Black Hat / White Hat

Why We Strive

In early Hollywood depictions of the Western genre, a common trope was to subtly identify the ‘good guys’ by the color of their hat or their horse. The arrival of the wandering drifter atop his shining stallion almost always heralded that things were about to change. These days, the image of the masked rider coming to set things right, is replaced by the arrival of management consultants. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to judge the impending experience based on anything as simple as the color of the consultant’s hat.

At least that’s what I thought…

When I made the move to consulting, I did so out of a sense of curiosity about what ‘consulting’ really was. I had been told by a rather close-minded interviewer that I couldn’t become a consultant because I had never been a consultant. This seemed odd to me – similar to “You can’t get a job without experience, and can’t get experience without a job.” But I have to admit, it nagged at me.

I became a contractor for a growing company that was transitioning from a pure contract/staff aug posture to a true consulting culture. Within a few months, I realized I really liked the people there, and asked about changing from a Affiliate/Contractor with the organization to being an FTE Consultant.

As part of that process, I had several frank discussions with the director of the management consulting practice, I shared my nagging concern about whether I could really be a consultant. In my time with this and prior clients, I also noticed that the so-called consultants from the big-name consulting firms didn’t seem to be offering guidance to the client as much as just filling a role … in effect, contracting. But there was something more. Those particular individuals had been with the client for a lot longer than the contracting caps those organizations typically allowed.

The director and I discussed those types of consultants, and I expressed my desire to NOT be one of them. He asked me why I wanted to get into consulting. My response had something to do with feeling that I had a lot of experiences that I thought could benefit others, and I wanted to help teach them what I knew. He nodded, and told me a story.

“There are two types of consultants in the world,” he began. “The first type, we’ll call the ‘Black Hat’ consultants. These are the folks that get into a client organization, and basically handcuff themselves to the radiator. Colorful metaphor aside, it means that they make themselves NECESSARY to the client; so much so, that the client can’t afford to get rid of them.”

(I thought about that image, and it made me feel terrible. I didn’t want to be one of those people. If that was what consulting was, I wanted nothing to do with it.)

“The second type of consultant,” he continued, “we’ll call the ‘White Hat’ consultant. These are the folks with a skill to share, a lesson to teach or a problem to help solve. The White Hat consultant knows their time is limited, and goes in with a distinct purpose in mind. Their goal is to pass on what they know, and leave the client with the problem solved, or with the newly acquired expertise to carry on without the consultant’s help.”

He let that sink in for a moment, “We’re the White Hats. We go into every engagement with the outcome in mind. We want to make a difference for our clients, equip them with the tools they need to succeed, then leave.”

That story resonated with me. The White Hat philosophy fit perfectly with who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to interact with the world.

So I signed on with Strive Consulting.

I often tell this story when I talk about Strive and our mission. I look for people who grasp the meaning. I remember one person responded with, “That doesn’t sound like a good business practice. Wouldn’t y0u make more money by staying as long as you can?”

It was a reasonable question, but that’s not how it works. Because when you deliver what you say you’re going to deliver, and do it well, you get asked to do more. “Hey, you did a great job for us on X. Could you do more of X over in this other area?” or “You guys delivered X so well, do you think you could do Y or Z?”

One of the most exciting aspects about Strive, right now, is that we’re at that perfect size. We’re growing, but we’re not so big that each of us can’t influence the direction that the company will take. It’s an empowering time, because each of us literally CAN make a difference in how the company acts, reacts and operates.

I share the Black Hat / White Hat story with every single person I interview for Strive. I repeat this story regularly enough that I believe it has sunk into our corporate DNA. And because of this it continues to persist as a defining tenet of who we are as an organization.

I wear the White Hat with pride. Each time I leave a client (a little better than I found them), I ride off into the proverbial sunset toward the next adventure. Perhaps, with the hope of riding through these parts again, should you ever need my help.

Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO, SA4 Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago (michael.marchi@aplnchicago.org) Manager, Management Consulting / Chicago Agile Practice Lead / Agile Coach & Trainer @ Strive Consulting (mmarchi@striveconsulting.com)

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