How to Work Effectively With Consultants
Get the Best Results from Independent Experts
Jennie closes Simone's front door and walks back to the car. She feels a warm glow. Simone is besotted with her new baby boy, and Jennie isn't totally surprised that she's decided to stay at home to be a full-time mom.
But, as Jennie heads back to the city, she can't help but feel a bit aggrieved, too. Not with Simone but with Gus, a consultant brought in six months ago to drive forward her organization's "Transformation 2020" program.
Jennie recognizes that part of Gus's remit is to shake things up and to push through change. But she feels that his abrasive and arrogant manner is bad for her team.
Gus was an important secondary factor in Simone's decision not to return to work. And she's the third team member to have quit in as many months, all of them citing Gus as a reason.
Hiring consultants can undoubtedly bring benefits to organizations, such as specialist expertise and improved efficiency. But, as Jennie has discovered, it also carries risks, such as causing resentment and unease among existing staff members.
In this article, we'll look at how to establish an effective working relationship with consultants and how you, your team and your organization can get the best from them.
What Is a Consultant?
Consultants provide expert guidance and skills in a particular field or industry. Because of this, organizations often hire them to help with or advise on specific projects or problems.
The difference between consultants and these two other groups of professionals is their level of expertise. Freelancers are usually employed to carry out a specific task, such as designing a brochure. Consultants, on the other hand, tend to be hired more for their expert knowledge of a chosen field. And, as such, their time is often very expensive.
Types of Consultants
A consultant may specialize in any field where clients need in-depth expertise, such as:
- Change management.
- Finance and accounting.
- Human resources.
- Information technology.
- Leadership development.
- Organizational design.
- Social media.
Consultants can also focus on a particular situation. For example, they can help your organization to overcome a public relations crisis, assist with a merger or acquisition, or even run the company while the board searches for a new CEO.
The Pros and Cons of Working With Consultants
Beyond their expertise and experience with a particular issue, consultants can offer some advantages over permanent staff.
First, they can bring objectivity to an organization. Their fresh thinking can help to restart projects that have lost momentum, or that have become bogged down by in-fighting.
Second, consultants can focus on one project or issue. This is because they're not weighed down with other responsibilities, as in-house managers can be. This can bring clarity to a project, especially when a deadline is looming.
Third, a consultant will work with you for a short time, and with the aim of delivering a specific outcome. If you're not getting the results that you need, it's usually easier to terminate a contract with a consultant than it is with a permanent member of staff.
However, working with consultants also has some drawbacks. They're often independent-minded, and like to work in their own way. If the project isn't well-defined, or if you don't establish deliverables and a timeline up front, you might not get the results you're looking for because the consultant is not clear about your agenda.
Consultants are also expensive. This means that you must manage the scope of their work carefully, otherwise you can quickly use up and even exceed your budget.
They can also affect the morale of permanent staff, as team members can easily resent an "outsider" coming in to fix a problem that they couldn't. In addition, because of their level of expertise, consultants may not see the need to establish good relationships with their co-workers, especially if their contract is short. This can lower morale even further.
Finding a Consultant
If you are involved in the process of hiring outside experts, it's important to ensure that you have defined the problem that you're facing.
Often, the best way to find good consultants is to use word of mouth. Get references from past clients, and follow these up thoroughly. Ask what this consultant helped them to achieve, and whether they would hire them again.
It's also helpful to scan consultants' LinkedIn profiles and blog posts. You can learn a lot about their personality, ethics, and values that you might not see during an interview.
Pay attention to consultants' personalities and consulting styles. They will need to fit in with your corporate culture and your team, just as new staff members should. So, do they listen well? And do they have high emotional intelligence?
When you're ready to draft a contract, be sure to set clear expectations. Define the project carefully, and ask consultants to detail the services that they're providing, including who, precisely, will be working on your project and their resumes, and what they will charge for additional work or meetings. Make sure that your budget will cover any potential extra costs.
