Black Hat / White Hat

What Inspires You?

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 toward consulting, I started by becoming a contractor for a growing company that was transitioning from a pure contract/staff augmentation posture to a true consulting culture. Within a few months, I realized I really liked the people there, and I sensed a different ideology at work within that company, as opposed to some of the others I had witnessed. Wanting to learn more, I asked about changing from a Affiliate/Contractor with the organization to being a Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) Consultant.

The director of the Management Consulting practice 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. Then he asked me why I wanted to be a part of that organization. I told him I had also noticed that there were consultants from some firms who just seemed to be perpetually doing the same thing day-in and day-out with their clients. They didn’t seem to be offering guidance, or teaching anything to the client. They were just filling a role. 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.

I often tell this story when I talk the way I view my role as an Agile Coach. I look for people who share this approach. I remember one person responded with, “That doesn’t sound like a good business practice. Wouldn’t you make more money by staying as long as you can at a client?”

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 delivered X so well, do you think you could do Y or Z?”

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 they ever need my help.

Author: Michael Marchi

Michael Marchi CSM, CSPO, CSP-SM, CSP-PO, RSASP, AHF Management Consultant / Agile Coach & Trainer @ 42 North Unlimited ( Co-Founder and Board Member @ APLN Chicago ( Co-Host [here's this agile thing] podcast (