If you’ve ever had to hire or work with a management consultant you might have had one of these thoughts –
• There are so many to choose from, how can I make the right choice?
• What should I watch out for?
• How can I make sure I get the right result from the project?
Before cofounding Dawson McDonald Consulting John Dawson was GM, CEO or MD of five different organisations in Australia and the UK. In these roles he hired and worked with consultants on many projects and experienced both successes and failures in these working relationships
Right now we want to draw on that earlier experience and our 20 years of running a consultancy to give you some tips on how to cut the pain of using consultants by avoiding 6 common mistakes
1. Hiring by consulting brand instead of personal trust
Executives are often attracted to the idea of hiring consultants who are employed by a global consulting brand. This seems to carry less personal risk for the executive.
After all, if I’m the executive who appointed the consultancy and the project doesn’t deliver the expected results I can point out that I hired a globally recognised organisation, so I can hardly be blamed for the failure
The mistake here is to base your decision on the brand when the reality is that the project must be executed by a person or team. Neither global nor local consultancies are immune from occasionally making poor hiring decisions, resulting in below-average consultants
Instead of hiring by brand, make sure you have an in-depth conversation with the consultant who is pitching for your project. You need to feel really confident that –
• he or she is genuinely listening to your needs
• you could establish an effective working relationship with this person
• you can trust this person to put your best interests ahead of her own or those of her organisation
2. Failing to clarify which consultant will execute the project
This flows on from mistake #1. Too often, the consultant who pitches the project to you and signs off the contract is not the person who executes the project
We’ve seen so many cases of organisations that have hired consultants and then been seriously disappointed by the calibre of people who are sent in to do the execution. Often, the client executives tell us they have had to spend time training the inexperienced consultants in how to go about the assignment
Before you sign the consulting contract make sure it clearly specifies who will execute the work and that you are satisfied with that person’s (or team’s) capability and capacity to do this to the standard you expect
3. Hiring someone who won’t tell it like it is
The mistake here is in hiring yes-men or women. These are the consultants who spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they think you want to hear and this is what they’ll tell you.
Their thinking seems to be that by avoiding any challenging conversations they increase the chances of getting more work from you
A good way to test this is to state a position on something, ask if they agree and if they do then switch your position and see if they switch with you
To get good results you need people who are prepared to challenge the status quo and don’t modify reports to paper over difficult issues. You’ll also get the best outcomes by working with people who use plain English instead of hiding behind consulting gobbledygook.
4. Failing to agree on a clear brief
Failing to establish a clear brief before signing a consulting contract just about guarantees disappointment. The consultants get busy doing what they think has been asked for and frequently the client doesn’t realise that they are working on the wrong problem until the assignment is well advanced
Lack of a clear brief also causes budget overruns and missed deadlines.
We find the best method for getting a clear brief is –
• a conversation with our client to explore the problem or opportunity
• we provide our client with a Discussion Paper outlining our understanding of what is required and how we intend to execute the assignment
• if the client sees the Discussion Paper as an accurate reflection of what is needed this can be turned into a formal proposal or a contract. If not we jointly talk through the Discussion Paper to reach clarity on requirements
5. Letting them keep the clock running
Many consultants work for organisations that set very high targets for the number of billable hours to be achieved each month. It can make sense to some of these people to keep their current projects running as long as possible because this helps them achieve their billable hours target.
You can avoid this by –
• specifying a measurable end result
• setting a budget and requiring regular updates on expenditure
• agreeing on and monitoring timelines and milestones
6. Not making evidence-based decisions.
Consultants who say they are basing their recommendations on their experience (which may mean their “gut feel”) or on the latest consulting “fad” are putting their clients at risk
Make sure they are giving you evidence-based advice. For example, if it’s a performance problem get them to show you how –
• they have measured current performance
• assessed the gap between this and desired performance
• designed an intervention to close the gap
Unless decisions for action are evidence-based there is also a high risk that action will only focus on a symptom instead of fixing the root cause of the performance problem.
If you’ve seen other problems or challenges in hiring or working with consultants please leave a comment.
About the Authors
John Dawson & Carmel McDonald are the co-owners of Dawson McDonald Consulting. They’ve helped hundreds of organisations and their people improve performance, to increase business results and customer loyalty. Since 2005 they’ve been accredited as experts by the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).
They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2015 they published a book to share their insights into how to achieve high performance –
BUILD Your Business: From Ordinary to Extraordinary, 5 Steps To High Performance