What's the point? Why hire a consultant? And how can you get the
best out of them?
by Dr. Karen
from organizational life to consulting life didn’t seem like a big
deal to me. I’d been doing internal consulting for more than a
decade. I’d been bringing consultants into my organisation as an
“extra pair of hands” or as experts to present programs or coach
executives. What I found as an internal customer was that hiring a
consultant can be tricky. Through a trial and error process of
discovery I found that the nature of the consulting relationship is
the key to whether the company is going to get what it needs or
throw money down a consulting black hole. Although a company is
“borrowing” talent, not “buying” it the way they do when they hire
someone, it’s still a major financial and time commitment. I spent
a lot of time managing consultants. I figured “What’s the point?” if
I didn’t get the best out of them. And . for the consultant, the
consulting assignment has both a financial and reputational impact.
Why not make this arrangement a win-win?
that I found we had to learn to trust each other. The approach to
low trust by the organization is often a “taxi driver” approach. The
consultant is paid by the hour or day. This is a contractual
relationship versus a relational contract. The consultant does what
he or she is told. The good news is that this is a good way to use
“one-trick ponies.” When you have a speaker who can do a great
presentation about what they know best this is the best way to use
them. If you want any in-depth work from a consultant it’s best to
try the partnering approach. As one client said “We are depending on
you to get our bench-strength ready for their next jobs. His
approach was to put me into a relational contract where I was
committed to his company’s expected outcomes.
“Taxi driver” approach or partnering approach
the nicest compliments I ever got was “You don’t think like a
consultant.” I realised that I see myself as partnering with my
clients, almost as if I become part of their organisation for a
period of time. When clients want to hire me by the hour, or
minutes, I find it very strange. At one point, I was contracting
with a prospective client who came out of a supply chain
background. He spent the contracting period penny pinching me in
all the aspects of the contract. For me, he was concentrating on
the wrong aspects. When I tried to concentrate on the outcomes
rather than the specifics of the process, he just didn’t “get it.”
He was so used to taking farthings off widgets that he just couldn’t
focus on the end results. The “taxi driver” approach didn’t
engender enough trust for me to continue the contracting. I pulled
myself out of the process.
not to work like a “taxi driver.” I have found that thinking of
consulting as day labour gets me, and other consultants too , to act
that way. I prefer thinking like a partner in the project’s
success. It’s vital for a company to think this way too.
Partnering is a trust builder. There is a mutual commitment to
Consultant partnering trust occurs when there is both personal and
professional trust. Personal trust is each party doing what they
say they’ll do, when they say they’ll do it. Professional trust is
demonstrating the talent, expertise and an understanding of the
consultant’s craft and of human behaviour that enables a consulting
relationship to work.
Create a contractual relationship or a relational contract?
“Relationships of trust
depend on our willingness to look not only to our own interests, but
also the interests of other.” Peter
Farquharson, Early 20th century English cricketer
if you’re hiring day labourers, a company wants its money’s worth or
more. Although many consultants are hired on a short time scale,
their organisational “fit” is essential. One of the best ways to
ensure fit is by knowing the company and its needs as well as the
needs of the project or intervention that the company needs. When a
company insists on a detailed contract they often get just what they
negotiated and nothing more. My belief is that it’s vital to keep
your “eyes on the prize.” What is it that the company and the
specific client(s) want to get out of the relationship? Contracting
is where you ensure that the commitment and professional expertise
are there. There’s an old American saying that could apply to
contracting, “Good fences make good neighbours.” By setting up the
parameters in contracting the participants are then free to do more
but not less.
vital that those who are doing the consulting be part of the
contracting phase. If the person who initiates the engagement is the
“finder” but doesn’t do the work it may not be a good idea. That
also goes for having a “minder” and a bunch of “grinders” whom you
don’t know well. If you contract with the experienced folks there
is not enough pay-off from the rookies. It’s vital that you get to
know the consultant(s) you’re using before, during and after the
consulting engagement. Though the consultant(s) may not be
employees they should be treated as if they are personally
responsible. As an independent consultant, and previously as a
corporate buyer of consulting services, I have found that
independents are often the best choices. There have been at least a
dozen situations when I’ve been called in after someone from a
consulting firm hasn’t delivered what was expected. Don’t forget
that you are hiring the person and not the company.
way that a consultant (firm) approaches contracting is revealing.