Outside experts are essentially supplying a professional service to your organization. Here, business consultant Ray Carter's 10 Cs of Supplier Evaluation can be a useful tool to help you to better understand your organization's needs, whether the consultant's competency and skill-set meets them, and, ultimately, whether he or she is going to be the right resource for you.
Eight Steps to Consultancy Success
Jennie and her team obviously ran into difficulties with Gus. But, you can avoid potential problems by taking the following eight steps:
- Build a balanced relationship. Consultants need a different management approach from that used with freelance, contractor, or permanent team members. It's important to strike the right balance: as expensive resources, consultants need to be guided carefully, but, if you try to exert too much control, you can strain your relationship with them and affect their productivity.
- Clarify the role. Make sure that everyone involved in the project or task is clear about why the consultant has been hired, including the consultant herself. And give her copies of the company's mission and vision statements, along with other key documents, to help her to see the bigger picture. She also needs to know about underlying issues that might not be discussed openly. For example, could office politics affect her project? And who are the key stakeholders that she should know about?
- Define direction. Consultants need measurable goals, so work with them to set SMART goals. These not only clarify what you're expecting, but also allow you to measure their progress and performance.
- Practice scope control. Projects may grow as time passes and needs increase. You may also have to contend with consultants who actively seek to expand their role to gain additional work. This is why it's important to practice scope control. Ensure that you've defined the project's vision and goals, set a budget, and established clear priorities. Our article, "'Yes' to the Person, 'No' to the Task," helps you to say "no" assertively to additional work, while maintaining a good relationship with the consultant.
- Get them up and running quickly. Think about how overwhelming it is when you start a new job. Consultants go through this experience every time they start a new project, so they should be good at "getting up to speed." However, while they won't need as much onboarding as new employees, you do need to help them to get acquainted with the organization, with the team they'll be working with, and with the project that they'll be working on.
- Cement trust with the team. It can be challenging to integrate consultants into an existing team, especially if they're being brought in to solve a problem that team members can't tackle on their own. Tension can build as people worry about losing their jobs or reputations. That's why it's important to communicate that the need for a consultant doesn't reflect a failure on anyone's part. Be honest about what the consultant can and can't accomplish without team members' help, and focus on how your team can learn from this project.
- Provide feedback. Consultants need feedback on their performance, so that they know what they're doing well and where they need to improve, just like other members of your team.
- Be vigilant. The consultancy industry is all about winning contracts and delivering projects. But, at the same time, once a contract is won, you need to ensure that the consultancy firm is not taking advantage of the fact that you're now "signed and sealed," if it's not yet fully delivered on the promises that it made to you. This, of course, comes back to effective performance and delivery management.
But it is also about being alert to the risk that service levels may fall away as other time pressures or other, perhaps more lucrative, clients and contracts come into play. Many consultancies win business with highly experienced staff, but then quickly substitute these people with cheaper, less experienced juniors. Ensure that there is a specific, named consultant who will be responsible for delivering your project, and that this person is not called on to deal with other issues.
Managing the Future
You can't depend on your consultant for ever, and, once he leaves, your team members will need to take responsibility for the project. They'll be the ones fixing problems or making adjustments in the future, so they must understand the consultant's work, and develop the skills that they will need to continue it.
Include developing a knowledge management plan in your consultant's tasks, and involve members of your team to ensure that this plan is a success. Make sure that the consultant cross-trains your team on his techniques and approach.
Build a knowledge transfer process into the project, to ensure that you are not caught out when your consultant finishes. The earlier this process begins, the more questions your team members can ask, and the more skills and knowledge they will gain.
Consultants are professionals who provide short-term expert help and advice in a particular field or industry. They have high levels of expertise, but they're often expensive and they can work differently to the rest of your team.
The key to working successfully with them is to be clear about expectations and deliverables. This includes monitoring the scope of the project: be aware that projects and budgets can grow, and that consultants may encourage this!
Give consultants detailed instructions, clear feedback, and the resources that they need to work efficiently. Work to maintain positive relationships between them and their permanent co-workers.
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