I’m the first to say that I’m not the right consultant for every project. I can help you to find the right one if that is the case, however. Prior to Co.-, I spent 15 years either interacting with and/or hiring all kinds of consultants for my employers. I learned a lot about the field from first-hand experience. Besides budget constraints, another challenge is the sheer magnitude of the resources available. There is every flavor and quality out there, which makes selection an overwhelming task. Perhaps that’s why companies get lazy and go with their “usual suspects” (a.k.a. preferred vendors), regardless of whether they are the appropriate firm for the job. They miss a lot of opportunities that way. Choosing the right consultant maximizes the company’s investment. The wrong one could waste time, money, and even jeopardize your project.
The biggest takeaway from my experience with hiring consultants is to find the right match. Like every big challenge, you start by digging in and building from there. There’s a lot to consider, so to save you time and maybe even some heartache, here are my top 3:
Capability. A consultant’s ability to utilize their experience, resourcefulness, and knowledge to create positive impact in your organization is how I define capability. It is not defined by “been there, done that.” First of all, there is never the exact same situation because everything happens in its own, unique context. Second, just because someone has encountered a similar situation by chance doesn’t mean that they are any good at it. If they did the same exact things from one context to another, they would risk failure by ignoring critical nuances. Capability is all about being able to see the situation for what it is, what it needs on all levels (strategically and tactically), and figuring out how to get your organization where it has to go. It also means getting things done, and done well. If a consultant can do all this across a number of different/adjacent topic areas and make the connections along the way, then they are capable. How do you know? You yourself are actually the best gauge for it. If, through the course of initial discussions, the consultant fails to listen, ask great questions, engender trust and/or doesn’t convince you of an approach, then they aren’t right for you. Even if they are “capable” and you are the close-minded one, it’s not a match. No need for hard feelings—simply come to that conclusion together and move on.
Partnership. This refers to the relationship that the consultant will have with your organization. Figure out what kind of partnership you desire, then consider: Is it one based on trust and open communication? Is it one directional? Transactional? Formal? Informal? Do values line up in thoughts and actions? As you look to select the right partner, consider your organization and the consultant(s) work style(s). How do you foresee and describe the working dynamic? Again, this is not about who is good or bad, right or wrong—it’s about finding the right match. There are highly qualified experts I did not hire because they would behave like “a bull in a china shop,” while others would not challenge the organization enough. I didn’t pick one firm because they were only looking to dump content on us and run. I needed collaboration with someone who was savvy enough to influence provocative change. You may have to go through a lot of consultants before you find your match. Sometimes you might have to break the work up into smaller chunks in your search for the right resources. It’s worth the investment up front, before the work starts.
Network. You get what the consultant has to offer when it comes to their capability. However, knowing that there is always a chance for unforeseen needs, changes in direction, and/or expansion of work, a consultant’s network can be important as well. Their ability to connect you to different ideas, resources, and/or people can save you a lot of time when you don’t have any to spare in the middle of an initiative. A consultant caught up in their own little world means their usefulness to you is limited. Find someone who is out there, knows what’s happening, and connects with a lot of people.
It’s worth putting in the effort up front to connect your need with the right resource. I’ve seen too many relationships sour because of mismatches, but I also know that when it’s right, it’s magic. My time as a “buyer” has certainly influenced my approach as a “seller” today. I don’t go into every new relationship expecting a contract. I focus on building meaningful relationships. Along the way, I have been lucky enough to partner with some really great clients. I wish great matches for you too.
Image Credit: Thrice Around the Block