Q: We are going to be hiring a consultant soon. We haven’t been super satisfied with our choices in the past. Do you have any suggestions for ensuring a better match?
A: I’m happy to give it a shot! Without more specific information as to the type of consultant you are looking for, or the problems you’ve confronted in the past, my response will be general. But, hopefully you’ll find some helpful hints here.
There are two sides to the search equation. Both are equally important. The first side deals with the qualities and experiences that you might want to look for in the consultants you interview. Since I have been writing this column since 1994, it’s probably not surprising that I have dealt with these before. Rather than repeat myself here, let me refer you to “Searching for the White Knight Consultant” and “Dos and Don’ts of Choosing a Grantwriter.”
The second side, however, deals more with what you are doing to prepare for the engagement, and the mindset you bring to the table. It is a side that I don’t hear people talking about very often. Yet, it can make or break the consulting experience.
Bringing on the right consultant is a time-consuming process. There are potentials to identify, interviews to be held, proposals to solicit and read, contracts to sign (and, in many states, forward to a state department in advance of the start of any project), meetings to hold where history, goals and expectations are discussed, hours of preparation time, and so on. Skip or scrimp on these steps and you risk not getting the person/team or results you want. Be sure to plan ahead and commit sufficient time to the search process.
Do you want the best consultants to gravitate to you? Be flexible about your dates and considerate of their calendars. Remember, consultants are always juggling a number of different clients and assignments. They may not be available to interview – let alone, do your work – if you are locked into a single date. It’s probably not realistic – and it’s definitely not fair – to ask them to get you a proposal in 24 – 48 hours, or to design a plan of action in a week. You’ll gain their respect if you recognize that preparation can easily take three or more hours for every in-person hour of work. And, you’ll gain their everlasting appreciation if you don’t expect them to put in those hours over the weekend!
Think through what you expect to be different as a result of working with a consultant. Explain that to the potentials you identify. Provide them with as much additional information as possible, such as what brought the organization to this place, the people that will be involved, and the amount you’ve budgeted. The more information that you can provide upfront, the more targeted and cost-effective the consultant can make the deliverables, resulting in a better outcome. I suggest inviting potential consultants to have an ongoing dialog with the decision makers about the scope of services before they are asked to submit a proposal.
The above note about “decision makers” is important. No one is served well if a middleman is brokering the conversations. Critical information often gets left out. Questions may go unanswered or are answered inadequately. It can leave everyone feeling unsatisfied. It most assuredly means you don’t get the consultants’ best thinking or work. While you may have someone do the initial legwork, make sure the key people are around the table early in the game.
Consider your expectations. The consultant is there to help you think through processes and to look at alternatives – perhaps even to hold your feet to the fire – but not to do your work or make magic. Ultimately, the process, the work and outcomes belong to you. When the consultant leaves, you will be the ones left to carry on. If you go in with the attitude that this is a partnership, that each of you brings your own responsibilities to the table, and that you will be committed to the process and the follow up, you will be more satisfied with the engagement.
Related to the above, consider what else you have on your plate that will be competing for your time and energy during the life of the contract. Share that information with the consultant so that he or she can realistically time the deliverables to meet your capability as well as your needs.
Be skeptical. Ask questions. Challenge. Does a consultant come in with a dazzling presentation but fail to engage you in conversation about your organization and the situation? Could that mean that the consultant’s approach is canned or that you are just another organization to be won over, but attention will wane once the consultant gets the job? Do you know who will be doing the work? You could be pitched by a partner, but serviced by a less-experienced consultant. Are you comfortable with that? Are you promised the moon and the stars by one consultant, but given a consistent – if not as “romantic” – message from all the others? Consider that the outlier may be less experienced, leaving something critical out of the proposal, or just misrepresenting him or herself to you. You might call some of the consultants’ previous clients to get a sense of what they can each really do for you.
Yes, there are many things to look for in the consultants you consider. But look into your own thinking, behavior and expectations, too. Some honest introspection will improve your chances for a successful partnership.