Fall Flat, Stay Sharp, Act Natural, Keep Playing

We consultants sometimes like to think of ourselves as rock stars, but there are absolutely parallels between the two professions! Here are some keys to finding joy and success in consulting ...and on stage.

Setting the Stage

In the summer of 2001, I stood on the stage of the Fox band shell at the Taste of Chicago festival and looked out over thousands of people. People scarfing down Rosati’s pizza and giant turkey legs. Kids playing tag. Parents trying to corral screaming toddlers. And a couple hundred people there specifically to watch that stage.

As our keyboard player hit the first notes of Drops of Jupiter, I felt pretty good. Confident.

I then proceeded to sing the entire song a half-step sharp, first note to last. The drummer repeatedly threw drumsticks at my head trying to get me to realize how badly I was botching things. The guitar players shot me looks that I couldn’t quite interpret at the time. The audience had polite, if slightly confused, looks on their faces.

At the end of this unmitigated disaster, I had to make a decision. I could run off that stage as quickly as possible and never perform again (tempting), or brush it off and sing the next song. I have a gig with that same band this coming weekend, so you can guess how this story ended.

It was an invaluable lesson.

A lesson about perseverance, sure – but maybe more importantly, the lesson that “bottoming out” can actually free you. I embarrassed myself on a stage where thousands of people could hear me, yet I was fine. And I’ll tell you – I’ve never since worried about embarrassing myself. That experience was liberating.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I’m not in some hugely successful band. We’re just six middle-aged dads who love making music, and have been lucky enough to do so for twenty-some years. Consulting is my professional jam, my chosen profession – and it recently dawned on me how many parallels there are between the two gigs I’m so passionate about.

#1 – Your Job is to Make the Bar Successful

Bars don’t hire you to give you a chance at your big break.

They’re paying you to play there because they think you can help them sell lots of cocktails and Fireball shots and chicken fried steaks. We’re not just there to sing beautifully or to show off our mad guitar skills. We’re there to make them successful. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget that skills are a means to an end.

I’ve often said to younger consultants that the goal of project management should never be to “do project management correctly.” It’s not about being able to demonstrate that you’ve fully internalized PMBOK or that you can articulate the difference between competing methodologies.  When we value personal appearances more than the client’s needs, we fail – and often, so does the client.

The goal is always to ensure a project is successful.

#2 – To Succeed, You Must Meet the Audience’s Needs

The bar may be paying you, but it’s the people in that bar, and what you provide for them, that will determine just how successful you all are.

Every person is there to meet some need. The bouncer is there to make money, but he’s also tired of going to bed with his ears ringing every night. The bartender and wait staff want to maximize their tips, and really don’t want to listen to crappy music while they do it. And the audience? They’re all over the place. They want to dance, or they want to have a conversation with their friends that isn’t drowned out by the music. Maybe they want to hear something that reminds them of that time when they were sixteen, under the boardwalk, and making out with Bobby Sue.

You will be exactly as successful overall as you are at meeting those needs.

There’s no formula for doing this, but I absolutely believe two traits are critical: empathy and adaptability. Empathy requires deep, active listening – careful thought about the audience’s motivations, goals, and wants. Meeting those needs will require you to adapt; sometimes the adjustments will be merely tweaks – in language, or audience, or extra attention. Sometimes they will be full-blown course corrections. The one constant? From the Senior Vice President who signed your engagement letter, to the overwhelmed line worker, the needs are all different and all critical.

#3 – You Can’t Excel at #1 and #2 Without Having Fun

If meeting the audience’s needs and the bar’s numbers are all that you focus on, you’re unlikely to be great at achieving either one of them.

The joy you feel while playing will reveal itself in the music – and will be infectious. The audience will feel it, feed off of it, buy more Fireball shots, and you’ll be successful.

The same holds true for most jobs. As consultants, we tend to work a lot of hours, laser-focused on the client: whatever they need, whenever and however they need it. But if we’re merely checking boxes, phoning in our efforts (no matter how exceptional), our clients can feel that, too. When we act like it’s just a job, we drag the whole effort down into the mundane and the tedious

#4 – You’ll Never Find Joy Without Your Band

Over the years, I’ve had a (blessedly small) handful of gigs where the whole band spent the night completely out of sync. Maybe it was an argument over the set list. Often it was me trying to get the guitar players to turn down the volume.

What was always true on those nights is that we were nowhere near our best. The great nights, the ones that I still smile about? Those nights, we were so in touch with each other that it was like we could read each other’s minds. We weren’t just playing at the same time – we were playing together.

We don’t usually get to pick our consulting teammates the way we would bandmates, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work on team cohesion as hard as we work on client relationships. In fact, to be successful, we have to. That’s not to say there won’t be disagreements, conflicts, and opposing points of view – the best collaborations always have some of that. It does mean applying those same active listening skills, that same empathy and adaptability to your teammates.

And I’m telling you – when the bar’s making money, the customers are happy, and you’re clicking with your ‘band’, that’s an amazing feeling. 

Now rock on…

Sean’s band, Stark Raving Dad

Further Advisory offers clients our own unique mix of consulting rock stars. We know that by assembling this diverse cohort of professionals with different backgrounds, talents, and experiences, we can form amazing teams that will drive unique value for our clients.

About the author


  • Sean Oakley

    Sean brings two decades of experience in helping organizations solve their most challenging technology and operational issues. He has spent his career driving the creation of realistic, actionable goals and plans to address IT Operations challenges - and leading both the strategic and tactical activities required to succeed.

From Strategy to Reality®

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