Five Keys to Finding Your Ideal Consulting Partner

By Anne Tulek on November 5, 2019
Consultants consulting

Are you looking to hire a consultant, but aren’t sure where to start? Have you been burned and want to avoid that experience? You want to find someone you can trust with your boss, peers, and employees. It’s a tall order.

I’ve been in business a while: as a consultant and as a company executive. In other words, I’ve been the provider and the buyer. I’ve seen selections involve 50-page evaluations and I’ve seen some involve gut instinct. For those who want practical advice between those extremes, this 5-minute read is for you.

Track Record

The consulting industry is fluid: many experts move between consulting companies a time or two in their career. Those who haven’t only know one company’s methodology and culture. Are you ready to work with someone who knows a single way to work with clients? How many years and what type of experience does this consultant have? Have they worked in only one industry, or across several? Do they know one type of technology, or many? In some cases, expertise is crucial; in others, a cross-section of knowledge and experience can enhance your project outcomes. (See this exciting example of experts from the cardiology, aerospace, and energy industries coming together for good.) If there is specific software involved in your solution, understand the tradeoffs: what you get in package-expertise you may lose in other areas, such as data modeling, integrations, and overall design and architecture. A blended team of deep experts with more strategic thought leaders and architects can provide a healthy balance. And finally, how has the consultant contributed to change management in their work? Is their experience pocked with multiple stories about “uphill battle(s)”, “pushback”, or overall uncertainty about how their solutions are used today? If so, they may be someone who can build and implement solutions, but not create understanding, acceptance and adoption of new ways of working. Look for a person or team who can also help their client manage change.

Communication

How well does this consultant communicate? Do they inspire you? Are their proposals complicated or easy to understand? Do they create a burning platform of fear, or a springboard of opportunity? Do they respond substantively to your emails? Would you put them in front of your boss? Your boss’s boss? Do they seek clarity, or make big assumptions and answer the wrong question? Projects can get complicated. Wires can get crossed. An expert consultant who isn’t a highly skilled and flexible communicator can become disruptive when the project is well underway. If you hire a consultant without finely tuned communication skills (and yes, sometimes you need to just because you need their expertise), team them with a strong communicator who can help things stay on track. If you need your consultant to create a mutual understanding on the project, engage the right people in decision-making, and inspire new ways of working, then they must be a gifted communicator.

Delivery

Does the consultant deliver on their promises? How can you know without simply trusting references? When you are asking a consultant to deliver a clearly defined thing (software, workflow, etc.) in a specified timeframe with known constraints and enablers, and can compare that to other, similar, accounts, then ask references. But what if you need help on something less defined? One way is to pay attention to their work with you in the sales cycle. Of course, consider whether they met reasonable deadlines with the agreed work product. But how did they go about achieving that? Did they ask questions that expanded your thinking? Did they challenge you (politely) and offer value-adding considerations? Did they offer options in their proposal? Did they suggest a scoping phase in advance of the proposal you requested? These consultants are highly invested in your success. They want you to have all the information you need before making a big investment. In my experience, those are the ones you can count on to deliver.

Flexibility

What is designed to be rigid, built to impose structure, and is most beneficial in a crisis when pliable? The answer? Project Management Methodology. (If you said a high-rise in an earthquake zone, you just might be right, but we are discussing consultants, after all.) It is key to successful consulting. And it requires flexibility. Yes, you want to hire a consultant with project management skills. And… you need that consultant to consider the countless ways your company’s own project management methods, culture, and experiences implementing change are likely to impact their planned pace and path. You need to cost-effectively implement with minimal business disruption, maximum stakeholder adoption, and the highest of quality outcomes. These require meticulous project planning, whether through waterfall or agile methods, or a combination. If your organization has a formal PM toolkit, your consultant needs to understand, internalize, and use it. The need for flexibility doesn’t stop there: it is crucial in how the consultant approaches ideation, scheduling, issue management, and conflict resolution, to name a few. Consider where flexibility will be a strength on the project, and evaluate consultants accordingly.

Trust

When you hire a consultant, it’s like inviting them into your home for a few months. Their initial impression of your uber-clean home will soon wear off as real life happens. Presumably you are hiring them to fix a problem or to pursue an opportunity. Either way they will see the good and the bad in your department. They will observe how your people interact, who follows through, who is resourceful, and who feels unsure of where they stand. They will encounter messy data, imperfect processes, and personalities that periodically conflict, customer and supplier lists, legal agreements, and more information requiring strict confidentiality. How do you know who to trust with that level of access? Sure, they will sign non-disclosures and you will periodically invoke the cone of silence to remind them of their duty. But really: how do you know who to trust? Here are some tips. When they discuss the industry, do they differentiate their relative strengths, or do they disparage others? When they describe similar situations, do they protect the client’s name? (Some clients give permission to use their name, so sometimes it’s OK.) Are they helping you learn about their capabilities, or highlighting themselves as the hero? A little self-promotion is understandable if they are trying to win your business, but discern who takes that tactic farther than necessary. Trust is a highly coveted currency. Take care to invest it wisely.