I’m on the phone with Barry McKillan, president of a specialty plastics company in Eastern Michigan, just outside Detroit. (Identifying details have been changed to protect the embarrassed.) Barry is an industrious, genial Mid-Westerner who went to a top-tier university before entering into a position in sales and then worked his way up the ranks to run this small manufacturing concern. As usual, he’s speaking with an energizing mix of intensity and high spirits: “I need help with an upcoming executive offsite. We do this every year and it’s crucial that this year we get it right. That’s why I’m calling you – do you have someone in your network who can help?” What caliber of expert will Barry get? Albert Einstein or Gomer Pyle?
It’s not clear yet whether I can help Barry, whom I’ve known for almost two decades, so I do a bit of probing: Tell me a bit more about the situation. Barry regales me with a tortured tale of corporate minutiae and internal politics that would make a good soap opera, if it weren’t interminably boring. Which it is. Even to him. After 20 coma-inducing minutes of background, I interrupt and guide him back on track: What is your ideal outcome from bringing someone in? “That’s a good question. I’ve not really thought that through.” Okay, well how will you know if the project was successful? “I don’t know.” What are the key risks you see with bringing someone in? “I’m not sure.” What’s the value of having an outside expert involved? “We haven’t really put pen to paper on that.” What’s your budget? “I don’t know.” What’s your name, Barry? “Can I get back to you on that?”
It’s looking more like Gomer than Albert. To be fair, executives commonly call outside experts without a fully baked synopsis of what they’re looking for and why; however, your preparedness before you turn to the outside will determine the power of your project and the strength of the talent applied on your behalf. To a large degree, when it comes to hired guns, you get what you deserve. Thus, in the interest of helping us (my fellow consultants and me) help you, below is a do’s and don’ts list to keep in mind before you dial the number of your favorite advisor, coach or agency.
Do: Have a concise synopsis of your situation – You want the speed of a Porsche, not a Yugo, on your project. Pithy, penetrating answers, not long, droning presentations of endless Powerpoint charts. Lead the way by communicating the background of your project in a handful of sentences. Here’s what you should cover: how the project fits in strategically with what your company is doing; what change is driving the project, i.e., the events that have led to needing this project to succeed; what decisions have been made already, based on either evidence or strategy, and what is to be tackled now; why the project is being directed to outside resources rather than being handled by current employees.