Which side of the table do you want to be on? If you are in any sort of client-facing, relationship-driven, or advisory role, you can orient yourself one of two ways: “across the table” or on the “same side of the table.”
The “across the table” strategy is the purview of the expert, and is adeptly practiced by many (but definitely not all) management consulting firms, bankers, expert witnesses and gurus. Its hallmarks are complex financial models and the use of terminology and frameworks and abbreviations that demonstrate domain expertise and separation. The examples the expert cites are hallmark successes to illustrate the broader theory, and the desired result is to affirm her client’s fears while leaving him with a vague, warm sense that the expert knows what she’s talking about and that he’s in good hands. The strategy is working when meetings give the sense that the expert cannot be easily replaced, and as a result she is hired for the next job. This strategy works best with clients with limited time and experience, in politicized environments, and where managing risk and covering your bases is important.
The “same side of the table” strategy dispenses with most of the bells and whistles of the expert. The adviser establishes credibility by laying her cards on the table, explaining her motives and her desired outcomes. In the pitch, failures are cited as often as successes, and the advisor wants, literally and figuratively, to find herself on the same side of the table as the person being advised. Terminology is simple, there are lots of appeals to common sense and shared experience, and the advisor’s aim is to share the tools she uses with the client, to make herself dispensable. This too, importantly, can often result in the adviser being hired again.
The first strategy is the dominant one, and it can be hugely effective because we’ve been trained over the years (starting in kindergarten and moving on from there) that someone out there knows more than we do and that we can buy expertise from others, because their expertise outweighs the fact that they understand our situation far less well than we do. And, from the expert’s seat, it’s accepted that a little slight of hand and obfuscation is a small price to pay for the overall betterment of the client’s situation.
Switching to the “same side of the table” takes years of unlearning the burned-in, rewarded traits of low-level smokescreen, dressed-up financial models and frameworks, and the intellectual laziness that complexity can paper over. But pulling this off is, among other things, the difference between your average conference presentation and a TED talk (transcendence comes when a marine biologist explains the fastest appendage in the world in a way that millions can understand it).
Crossing this chasm is worth the leap, but make no mistake that it is a leap, and in the transition you’ll often stumble and find yourself get caught in the middle. That’s OK, it’s a sign of progress.