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That Guy You Don't Like? Hire Him

March 21, 2013
Comfort is not king when it comes to choosing a consultant.

There are the guys you dated, the guys you’d never have dated and then there were the guys you took home to meet your parents. (Make gender adjustments to fit your situation.) I’ve neatly summed up the universe of eligible men you encountered in the handy diagram below. Feel free to use it with your single friends.

That’s history, though; you’ve picked your man. Nowadays you’re blessed with a couple of kids, a dog and a hybrid SUV boasting your stick figure family on the rear windshield, and it’s time to make another important choice among potential partners: which one do you hire as a consultant? You think you already know the answer? Whoa there, Nellie. Based on roughly four gazillion encounters with clients and consultants, my conclusion is you get it wrong about 90% of the time. Here’s what you typically look for when evaluating consultants:
  1. Experience in your industry
  2. Experience with your problem
  3. Rapport

On the surface those three filters make sense. You want a guru who knows your history, has dealt with your problems and, gosh darn it, with whom you just get along. Well, that list will suffice when you’re seeking a soulmate and it even holds together in the search for employees; but when it comes to hired guns, the same criteria will put you on the dance floor with the wrong partner.

  1. Experience in your industry is of miniscule value. Stop hiring consultants that match your situation and start retaining experts who deliver the outcome you want. In other words, choose the guy who knows how to win dance competitions, not the one who’s spent 20 years mastering the tango. Read more about this in How to Be Irresistibly Attractive.
  2. Experience with your problem may grant you an okay solution, but if you want to really rock your results, be bolder. You need to abandon the partner practiced in concealing your persistent blemishes and grab the guy who’ll take you into a dark room to ply his well-developed nookie techniques. There’s more to learn about the different types of expertise in The One Person that Can Help You Most
  3. Rapport is overrated. You don’t have to take a shine to your consultant or even like him much. You’re not buying a best friend; you’re contracting solutions, advice and skill. The dumb jerk is still a bad choice because, well, he’s dumb. But the smart jerk may be exactly what you need. Within reason, of course. If his style inhibits your organization’s ability to hear, accept and adopt his recommendations, that’s a problem. (Though the problem may be with you, so give that jerk a third look.)

Three characteristics of a great consultant exacerbate his abrasiveness: his willingness to push back, an uncanny ability to see things differently than you, and utter insouciance in the face of your discomfort. Let’s face it: comfortable is where you’re at now or it’s what got you into a sorry state. You laugh and swap stories with comfortable. You marry comfortable. Comfortable is great at home, but at the office comfort doesn’t break new ground.

In contrast, pushing, prodding and poking may be exactly what you need. The division president of a global transportation company fondly recounted a project in which he had knock-down, drag out fights with the consultant. “They would never leave a meeting in which there was disagreement between what they thought and what we thought until we hammered out our differences.” It wasn’t fun at the time and they didn’t pop down to the pub for beers and banter after work, but the consultants made that company confront issues they had previously avoided and overcome painful barriers to success.

Pop down the hall to a mate’s office or walk your dog if you want friendly appreciation. But if you need to solve a problem plaguing your organization or leap to the next level of performance, call that smart, jerky guy who totally rubs you the wrong way. You’re not going to marry him; however, you might just give him a hug when the project’s done.

David A. Fields, author of The Executive’s Guide to Consultants (McGraw Hill, 2012) improves companies’ success with outside experts. Read an overview of his advisory service or contact him by e-mail at [email protected].

About the Author

David A. Fields | Managing Director

David A. Fields is a speaker, author and the founder and managing director of The Ascendant Consortium, a unique organization specializing in maximizing the ROI from consulting engagements. He is the author of "The Executive's Guide to Consultants" (McGraw-Hill, 2012). He writes monthly columns for IndustryWeek and Consulting Magazine, and his commentary has appeared in USA Today, CNN Money, Investor’s Business Daily, Advertising Age, BusinessWeek, SmartMoney, and other publications.

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