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Viewpoint: Why Your Consultant Secretly Hates You

April 12, 2012
Hint: Its not the pay or the amount of work he has to do.

Early last year a global aerospace company hired a small team of industry veterans to craft a strategic plan for their newly acquired subsidiary. The four consultants on the team spent nary a minute on site at the acquisition or the parent company, conducted no interviews, facilitated no meetings, gave no presentations and didnt even grace their customer with final recommendations.

After a few months of this spectacular lack of activity the consultants did eke out one document for their client: an invoice for $325,000. Sounds like a consultants dream, doesnt it? Never meet with the client, never present to the buyer and collect a fat paycheck.

Surprisingly, by the initiatives denouement the consultants abhorred the project and lost respect for a client they had held in high esteem. One of the consultants, a high-energy, whip-smart engineer who previously occupied the top spot at another large aerospace company, described the project: It was the worst consulting project Ive ever been a part of either as a client or consultant. It was an utter failure.

Wait a second. How could a client for whom they had to do so little work be the source of such aggravation? Is it possible you think you are a dream client but your consultants harbor ill will toward you? Since youve never blown a small fortune in a similar debacle, does your consultants view of you matter?

Yes it matters; yes, they may hold ill will toward you; well get to how this happens momentarily. Praiseworthy results emerge from teams equipped with outstanding talent, mutual respect, passion for their goal and work processes that coax superlative work from each contributor. The same consultant who bemoaned this failure spoke fondly of a project five years earlier, when he was a CEO, in which his internal team and the consultant argued fervently for weeks on end until they jointly produced an industry breakthrough. In contrast, teams whose members feel no love for each other or the goal, or are shackled by suspect processes produce, at best, mediocre results.

If youve hired consultants worth their salt, you are spending a pretty penny and you deserve phenomenal return on your investment. The good news is if youve hired well, your outside experts possess terrific talent and share your enthusiastic view of success. That leaves mutual respect and excellent work processes which, it turns out, are intertwined.

Setting aside the arrogant disdain of know-it-alls who expect you to genuflect in the presence of their ivy-league degrees or famous company names, your consultants respect for you is directly related to how well you prepare to engage them (see chart). If you facilitate their success, youll win their hearts and their best efforts. If you fail to put in place the work processes that allow them to practice their craft on your behalf, you will garner neither favor nor favorable results in trade for your dollars.

Consultants want to deliver outstanding work. They strive for it; dream of it; and brag at consulting conferences of the incredible value they created for their clients. What annoys and confounds outside experts is when you hire them then handicap them with inadequate preparation. Picture Wolfgang Pucks reaction if you hired him to prepare a grand banquet and provided only an Easy-Bake oven, two packets of instant cake mix and a padlocked fridge with no key.

Now weve arrived at the crux of the issue: what preparation must you undertake prior to opening your doors to the earnest wiz kids and battle-scarred advisors intent on helping you achieve your aspirations? The answer falls into four areas (An expanded version of these four buckets is available here):

1. Gain sufficient buy-in. Unwavering support is needed at the top; the level of buy-in necessary at other levels depends on the project. Contrary to the popular wisdom, broad-based inclusion is neither necessary nor helpful on many projects. The depth of support you need depends on the breadth and extent of behavior change you are undertaking, your time frame and security issues. The aerospace project, for example, required very little buy-in across the organization; nevertheless, the client failed to garner even the modicum of support required for success: The project had no internal champion and the division president who was ostensibly the sponsor of the work refused to have even a single, live conversation with the consultants.

2. Prepare for risks. All projects contain risk and every project encounters hiccups. Poorly prepared clients scramble and flail when the assumptions on which they based their project unexpectedly shift. The aerospace companys project hit some turbulence shortly after takeoff and, rather than buckling their seatbelts and flying at a different altitude, the internal team bailed out the side doors. There are only a handful of challenges that are likely to affect your projects progress, and a bit of advance time constructing plans to prevent, mitigate and/or adapt to those challenges will keep your project team steaming forward in the face of adverse events.

3. Ensure the right resources are at the ready. Your contribution to the project team is easily as critical to success as the talent and manpower the consultant provides. Before the initiative commences, you are responsible for marshalling four types of competencies: technical (i.e., the right kind of thinking), fiefdom (i.e., the right territories are involved), leadership and communication. A hole in any of those areas will squander your consultants talent and sink your ship. In addition, you should identify scarce time, people or capital resources in advance and plan for them so that they do not become bottlenecks. The aerospace project was entirely devoid of internal resources. Employees with mission-critical knowledge were inaccessible to the consultants, a series of workshops were shut down and even phone calls were cut short due to time constraints. That is a startling example of resource mismanagement.

4. Securely establish guidance mechanisms. Before you jump in your Maserati and speed off to the beach, its important to know whos driving, what a shoreline looks like and what those flashing red lights in the rearview mirror might mean. A well-prepared client has a solid handle on decision rights before the project starts, knows practically and tactically how progress will be measured and prepares warning signals that will flash if the project is at risk of failure. You should set up a dashboard at the beginning of each project that features project milestones, progress toward the desired outcomes and project health indicators. The aerospace project either had none of these or the executives in charge were asleep at the switch. Within three weeks of the project starting someone should have been calling a timeout. Instead, they let the initiative run off course for months, providing little value at great expense.

If you have gone to the trouble of hiring a consultant then put in the upfront work to make sure their smiles remain genuine even after the initial check is cashed. Thinly veiled grimaces masquerading as grins indicate their ardor is cooling for you and your project. Worse yet, they are a harbinger of mediocre results and disappointing return on your investment in outside experts. Just a few days of preparation in the four areas outlined above will set you up for impressive payback on your project. And who knows, you may even get a card from your consultant on Valentines Day.

David A. Fields, managing director of Ascendant Consortium, helps companies find, hire and get great results from outside experts. His book, The Executives Guide to Consultants, will be released by McGraw Hill in fall 2012. Contact him by e-mail at [email protected] or call 203-438-7236.

See also:

Why Strategy Consultants Bite

Great Shot, Wrong Target: Stop Wasting Time on Misdirected Projects

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