The One Person Who Can Help You Most

David A. Fields, managing director, The Ascendant Consortium

Let’s harken back to 1993 and consider the plight of FoxMeyer Drugs. You can take the CEO seat at the $5 billion pharmaceutical distributor while Jurassic Park reigns supreme in theaters. Your IT group is pushing for an enterprise-wide software upgrade and promising well over $100 million annually in cost savings, plus streamlined processes and happier customers. That sounds worthwhile, so you go on a hunt for the best blue-suited, power-tie-sporting, Ivy-League brainiacs to transform promises into reality.

Your consultant safari ends with an agreement to employ a very large consulting firm for $35 million. Alas, your choice turns out to be a fatal error. Most of the dozens of consultants on the team are inexperienced and turnover is high. In other words, blowhards who are not loyal to your cause. The project becomes an epic disaster, bankrupting the company and leading you to sell everything, soup to nuts, to a competitor for a mere $80 million.

Aren’t you relieved you didn’t oversee that fiasco? But wait a minute. Are you thinking of hiring an outside expert to help on some project? Could contracting a guru beget a FoxMeyer-esque debacle? Not if you know the right way to find your consultant.

The eight questions below will lead you to the one person who can help you most:

  1. Do I need a diagnostician or an implementer?
  2. What type of expertise will produce superior results?
  3. Do I need fast, cheap or good? (Pick two.)
  4. What are the characteristics of the right consultant?
  5. Where can I locate the right consultant? (Then, having found one or more prospective consultants…)
  6. How likely is success using my prospective consultant’s approach?
  7. Is the ROI still acceptable?
  8. Is my prospective consultant the real deal?

To give you a running start, I’ll touch on the issue of expertise (question #2). Let’s say you’re a manufacturer of boomerangs and you want to reform the management style of a troublesome plant manager. Don’t you want a consultant with a track record of teaching management techniques to stubborn plant managers in the primitive weapons industry? No, you don’t.

Looking for consultants experienced with your problem and situation is a common mistake. You are far better served by finding an expert who has mastery of the outcome you are trying to achieve. A consultant with breakthrough ideas, a superlative approach or exceptional knowledge can deliver outstanding success where an “experienced,” run-of-the-mill consultant would produce humdrum results.

Five Types of Experts

Consider the following five types of experts to solve the case of the bullying boomerang boss:

Industry Expert– This would be the aforementioned primitive weapons veteran. Unless you are specifically trying to learn more about your industry than you already know, industry expertise is less helpful than you’d imagine. You’ll do better with one of the four other types of experts.

High-Level Process Expert– The overall process you are engaging in is training. The training guru who has discovered how to make lessons stick 95% of the time ­ rather than the pathetic, passing impact delivered by most trainers ­ could adapt her techniques to your situation and give you superior results.

Specific Process Expert– The specific process is training managers. The consultant who has spent 25 years training managers at all levels and developing training techniques specific to managers’ unique issues is a good candidate. He can adapt his techniques to the material at hand.

Subject Expert– The subject is managing subordinates. If you could get superstar coach Marshall Goldsmith to work with your plant manager, you’d get much better results from his extraordinary thinking on supervising than you’ll ever get from your close-in industry expert.

Reason-Why Expert– The impetus of your project is to boost morale amongst the hapless plant personnel afflicted with a beastly boss. A breakthrough expert in esprit de corps might have powerful ideas you never considered, and your long-term outcome from this expert will outshine results from a consultant whose key qualification is familiarity with your situation and problem.

The bottom line on expertise: choose a consultant with a track record of producing the phenomenal results you want over one who merely has a history of working on your problem in similar situations. Hire the right consultant and you won’t worry about traveling back in time to revisit your decision. 

David A. Fields helps companies find, hire and get great results from outside experts. His book, “The Executive’s Guide to Consultants” (McGraw Hill, 2012), can be preordered at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected].

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