Hiring Consultants: Do You Get What You Deserve?

Dec. 12, 2012
If you want the best outcome from hiring an outside expert, here are some important steps to follow (and avoid) in making your choice.

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.

Know What Outcomes You're Looking For

Do: Know what outcomes you’re looking for – There are only four outcomes from a consulting project that add value: a decision, a plan, implementation or a box of chocolate. Okay, there’s really only three outcomes that add value, but delicious truffles never go astray. Which outcome or outcomes are you looking to achieve? The more precise you are in this step, the better off you’ll be down the line. Also, make sure you phrase your objectives as outcomes, not activities.

Don’t: Ask for activities - The healthcare industry is finally realizing that the entire fee-for-service model is wacky. When you ask for activity (“Doc, I want an x-ray” or “I need a knee replacement”) you get activities; in contrast, when you focus on outcomes you have a shot at achieving your goal faster and more efficiently (“Doc, what will it take for me to play hockey again?”). Consulting is no different. Rather than asking for training, tell the experts you are trying to achieve increased sales, or higher morale or happier customers or some other business outcome.

Don’t: Decide how you are going to achieve those outcomes – It’s okay that you have some ideas about how to rid Gotham City of nefarious evildoers, but since you’re picking up the red phone, let Batman decide whether to use the helicopter or the cool, puffy wheeled vehicle that Christian Bale gets to drive. Seriously, if you don’t trust your experts to determine the best approach then you’re not turning to the right experts.

Do: Know how you will measure success –Before you even call a consultant, decide on some yardsticks for your project. Think how much better Christmas morning would be if you knew in advance that Santa’s activities would be judged on the number (not quality) of presents. There’s art and science to assigning great indicators of success and I encourage you to refer to the guidelines in this book or in this packet to get it right.

Do: Know what your concerns are about the project and bringing in an expert – Commit to writing your concerns and the risks you foresee on your project. Worried that the consultant may not deliver a high ROI? Anxious about the board-of-directors approving the project’s recommendations? Fixated on whether the box of truffles will have nuts? Whatever it is, get it down on paper and communicate it to your prospective consultant. This step, which is uniformly left out of the hiring process, will help you fine tune your valuation, negotiate a better agreement and identify a better expert for your team.

Know Your Budget

Do: Know the people issues, key dates and budget constraints – You’re probably already on top of this one. Except budget. For some reason, many executives go into their search for an outside expert without a budget in mind or decide not to communicate the budget to prospective consultants. If you know the value of your project (discussed below), then you know your budget.

Don’t: Decide exactly what type of expertise is needed – Let’s say, like Barry McKillan, you are a specialty plastics manufacturer managing through discontented senior executives and a collapsing market. Wouldn’t the perfect consultant be an expert in specialty plastics who has succeeded in the face of stormy internal and external challenges? Probably not. There are multiple types of expertise which could fit the bill for your project, and focusing on situation expertise as opposed to outcome expertise will get you less far than you’d think. This IndustryWeek.com article talks more about different types of expertise.

Do: know the risk-adjusted value – Why bother running a better executive retreat? What substantive difference will it make to your company, your customers or your employees? If you don’t know the value of your project, how do you know you should do it? There are 37 common sources of value you can tap, and also a couple of common traps executives fall into when valuing projects. Run your valuation exercise before you pick up the phone. You’ll avoid wasting your time and creating ill will by investigating a project that ends up never running and you’ll be able to determine your budget.

Don’t: Call an expert to help you make a decision that has a vested interest in the outcome – One stop shops are great if you’re picking up everything you need for a luscious dinner, but they’re a lousy idea when it comes to outside advisors. Guess what Bonus Bob’s Promotion Associates is going to conclude when you ask for help on your marketing strategy? Here’s a hint: promotions will probably be part of the recommendation. Most gurus aren’t so obvious with their biases, so be on the alert for shops that want to help you with strategy and execution.

You know you deserve to have an Albert Einstein on your team, and your chances of finding, hiring and working with that phenomenal thinker skyrocket if you follow the do’s and don’ts above before you pick up the phone.

David A. Fields, managing director of Ascendant Consortium, helps companies find, hire and get great results from outside experts. His book, The Executive’s Guide to Consultants(McGraw Hill, 2012) can be found at all major online and retail bookstores. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected].

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