It isn’t unusual to hear that business people don’t like consultants. In fact, many of us here at Humanergy can recount consultant horror stories of our own. From the strategic planning consultant who seemed to want to sway everyone’s opinion, to the overpriced fund-raising consultant whose contribution to the bottom line was distinctly negative, what often resounds are the negative experiences. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we don’t often refer to ourselves as consultants.
In spite of the well-earned criticism heaped upon consultants, there are times when you need an external expert to infuse new energy, knowledge and understanding. What should you be looking for when you need a consultant?
Honesty. Your first clue that a consultant may be less than truthful is when she exaggerates the abilities of her firm. Be wary of overblown descriptions of capability, capacity and experience. If a consultant does not acknowledge his own limits, how can you expect him to be truthful in all other dealings with you?
You matter most. Your consultant must have an authentic, passionate commitment to your organization and to the greater good. Self-serving consultants might talk a good game, but often they are really in it for themselves first (think sales quotas) and you a close second. This self-centered motivation may not be apparent at first, but over time, it will become a roadblock to your success. One sign of a competing priority is your consultant being afraid to lose your business, so he doesn’t give you a kick in the pants when you need it.
Service integrity. Is the senior consultant who sells you the work the same one who delivers? Often, it’s not, and those junior consultants have limited experience and have to learn as they go. They don’t have fluency in their thinking or use of tools and often are limited to standardized practices that might not fit your needs. The bottom line is that you don’t get what you were promised, such that achieving your goals is more difficult and sometimes impossible.
No template solutions. The best consultants start with gaining a deep understanding of your reality, then develop key principles that apply and work toward applications and solutions that fit for you. Tools are customized and client-centered, and result in sustainable change. Other not-so-great consultants start with their own tools or templates and apply them to create a solution. This one-size-fits-all approach happens most often when you have a junior consultant delivering what a senior person promised. While they may want to be more customer-centric, they don’t have the capabilities.
Strengthen, not supplant, the organizational leadership. A high-powered, forceful consultant might step in to lead and bring short-term results; However, in the mid- and long-range, this may deeply damage the organization’s leadership capability. A good consultant doesn’t replace or undermine the organization’s leaders. She builds upon the strengths that are inherent in the leadership and helps them make step-change in their performance, results and impact.
Sensitivity to privileged access. Consultants have the ear of senior leaders and frequently have more access to them than many others within the organization. A good consultant is extremely sensitive to this perception and the reality that he can be highly influential. The great consultant always puts the needs of the organization first and manages his communication accordingly; she does not engage in gossip, share information that is confidential or in other ways undermine the greater good.
The mere mention of a “consultant” can often cause leaders to shudder. That should be fair warning to all of us who work in partnership with leaders. Humanergy is extremely thankful for the trust and confidence our clients have in us. Or maybe they just like us for another reason. “Consultants have credibility because they are not dumb enough to work at your company” (Scott Adams, cartoonist). We don’t really agree with Mr. Adams’ perspective. Your company has plenty of smart people who sometimes need the support of a consultant who can not only sell you services but provide an amazing return on your investment.
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Consultants can be hired for a number of reasons, such as providing particular skills, insights and expertise in a complementary manner or to undertake particular tasks in a supplementary manner. Particular attributes that can add value are an ” open mind “, ” personal honesty and commitment ” and a ” wide range of experience and expertise in particular ( skill, organisational and/or business ) areas “. It might be a little optimistic to require a ” Passionate Commitment ” to the organisation but a demonstrated interest and commitment in the particular area of consultancy that can be applied to your business is essential. On the vexed issue of who actually does the job, the contract should clearly specify the roles and involvement of the various contractors involved and be accountable for their contribution. Clearly, failure to deliver the required outcomes throughout the consultancy is the responsibilty of the senior person involved. End of consultancy reviews are too late to demand such accountability.
Another great post on how to manage consultants: http://management.fortune.cnn.com/2013/04/11/management-consultants/