Working with management consultants sounds simple enough doesn’t it? Some may say, “It is. I pay a fee and I get a service or deliverable back.” I’m here to tell you this is wrong and if this is how you’ve been working with your consultant, you are missing out!
While a vendor may come and go with little interaction to deliver a service, the work with a management consultant is largely because a skill you require is not available in-house (which is not a bad thing). When I moved from the corporate side to consulting 10 years ago, I started with establishing my ideal working relationship to achieve what I was setting out to do: help organizations and make the client look great. Although a little abstract, what I did understand was that consulting is a lot more than a straight exchange and a ticking clock to bill against. So what is the ‘je ne sais quoi’ —the magic? It’s the relationship and the etiquette you embrace.
When I talk about etiquette, I’m not talking about Emily Post. I mean mutual respect and trust right from the start. If these aren’t present, both the consultant and the organization have cheated themselves out of their most successful outcome. I take this very seriously and have based my decision to partnership based upon it.
For example, a prospective client recently called me asking for an introductory conference call to share info about a project that was open for bidding. I agreed and asked the person who called to tell me a little about the project and with whom I would be speaking on the conference call. She sent me a three-line sentence about the project (which was very vague and not helpful) and the names and titles of the people with whom I would speak. On the call, the people from the company asked me about myself and our company capabilities, then told me what they wanted and what the project would be about. They wanted to assess their current recruiting capabilities and then receive recommendations on how to improve or optimize. I asked some questions that would help me to create clear deliverables and properly quote. However, even with simple questions, they became tight-lipped. Not because I wouldn’t sign a Non-disclosure Agreement (I would have), but they just wouldn’t or couldn’t give it to me. I started to get the sneaking feeling that this potential client relationship would have treated me as a vendor, not a partner. This project was a fairly large six-figure initiative, but after careful consideration, I passed on bidding. They asked why and I told them that they wouldn’t provide me with some simple information to help me scope the project. They apologized. I provided them with other suggested consultants and we each went in our own direction. (I also believed that this team had the “solution” that they wanted a consultant to “discover” already in mind — another no-no.)
Looking at this scenario from just an exchange perspective, it may have worked, but I wouldn’t have achieved my goals. How can I help the organization and make the client look great when these opportunities didn’t actually exist? While this is just one example, it did start me down a path of pinpointing what makes a great partnership — for both sides. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but rather a checklist to navigate what a true partnership can achieve.
The list includes things to consider before, and at the beginning of working with a management consultant. At the end of the day, we all want to be successful, so allow me to share the following pearls of wisdom:
Know what is working for your team, and what is not. It is important to be able to shape the scope of a project, form a few expectations, and better understand your own environment before a set of fresh eyes comes in.
Why — this will help all involved to avoid knee-jerk reactions to problems that may seem easily solved from the outside, but are more complicated from within (and we’ve all seen these problems in action).
Start with a clean slate. You know the landscape, so allow the consultant to provide the value you approached them for in the first place. If you already know exactly what you want to implement, then you may want to consider a project management (pm) consultant.
Why — management consultants have great pm skills, however their value comes from expertise and analysis. You want the right expertise at the table. After all, a sous-chef can make a great sandwich, but it’s not where his/her talents really lie.
Research the consultant. Their credentials, client list and referrals matter and should be easily provided.
Why — this will save a lot of time once you’re ready to get to work. If the consultant doesn’t —or won’t— provide references, you might want to ask yourself why they wouldn’t want to share their past successes with you.
Have a single point of contact ready. This person should be available to the consultant and have all the information, contacts, and knowledge of decision makers.
Why — I’ll share a story here to demonstrate this one—perhaps you can relate. I was working with an organization to help them more effectively hire and manage rapid growth. Parts of their services were outsourced to another industry and administrative resources were being shared, creating two points of contact: the original organization, and the outsourced organization. After I provided recommendations, several weeks passed of back and forth between the two points of contact without a decision. I subsequently learned that neither had decision-making ability; the decision maker was located in a completely different office in another city and hadn’t been brought into the loop. When I asked why this person wasn’t involved (or mentioned) earlier, I was told, “Because you didn’t ask.” Do you see my point here?
Have self-awareness. We’ve all seen the internal review process and very few are receiving frank and honest feedback. Know that a good consultant will provide that feedback that others likely won’t — and try not to be defensive.
Why — part of what I love most about my role is that while I am helping organizations become more efficient, I’m also providing coaching that leaders will likely never receive internally. The feedback can be constructive, and while I’ve never intended to insult a client, without self-awareness some can become a little prickly about hearing how they can be more effective leaders.
This is not only a valuable organizational benefit, but a personal development opportunity.
Transparency. Your consultant will sign an NDA (Non-disclosure Agreement) and if you are building a strong relationship, please, please, please be as open and honest as possible! This includes internal politics, industry information, and business updates.
Why — like in a 12-step program, the first step is acknowledging that you do not have the expertise and/or the time to be able to achieve the solutions to the problem you need to solve. It’s nothing to get hung up on, and the best professionals know when and where to use external resources. Part of this is to be transparent about why and how you’ve come to realize you need some external resource support. With transparency and solid deliverables, you’ve already avoided one of the major failure points of management consulting relationships.
Know the players and influencers. There are some people who are official decision makers, but others without the official authority will have just as much influence on decisions.
Why — knowing who is going to be an integral part of your ability to influence and implement change and proactively build coalitions, understanding their concerns, and ensuring they have an opportunity to provide input will keep things moving and avoid unnecessary conflict.
Set up a flat fee structure. Some business leaders are afraid of an ongoing relationship where the company becomes reliant on services that are billed by the hour (also see next section!).
Why — by avoiding the lawyer-like billing, fee structures can have a beginning, middle and end. If the management consultant isn’t able or willing to set up this type of fee structure, they may not have the confidence to scope the project properly to give you a fair and equitable fee. I often take things one step further and include a section in my contracts that offers and agrees to accomplish a limited number of reasonable and mutually-agreed upon “ad-hoc” projects during the contract period. This means additional calls, meetings, and materials for related projects that are within a reasonable scope (and I’ve never felt taken advantage of here because of earlier items in this checklist).
Be prepared to have the team take over. A good management consultant will work with the resources already available on your team to ensure they are set up for success well after the project ends.
Why — when a management consultant takes the time to have personal relationships with members of the team and to understand their expertise and where career development is desired, everyone looks good. At the end of a project, the organization should receive all resources and learning from projects so that the work doesn’t happen in a vacuum and then die.
Like I said, the items listed above are not hard and fast rules, but they all focus on relationships. I’ve been in the position of being a Talent Acquisition executive faced with the need to look outside my team for resources and cost-saving ideas—it wasn’t easy to admit. However, the outcome was great. I looked really good and I never could have done it on my own. Now a decade later, this experience taught me that clients are clients forever because they are more than just clients. I have personal relationships with most of them and a majority trust and rely on me for coaching — and vice-versa!
All this is to say the client relationship is paramount and being a partner is key to that success. Good consultants will melt into the background without any kind of public recognition, and aside from the client, many within the organization won’t even know a management consultant was involved in the project. A true partner will not need any glory if they have helped the organization achieve its goals and made the client look great. So a simple question to begin, and a simple statement to end — partnerships truly yield the best outcomes.