What do you want in a consultant?

Posted on May 6, 2015

As a client, one of the most critical decisions you need to make before you start interviewing consultants is whether you want a partner or just an executor.

If you have established, effective processes and procedures and just need arms and legs to get through a particularly busy time period, you might just need staff augmentation. For example, I had a client I was working with on capability development who already had a highly functioning, permanent communications team, but they were overloaded with work due to an unusually high number of in-flight projects. Since the peak in work wasn’t expected to last more than a few months, I recommended that they bring in a consultant who could pick up the extra work. That consultant followed their existing processes for communications planning and helped the team get through the workload. Six months later, the consultant rolled off. Everybody was happy.

Project management is another area where I often see the need for simple execution support. Again, a prerequisite is that you already have effective, documented processes and procedures for a consultant to follow. The term “project management”, like “change management” and even “communications”, means different things to different people. In order for staff augmentation to work, you need to be able to provide clear direction from the beginning of the engagement and then let your consultant run with the work; that is how you gain the efficiencies necessary to justify bringing in the help.

However, if you don’t have these consistent processes in place, or you’re bringing in a consultant because something has already gone wrong or because you don’t know exactly what support you require, you’re going to need more than just execution support; you need a partner.

Partnership can be tough, especially because these situations require you, as a leader, to say that you don’t know what to do, that you need help. Many people cringe at just the thought of that situation. But, to paraphrase Claude Levi-Strauss, “The wise leader doesn’t give the right answers, s/he poses the right questions.”

Once you have a partner, you have to be willing to fulfill your half of the partnership. You can’t just abandon the problem to the consultant and you can’t refuse to truly listen to what your consultant has to say. You don’t have all of the answers, and neither does your consultant – that’s why partnership is indispensable. Not just valuable, but absolutely indispensable.

So be honest about what you really need. If it’s just some extra manpower, then that’s fine, but be up front with the consultants you interview that you’re not looking for suggestions on how to make things better – you just need them to do as they’re told – and then don’t get offended if some consultants turn down the opportunity. Staff augmentation roles just don’t appeal to everybody. On the flip side, if you need a partner, invest the time and energy into finding the right one and then work together to make a plan; you’ll be more effective than you can imagine.