Advising From Both Sides

Joe Kujawa, Snow Magazine March 2021 - May, 2021

Joe Kujawa is senior practice leader at Bruce Wilson & Company.

There are generally five reasons companies bring in consultants. They include:

  • Needing expertise not available internally;
  • Managing change on important projects;
  • Gaining an objective outside perspective;
  • Attaining additional resources for internal/existing projects; and
  • Backing up management’s opinion.

The first three reasons tend to bring more value to the company. The last two–while sometimes may be effective–are generally indicators of other issues within the organization. Having been on both sides of the fence as a consultant and an owner, I have recognized that regardless of the reason you had to bring in some help, there are several key ideas management should jump on to get the most out of working with consultants.

Figure out what is bothering you
Before you sit down with a consultant, spend some time organizing your thoughts and creating an initial project brief. The brief should cover what you think the problem/issue is and how it is impacting your company. It should also outline the results or outcomes you are hoping to achieve and how you will measure the success of the project. It’s better to skip setting a completion deadline; just jot down the results you are looking for.

Good consultants and good clients are flexible and responsive. Consultants build their business through recommendations and reputation. They are unlikely to take shortcuts or make changes to the scope that will endanger that or hinder the success of the project.

Find a consultant that makes sense for you
Finding the right consultant is like buying a pair of shoes: you need to get the right fit. So how do you do that? First, check with other business owners you know, look for recommendations and check references. And like most shoe shoppers who try on multiple pairs, it’s important to check out more than one or two consultants. If you find an interesting lead online, call a few of the businesses on their clients list to get their real review. It’s important these consulting candidates have experience with companies like yours and that they have a good track record. When first meeting with them, ask specific questions that probe to see if they understand your business. Ask if they have faced these types of issues before and how they were able to help the client. Also, watch to see if the consultant ask questions or are they doing all the talking?

Make sure to understand their approach – does it make sense to you? Do you have a good rapport with them? Are they interested in developing a relationship or is this just going to be a transaction to them?

Determine the scope
Work with the consultant to determine the final objectives and desired outcomes for your project, but don’t try to run the assignment by limiting their process or dictating their methods. Let them use their experience to determine the best path for success. Just as you would not want a client telling you how to plow a site, don’t micro mange the project. If you are not sure about what needs to be addressed first, or need to balance budget constraints, consider an initial project to help clarify the issues/problems, then develop a phased approach of smaller projects based on the findings to be completed over time.

Be Flexible
Consulting projects have many unknowns and often uncover issues not originally considered. It is often better to adjust the scope or the objectives of the project to address these previously unknown issues. Sticking with what was originally discussed despite the introduction of new facts, generally does not lead to the best solution. Good consultants and good clients are flexible and responsive. Consultants build their business through recommendations and their reputation. They are unlikely to take shortcuts or make changes to the scope that will endanger that or hinder the success of the project.

Prepare for Success
Working with your consultant at the start of the project determine what information they will need. In addition, it is helpful to have the best internal resources for the consultant to work with on the project. Also, ask whether it make sense to interview various staff members or if surveys will be more appropriate. It’s important to identify an internal project champion and project lead; this person must have the pull to free up resources and make decisions as needed. Lastly, determine how much buy-in is necessary from your team. The more things change from the current methods, the more buy-in will be needed and buy-in requires time and involvement.

Be Honest
You are working with a consultant because you determined a need – you had a pain point that needed to be addressed. Just like when visiting your doctor, the more forthcoming, open and honest you are, the more you can be helped.  Working with a consultant is not the time to put on airs or pretend things aren’t as bad as you know they are.

Talk to your team
Permanent staff may not understand the need for the consultant or what they are trying to accomplish. Your team may understand their part of the process, but not how the whole company is impacted.  I have experienced staff becoming resentful that an “outsider” was brought in to fix a problem they couldn’t (or one they didn’t even believe existed). Tension can build as people worry about losing their jobs or having to learn a new way of doing things. It is critical for employers to communicate to their teams that bringing in a consultant does not reflect a failure on anyone’s part. Be honest and open about what you hope to achieve and how this can help everyone involved.

Talk to your consultant
Let them understand your point of view; share your unfiltered experience. Provide feedback to your consultant as you would your own team members. Just like your staff, consultants work better with timely feedback on what they are doing – good and bad. Share with them what you are hearing from your team so they can better understand the team dynamics present.

Don’t take it personally
It is important for the owner to recognize the consultant’s findings as constructive criticism on the business, not the owner. A consultant brings their own perspective and experiences to bear on the problem. Often owners may be too close to the problem or have a blind spot when it comes to their own actions which can be an obstacle to positive change. Both parties have valuable input and should be working toward finding the best solution together.

Snow Magazine contributing editor Joe Kujawa is a senior facilitator and dedicated practice leader for Bruce Wilson & Co. Joe is a 2016 Leadership Award recipient.

Reprinted with permission. GIE Media. Snow Magazine. March 2021 (c)

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