Fry from Futurama with a “Wait, what” caption
So, what’s ‘consultant-led’ and how does it relate to our cloud consulting?
At first I thought that maybe the management layer had different titles. Put another way, the management role didn’t have the word “manager’ in the associated title. It turns out that when I was told there are “no managers at Vivanti” that it was directly true: There is a different structure entirely. This is very different compared to most firms offering cloud computing consulting services and most workplaces in general.
Break down: Who are managers?
It is important to understand who managers are to their direct reports. Specifically: What do managers do for their direct reports, ideally? When we have managers who we remember fondly, they’ve typically done a few core things:
When a manager helps their direct report grow in the company, they use their awareness of the direct report’s strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations to help them navigate the company’s organization to achieve those aspirations. For example, if a manager knows they have a direct report who wants to be promoted to the next level, they help them learn the skills and business acumen they need to achieve that promotion. If the manager knows that their direct report is trying to start an initiative at the company, they use their knowledge of the organization to give feedback on the initiative’s strengths and weaknesses and advice regarding how to help build it into a success.
General professional growth overlaps with the above, but is distinct in the sense that your overall growth should be aided by your time at a company and not restricted to it. Managers should be able to help you even if they know your goals will eventually take you to another company. Helping people in their professional growth benefits us all as an industry.
What I’m referring to as ‘delivery’ can also be thought of as ‘implementation details’. How this manifests will depend on the specifics of the organizational structure as well as how far an individual is in their career, but essentially: Managers may be tasked with assigning tasks and / or projects, and following up on progress, and may even ultimately have some or all responsibility for task / project completion.
Break down: What is Vivanti?
Before I continue there’s one more thing to know that will help inform how the manager function is split: What is Vivanti? Vivanti is a consultant-led consultancy. First off, and simply, we work with clients. As a consultancy, we need people who can manage client relationships, scope work, and — in some cases — also dive-in and do some of the implementation themselves or with others.
The other part, being consultant-led, is fundamental to Vivanti. The general concept is that businesses need to be ethical and need to create processes to counteract internal bias. Put another way, when you work for a company and for a client, does your primary responsibility lie with your employing company or your contracted client?
When the desired outcomes of the employing company and contracted client align, then it might not matter. But if there’s a drift, then understanding which entity to prioritize is critical. Otherwise, how can you proceed? At Vivanti, we make this simple. We’re creating a company that ensures that the contracted client does indeed come first in outcome not just in intent. The way this is done is by codifying what we reference as “empowering consultants” or “consultant-led business” on our various web pages and blog posts. The client always comes first.
Our chairman, Tony Nicol, explains this very well in his blog post dedicated to this topic:
No permission should ever be required for a consultant to do what they believe is right for the client. To ensure a sustained cultural shift in this regard, consultancies should also expect their consultants to be professionally loyal to each client at every turn. Consultants should be ultimately accountable to the client — not the entity in their email signature, on their health insurance or bank statements. Consultants should be both rewarded for the passionate pursuit of this ideal and free from the fear of reprisals; especially if standing-by the client means a sub-optimal financial outcome for the firm.
Tying it together: Who are ‘the managers’ and what do they do?
Vivanti is a consultancy, led by consultants. We have structured our business this way because it is consultants who are maintaining the client relationship(s) and the work that needs to be done. Therefore, it is the consultants who need to have adequate autonomy to implement their choices. How we’ve replaced management is informed by what people need to support both their autonomy and growth. The mindset shift here is that growth is facilitated, but workloads are managed.
“Who watches the watchmen?” Cover of Terry Pratchett’s book, Night Watch
Delivery, in a consultancy, requires maintaining a client relationship and determining the actual work itself. Principal Consultants develop and maintain relationships with clients. The engagement leads scope the work that needs to be done and work with other consultants on the implementation details and timeline.
Mentorship encapsulates both ‘growth in company’ and ‘growth in career’. They work with mentees to convert aspirations into goals and define goals with success criteria. By design, mentors are specifically not the engagement lead that someone is working with on a client engagement. This is due to another aspect of the way that mentors assist in growth: Advocacy. If a mentee indicates that they wish to be removed from a client engagement for any reason, the mentor always has the authority to remove them from that engagement — regardless of the relative titles of the mentor and engagement lead. Ensuring that the engagement lead is not also the mentor assists with an obvious conflict of interest. Otherwise, the engagement lead would have a conflict of interest between keeping a consultant on an engagement versus honoring a consultant’s wish to be removed.
Mentorship in practice
We prioritize mentorship at Vivanti to ensure that everyone has a mentor. This includes when we’re hiring as well. Mentors are at a level above or higher than their mentees. The mentor-to-mentee relationships are meant to be one-to-few. To put it another way, we don’t want to overwhelm mentors with several mentees each, so each mentor is only working with a few mentees. This allows mentors to truly focus on their mentees as well as their other work.
