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Elephants exist, respect them

When you take on an assignment, make sure you don’t get undermined by the elephant in the room, says Michael Illingworth, chair of West London Chartered Accountants.

Michael Illinworth

September 2018

Assignments can be like peeling an onion. Both can reduce you to tears, both can result in something very rewarding.

A job description from a client only says what they think they need. But there can be hidden agendas, eventually revealing a real agenda, so beware tears of frustration resulting from ‘if only I had known earlier…’

People will talk to someone new, but what is it that people are not talking about or are avoiding? What is the elephant in the room?

It may be easy to spot, but why is it there? Be cautious about pointing it out until the underlying factors and reasons are understood. It could be very sensitive for those who have been trying to deal with the issue, sometimes for years. Ask yourself why its existence is thought to be beneficial, and by whom? Could they not do better without it?

Focus first on delivering the agreed contract and don’t get involved. Negative impacts of the elephant can be made clear in an inoffensive and constructive manner.

If it needs to be addressed, ask yourself: “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is: “In small bites.” Small bites can be easier to digest for all concerned.

Before taking the first bite, carefully plan what each step is going to be. Make sure of the facts, get the whole picture. Some may wish you to fail if they failed themselves before. Make sure that concerns are addressed, especially when the elephant has been there for some time and has become totemic.

Understand why previous attempts to address this may have failed. Learn from this. Identify whose reputations might suffer from the demise of the elephant and help mitigate this.

Make sure that the client’s staff, particularly elephant fans, understand how they, as well as the business, will personally benefit from the changes.

Tackling the elephant should only be undertaken if the client clearly supports this and understands the future benefits, notwithstanding short-term fallout. The successful delivery of the original assignment comes first, even if the results may have to be qualified for existence of the elephant. Beware getting sucked in and becoming part of the problem.

Michael Illingworth is chair of West London Chartered Accountants and provides independent financial project leadership through Account2Grow Ltd. Contact Michael

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