Are they happy to spend as much time as it takes in this phase? The
time that it takes to contract and work with the company
representative who is doing the contract is part of the big “bucks”
that consultants charge. Part of the contracting should be a
negotiated “package”, or programme price. Part of the package price
is that the consultant should not be charging for every small cost
like taxi fares for local work.
package should include written information that is necessary for the
process to work. That might mean something in writing that can
serve as a roadmap for clients to follow as they work with
consultant. A report at the end of the consulting process is not
one of the worthwhile things to pay for. When the consultant has
left, the report is rarely of use. It may feel good to get one but
often goes on a shelf after the consulting engagement is finished.
of all, I believe in generosity of spirit on the part of the
consultant and the company. That means giving more than the
contract stipulates when it’s needed. That means consultants
occasionally giving more consulting time, without extra fees, for
those who need it and the company staying supportive and flexible
with the needs of the consultant. In other words, the parties
involved should be responsive to the other’s needs. Over time, this
kind of attitude breeds trust.
a consultant is a bit like being an employee for a period of time.
Just the way employees “hold” the needs of their job and the needs
of their company in their consciousness, an excellent consultant
“holds” clients and their needs and the work in their thinking time
outside of the actual assignment time. I am constantly surprised
when a client says that a workshop I gave was only six hours so they
that they should not have to pay for the entire day of eight hours.
How amazing is that? It may have taken days to prepare the work
which may, or may not have been remunerated. Moreover, when a
consultant is at one company for six hours there is no way that two
more hours can be squeezed into that day. That is one of the
reasons why daily fees don’t make sense for excellent work. The
other is the thinking time that involves “holding” the client in
your thoughts and plans.
careful with one-trick ponies and “consultant creep”
“The people I distrust
most are those who want to improve our lives but have only one
course of action.” Frank
, 20th century science fiction author
company usually hires consultants for their expertise. In their
area of expertise they need to be role models. I once hired a
consultant who was superb at educating and empowering personal
assistants to maximise their potential. When she was asked by an
executive to work out a conflict among a group of personal
assistants she overstepped her expertise and failed miserably.
It’s not uncommon for this kind of thing to happen since expertise
is often specialised.
also the responsibility of the consultant to keep the company
representative informed of every potential consulting request that
the consultant gets to do additional consulting. Someone in the
company needs to keep track to avoid “consultant creep,” or
consultants running amok around the organisation. I find that
someone to vet each request, and the appropriateness of the
consultant(s) for the request, is the only way to ensure the trust
that you have the right person in place.
comes from bringing in consultants who don’t come in with a prepared
idea of the issue and the solution. Consulting companies that have
“models” that they use can be guilty of this approach.
Consultants need guts rather than glory
too easy for consultants to be sycophants rather than speak what
they believe needs to be said to individuals of power and
authority. This is not the place where executives should be told
what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear and
learn. It is important that a consultant, beyond an “extra pair of
hands,” be responsible for moving individuals, or the culture, to
take action. The trick is that the “push” needs to be strong enough
to show action and gentle enough not to cause reactive “push back,”
or organisational resistance. This is a major area of trust!
whole, mature consultants who are beyond wanting their own days of
personal glory make some of the best choices. If the consulting
work isn’t satisfactory it’s time to give the consultant(s)
feedback. The way that they accept and respond to feedback without
defending tells you a lot about their professional trust. I love
adapting as a consultant. It’s wonderful to get feedback and have a
chance to adapt to the needs of the company and the individual(s)
Consultants who need a lot of kudos and strokes can be trouble. A
consultant can be a bit like a catalyst. They can have enormous
impact for positive change yet not be part of the end result. If
they need the glory they are not mature enough for this kind or