-reward balance is often not where they would like it. They dream (literally) of having their clients refer more business to them and of being able to focus on intellectually stimulating projects.

From the experience of our consultants, we found our business networks – especially those working as solopreneurs rather than partnerships or small consultancy practices. We found that they are running hard to stay in the same place and often find it hard to differentiate themselves in a crowded and competitive marketplace. Those who have not mastered the understanding of value to find opportunities that maximize the value for clients are often chasing and delivering on smaller projects and do not concentrate or devote their attention to the medium and long-term strategic development of their business.


Consultants, mentors, and coaches are some of the most original people around. They have to be. They receive payment for their ability to parse actual situations into models of the world they have thought of deeply. They recommend courses of action which result in positive outcomes and increased efficiency and efficacy for their business clients. They have a good command of theoretical and practical knowledge to communicate complex interdependencies in understandable terms and quickly filter out the important from the irrelevant when taking over a brief to get to the heart of the matter.

So why do we struggle to apply rigorous thinking to our business challenges?

We understand why doctors don’t operate on their appendices (although we have heard stories of ones that have). Still, it seems counter-intuitive that consultants would not utilize a small amount of their own medicine to help themselves cure their ills.

Those who see themselves as experts in their field may be unwilling to seek advice from people they perceive would not know any more than they do. Perhaps doctors are the last people to seek medical advice for their ailments? Perhaps, coaches, consultants, and mentors are not willing to seek advice from those they see as peers?

However, we all know that speaking with someone who is not influenced by our sometimes long-held biases or beliefs and who can give an impartial view of our situation based on their experience and expertise can be invaluable.

Sometimes we are oblivious to what is staring us in the face until someone else points it out.

When we get into firefighting mode, it can be challenging to find time and space for what is truly important vs. deemed urgent to our anecdotal experience of dealing with other consultants, mentors, and coaches. We came up with the following Business Cycle Adjusted Excuse Profile.

As you can see, there is never a right time to make room for crucial but not urgent work! One can tie excuses to time, money, energy, or need. It all depends on where in the business cycle we happen to find ourselves.

A priori, these “excuses” are just that. They may be valid – for instance, in today’s environment, who could fault anyone for holding onto their precious reserves? Who knows how long this Covid-19 lockdown is going to last? Will there even be a consulting market for anyone to return to when it is eventually over?

Are these genuine concerns, or are they excuses?

Excuses mean that serious, life-altering change is kept firmly under lock and key.


“Madness: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result” Albert Einstein

This cycle will come and go. The valley – be it U, V, W, L, or S-shaped – will be traversed and we will emerge, possibly exhausted, but still fit for business, on the other side and begin the long (or maybe even short and steep) march to recovery. The question we ask – and not rhetorically – is:

What will individual consultants and coaches do to ensure that the next cycle does not end the same way, as the previous ones?

Can we all grasp this opportunity to practice what we often preach?

Will we use this COVID-19 crisis to invest in ourselves so that we are fighting fit for the upturn and ready to grow our reputations as reliable, professionally competent business people who showed strategic foresight during the hiatus?

“Physician! Heal thyself”?

We would love to hear your thoughts on this to share our collective experiences and generate better insights to share with you all insights that help us as consultants, mentors, and coaches.

Good and Prosper originally posted this article.

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