The reluctant consultant
When we first started Emergence Collective, a lot of our co-founders felt uncomfortable with the word “consultant.” We tested out synonyms in conversations with friends, family, and even potential partners, and were almost universally met with the response, “So, you’re a consultant?” For simplicity’s sake we went back to using the term, but I wanted to unpack what it is about the reputation of consulting that has made me averse to using it.
A quick Google search helped to add some context. According to the top definition, a consultant is a “person who provides expert advice professionally.” Let’s break down the disconnects with that definition:
Expert - We do have specialized skills and tools, but our team avoids allowing the “expert” mentality to set up a facade of hierarchy that prevent us from truly listening to our clients.
Advice - We get paid just to give advice? What about guidance? Support with implementation? Training?
Professionally - Professional according to whom? Recent studies reveal professionalism is often defined by dominant white culture and discriminates against BIPoc. Several cases related to racist definitions of “professionalism” have recently been taken up within the legal system, like a federal court ruling that banning of dreadlocks at work is not racial discrimination.
Back to the Google search results. The first image search results page featured pictures of McKinsey consultants (almost exclusively older white men; as a women-owned firm, we notice that lack of representation).
So back to this question, why have I felt uncomfortable calling myself a consultant? Because the perceptions above don’t reflect my identity. In sociology, this is called “collusion,” a term I learned when I started exploring my own hesitation to claim the term “lesbian” - it just sounds kinda yucky, right? Wrong. That’s just what I’ve been socialized to think.
So there’s a Catch-22 here (or a positive feedback loop, if we want to use evaluator-speak). Consulting has a reputation that is misaligned with how I see myself...so I don’t want to call myself a consultant...so there are fewer people like me to expand or challenge the perception of consulting.
I (and other consultants reading this) can break this loop, reimagining our role and setting higher standards. We can be more relational and more focused on implementation and learning. We can push more for justice and equity. We can celebrate and give credit to the work of our partners.
Our pledge to our partners and our community has always been to push the boundaries. The perceptions of our work that don’t match our personal and organizational values are another boundary we have leverage to push. So my intention for the next time I shake hands with someone new is to reclaim my role: “Hi, my name is Lauren, and I’m a consultant.”