Mentors guide, mentees choose. This means that mentors help mentees choose one or more goals in each of three pillars: Company, community, and personal. A company goal might be a promotion. Community goals might be volunteering at a local soup kitchen, or helping plan and / or attend a protest that is important to you. Personal goals could be acquiring a new skill relevant to your profession, regardless of whether or not you’re using those skills on an engagement right now.
Mentors also help ensure that the goals are actionable and that you know if you’ve succeeded. Here’s another way to think of this: What does it mean to ‘create documentation for X’? At what point is it ‘done’? A relevant indicator — such as the level of detail or length of a task — must be written into the goal.
Why mentorship is important to me
I strongly believe in mentorship. I didn’t meet my first mentor until (in my opinion) ‘late’: About seven years or so into my career. Until then, I was trying to figure it out on my own. This led to me missing a lot due to finding things out reactively not proactively. So I missed acquiring skills and opportunities that I didn’t know I’d want / need or that even existed (until after the fact). Consequently, it’s now something with which I assertively seek to assist my mentees: Once one of us learns something, it’s our duty to ensure that we don’t need to collectively learn the lesson more than once.
The biggest hurdles I’ve had with instantiating a mentorship program in a company or community have never been about upselling the benefits of mentorship itself. The biggest hurdles have been about time and resources, mostly due to structure. Communities are created with some sort of structure, whether they’re internal / employee-based or public. When the structure doesn’t include mentorship, that means time and resource commitments were created in its absence. In order to add something new in, the community needs to be able to either add more work or remove / de-prioritize existing work. Regardless of which path is chosen, expectations must also be recalibrated. Not only for the people doing the work, but also for the people who are receiving the deliverables.
We built mentorship into the company structure to get ahead of these issues. New employees are all paired with mentors as part of their onboarding. This ensures that they do not need to navigate company structure, expectations, new clients, and so on without the guidance they need to be successful. Instead, they receive guidance and advice to help them achieve their goals while building their careers with us.
Since mentorship is essential to how we’re building Vivanti, everyone is expected to become a mentor when they are ready. The key here is ready: As with other goals, each individual decides when they would like to work toward mentorship. When someone tells their mentor they would like to become a mentor, their mentor mentors them in mentorship (say that three times fast). By the time they have their first mentee, they will know what to do, how to help, how to get help themselves once they start, and how to avoid giving well-meaning — but ultimately harmful — advice.
My experience being mentored
I am in my fourth month at Vivanti. One of the benefits of joining when we are young and small is that the someone who is a higher level than me — and also not the Principal Consultant managing the client relationship I’m on — is Co-Founder and Chairman, Tony Nicol.
Tony helps me solidify my goals in the three areas I mentioned earlier: Personal, community, and company. I haven’t had to build goals in this way, so thus far I’ve been taking the time to explain the abstracts of what I want and need and then we circle back around and convert them into actions with success criteria. e.g. ‘Expand professional network’ includes ‘send out N messages with the intent of building at least one connection’.
More specifically, my goals last month were to ‘build a website to support Ukraine, ready for general release’ and ‘expand my network into scientific software companies’. The latter is from an old hope of mine to merge my tech skills with my other love of astronomy and space.
My journey building the SupportUkraine.love website was an interesting one. I ended up using Hugo and a theme, so my main concern was to get relevant information on there. Through a conversation with another friend, we started drafting a template letter to reach out either by phone or (e-)mail to elected representatives. I also took to Twitter to try and find other people to collaborate with — regarding the information we should provide — as I’m not a war or disaster response expert. As it happened, I got in touch with a Disaster Response Team on Twitter, which gave me permission to website-ify the 145 page (and growing) response doc they were building for humanitarian responders in Ukraine. This was a perfect scenario, as they have the most knowledge of the space and I can give it a memorable URL that is easy to search. I succeeded in this goal at the end of the month.
My other goal to expand my professional network to scientific software companies in particular was trickier. It is so very difficult to send a bunch of unsolicited messages to people, introduce yourself, provide some context, and hope for the best. Mostly, people don’t even answer with ‘no’, it just gets swallowed by their DMs on Twitter or LinkedIn. But hey: I’ve ignored my own fair share of DMs, so I get it 😬
The experience has given me a renewed appreciation for professionals who have to regularly cold call / message people.
As it happens, I sent out ‘N’ messages, but did not succeed in getting new connections yet. But the pass / fail is to help me learn and grow, and a ‘fail’ isn’t a stain. We reviewed my messaging, how I was reaching out, and discussed what could be more successful in future iterations. I asked questions and was given feedback, and — because they’re my goals — I can even temporarily pause this one in favor of another and try again later if I wish.
The most important part to me is that I feel invested in. I’m not trying, failing and figuring out what works or doesn’t work in my own little silo. I have someone actively interested in what I’m doing who is helping me succeed.