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Consultants – Part 2: When and How To Engage

There is a time and place for everything. Hiring an external consultancy is no exception. By the very nature of being “external” these consultants bring valuable insight into the company and make solutions happen. They do not perform this function by stepping in and taking charge. They have the expertise to do this, but their value added comes from knowing how to work as a catalyst. They cause results by means of their influence and ability to communicate with others. The expertise they bring usually means that they have experience in hands-on delivery of successes, but their mission is normally not execution of project tasks. Their job is instructing others on how to do it. To borrow from an old saying, they won’t catch a fish for you… they teach you how to fish.

Before engaging in the contract, one thing needs to be absolutely clear: Their services may be for a short period of time, but the institutional memory must be for the long term. If the knowledge gained by their presence leaves with them, then the experience is wasted and may have to be re-learned again from scratch. There must always be an in-house executive sponsor and multiple parties assigned to shadow and document actions from the company perspective. A good consultant will tie up loose ends and submit a complete after-action report before departure. The in-house and consultant notes probably will not be identical, but they should be complimentary.

It is important to know when to invite outside experts and what to do when they get there.  

  • Skill Deficit Enhancement – The primary reason a consultant is engaged is to augment internal staff in unusual situations. Even if in-house personnel are experienced, professional, and well trained, there will be unique requirements that are outside of their range of experience. For example mergers, strategic downsizing, or new systems implementation require a detailed knowledge not normally considered a prerequisite to hiring in-house talent. Give them what they need to help you to succeed.
  • Buffering Work Overload – Projects often must be launched in tandem with ongoing business activity. The expertise required to plan and initiate a major disruption to the status quo requires additional resources familiar with the type of project needed. This is to preserve production and customer relationships during change. In-house personnel will be trained to carry on after the consultants leave. Listen to them and learn. Support their data needs.
  • Refine Strategic Direction – Change sometimes requires intervention to succeed. Engagement with the CEO and other executive management can bring a broader perspective of industry directions and clarify cloudy goals. When there are overall corporate goals, such as increased profitability or cost reduction, consultants provide viable options to reach the desired objectives with the least resistance. Give them your trust in exchange for stellar results.
  • Reversal of Negative Trends – External factors causing harm or internal mismanagement can often escape detection and analysis. The consultant becomes a private detective hired to follow all the clues to identify the causes and propose answers. The value of being outside of the day-to-day operations can give a clearer vision of events since they are not clouded by politics or internal squabbles that often cause these problems. Hiding real information from them is counterproductive.

It should never be the sole job of the external advisor to be an arbiter of difficulties between groups or to referee counterproductive turf wars. The trained consultant will never take sides and the better ones will have the courage to give feedback at all levels. If they are not willing to walk away from an untenable situation caused by undue political pressures, then you hired the wrong one. Ethics and professionalism trump petty squabbles even if it costs them the job.

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