The Common Mistake of “Inviting by Title”

As business continuity consultants, we at MHA often encounter a situation we call “inviting by title,” which is when our contact at the client company has us meet with high-level company executives rather than mid-level employees with detailed tactical knowledge. The irony is, in many cases, it is the mid-level, hands-on managers who are best positioned to provide the knowledge we need to complete the engagement. 

Related on MHA Consulting: Dancing the Tango with Your Business Continuity Consultant 

The Pervasive Practice of “Inviting by Title” 

Today’s blog is about a fairly narrow situation but one that we encounter a lot as business continuity consultants. What’s more, we run into it across the whole range of organizations MHA works with, from healthcare to manufacturing to education and beyond. 

At the beginning of every BC engagement, we tell the engagement project manager at the client company the kind of people we need to speak with to get the information we need to provide the requested deliverable. But what often happens is, the project lead brushes aside our request and arranges the meeting with a very different kind of informant. 

Both strategic and tactical SMEs are required to develop and implement a BC program.  However, in most cases—and with the majority of program deliverables—the people we really need to talk to are the tactical, boots-on-the-ground folks who complete the processes and activities we’ve been hired to assess and protect. Too often, the project managers leave out those people (at least initially) and only include members of the C-Suite or other high-ranking executives. 

In other words, the project managers invite by title rather than expertise. 

Top company leadership has a vital role to role to play in every business continuity engagement; their support and sponsorship is vital. However, their perspective tends to be highly strategic; they tend not to have the kind of granular, technical knowledge we need to complete tactical deliverables such as business impact analyses (BIAs) and business continuity plans. 

In Some Cases, the Senior Executives Are the Best Source 

There is one exception to what I said above. The C-Suite and other high-ranking executives are usually the primary SMEs if the engagement has to do with program governance or crisis management, where the senior management is the front line.  

For the more common, tactical type of engagement—for example, ones focused on the BIA, recovery planning, IT disaster recovery, or current state assessments—we need details that can most easily be provided by tactical experts. 

The High Cost of Inviting by Title 

Given how persistently we state that we need to speak to tactical SMEs—and how commonly we are put in touch with people in high-ranking, strategic positions—we have come to suspect that often politics plays a role (though maybe it’s more accurate to attribute this pattern to human nature). Perhaps some project managers like bringing members of the C-Suite onto a call they’ve organized.  

Whatever the motivation, the fact is, inviting by title has significant downsides for all concerned. 

C-Suite people who are asked to participate in these meetings often become frustrated when they are asked a lot of tactical-level questions they may not know the answers to (e.g., “Who in the company possesses a security token?” or “What systems does finance use to execute process X?”). Obviously, there’s no reason they should know the answer to this level of question. Their job is to steer the ship, not focus on small interior details. 

As for we consultants, we find these encounters exasperating because they delay our getting to work on the core issues of the engagement and make it look like we don’t know what we are doing. A bad start can cast a shadow over an entire engagement. 

The funny thing is, inviting by title is not even a win for the project manager. Yes, the manager might get a buzz from letting the boss know they are working on an important project with an outside consultant. But when the meeting breaks down and the C-Suite person gets irritated (“Why am I even on this call?”), the person with the most egg on his or her face is the one who set the meeting up. 

Five Tips for Engagement Project Managers 

To our valued partners, the engagement project leads at the clients we work for, we would like to say the following: 

  1. We understand the pressures you might be under that lead you to invite the highest-ranking people at your company, even when they lack the tactical expertise needed to advance the engagement. 
  1. Taking this approach almost always backfires. 
  1. We share your desire for the engagement to be completed successfully and on time. 
  1. MHA’s guidance regarding the type of SME we need to speak to in order to obtain the best results in an efficient manner with your engagement is based on many collective decades of experience of doing this at organizations large and small. 
  1. To arrive at your own independent understanding of the kind of people we need to confer with, think about what the deliverable is going to be. Who at the company is likely to be in possession of the kind of detailed information that will shape that deliverable? That’s who we need to talk to. 

Working in Partnership with Your Consultant 

A common practice among engagement project leads at our business continuity consulting clients is “inviting by title,” that is, having us meet with high-ranking executives rather than the tactical experts we truly need to speak with. A possible reason for this is that the project manager wishes to show themselves in a favorable light to the company leaders; however, this seldom works out as hoped.  

Inviting by title tends to annoy the executives, exasperate the consultant, delay the completion of the project, and discredit the project lead. A project manager who really wishes to rack up a win should work in partnership with the consultant to finish the engagement to a high standard on time; that’s a result that would truly be worth bringing to the attention of the company’s leadership. 

Further Reading 

For more information on working with a business continuity consultant and other hot topics in business continuity and IT disaster recovery, check out the following recent posts from MHA Consulting: 

Gloria Sargent is MHA’s practice team leader for Business Continuity Management related engagements. She has ensured the successful implementation of business continuity planning engagements in industries such as Financial, Risk Management, Government, Insurance, Utilities, Pharmaceutical and Healthcare. Prior to joining MHA, Gloria was a Director at American Express (NYSE: AXP) where she was responsible for managing the Business Continuity Management programs across North America, the United Kingdom and India. Gloria has successfully led domestic and international program management, crisis management, business recovery planning, and other risk mitigation engagements.

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