It’s Friday afternoon and you just finished a three-hour board meeting. You’re sitting in your office and you receive a call from a new consulting firm. Score!

If you somehow overlooked my sarcastic undertone (or are an optimistic consultant), a lack of enthusiasm is a thought process shared by many executives concerning the thought of a consulting firm lending a hand in things “we’d rather do ourselves.”

The organization-consultant relationship can seem like a difficult situation to piece together into one cohesive business unit. Executives often have preconceived notions from “horror stories” of situations gone wrong and the versatile title of “consulting firm” can be misleading to people with previous negative experiences. Whether a sour situation is due to miscommunication or poor results—believe it or not, there are positive and efficient consulting relationships out there.

What may be most surprising to some is: that is the norm. Carol Lukas, author of Consulting with Nonprofits, points out, “Far more common are the success stories—those of consultants who have helped organizations move to new levels by crafting new strategies, solving persistent problems, discovering efficiencies, or facilitating partnership relationships that transform the organization and result in greater impact. Another group of nonprofit executives might report: ‘Our consultant focused on our most important programs and helped us eliminate those not contributing to our mission,’ ‘We got beyond years of circular discussions that never went anywhere’ ‘We dramatically improved program outcomes thanks to our consultant's expertise.’”

The first step is knowing when it is appropriate to hire a consultant. If there is a problem a business is trying to solve and hiring an in-house specialist is an unrealistic option, a consultant can present a fresh outlook on many situations paving the way for breakthrough improvements. They can also present businesses with resources and models that have driven success around the world in some instances. An alternative perspective can challenge a strategy and allow executives to approach decisions in new, creative ways.

If consulting assistance seems like the best path, then an in-depth search and preparation period is essential. During this time, since consultants’ schedules can be booked far in advance, it is important to plan ahead.

Even if the work needed isn’t overly complex, a detailed Request for Proposal can ensure specifications are met with the optimal firm. An RFP addresses what you want done, the qualifications and experience you’d like the consultant to have, the project budget, and clear timelines. This is an area where if information is left unaddressed, there is a high likelihood that you will be unsatisfied with the end result.

After a pool of candidates have been interviewed and evaluated, a written agreement is a further way to guarantee a business that they’ll get exactly what they’re seeking through a consulting relationship.

When the terms been established, communication is the final key to a rewarding and long-term relationship. This involves frequently checking in on how things are going, making sure that the project is on schedule, and that tasks are being done to the satisfaction of the business. To solely focus on your interpretation of the work and assume that the consulting firm is aligned with your intentions can be a recipe for disaster.

Attention towards all these elements will help achieve your goals. There is no magic way to guarantee you’ve found a perfect consultant that will perform to your expectations—however, these goals are obtainable through clear communication and detailed guidelines. With that being said, the next time you hear a consulting-relationship campfire “horror story”, consider the lack of clarity that could’ve been the cause.

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Photo Courtesy of: 20th Century Fox Film Corporation
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