When I first went into consulting, a potential client approached me and prefaced the conversation by querying me as to whether or not I would "consort, er, excuse me, consult" with his station...? As it turns out, semantics are the least confusing aspect of consulting. Myriad questions immediately present themselves when one entertains the possibility of engaging a consultant. Do I really need a Consultant? How can I find one who is right for my setting? What should I expect? Will it be worth the expense? Can't I just do it myself? Will it make a difference? And the confusion doesn't end there. The process can be intimidating, even overwhelming. Therefore, the following points have been compiled to help take the mystery out of the consulting process.
For the purposes of this article, on-site consulting will be the primary focus because it is the most complex of the various options.
Should I or Shouldn't I?
There is one hurdle you will need to overcome initially if you have never used a consultant before. That obstacle is the feeling that you should know all the answers and shouldn't ask for assistance. You are in charge, after all. Well, the reality is you can't know all the answers. Besides, if you did you'd be Martha Stewart. How attractive is that?
Do I Really Need a Consultant?
Well, let's see. What will a consultant do for you? The bottom line is that a consultant is generally brought in to help you improve your situation, whatever that might be. One of the most common uses is to provide an external objective opinion or an assessment of a given situation. For example, when a consultant makes a recommendation to the staff or to the representatives of a licensee, heads often bob affirmatively. Later the manager will say, "I've been trying to tell them the same thing for months!" Licensees, staff, volunteers and ancillary groups often give total credence to what a consultant says, appearing to hear those things for the first time, even though you very well might have been saying something very similar to them for months! The good part is: you get what you need and everybody ends up happy. This is not, however, to say that a consultant will always agree with you. In fact, an indication of his or her professionalism is that individual's honesty in assessing a situation and sharing that assessment with you, even though it may prove uncomfortable in the process.
If a situation needs upgrading or, perhaps, you're in expansion mode, these are also common assignments for consultants. Help with Board relations and issues with institutional licensees, strategic planning, organizational development, programming, marketing and development, engineering and technical issues, all these areas can benefit from an external perspective and expertise. Additionally, one of the most important benefits that managers gain from a consultant is a sounding board for a discussion of sensitive issues in a confidential manner. A manager's lot is a lonely one, after all. The bottom line is: consultants can perform an array of services, from telephone consultation, to project direction, to providing information and expertise in a given area, to performing on-site consultations.
So. If you've been struggling with a problem that defies an answer; if you're having difficulty choosing the best solution from the array of possibilities; if you need information that is beyond your area of expertise and substantial time will be required to ferret it out--time that you don't have; if you need an objective assessment; or-r-r if you find yourself repeatedly staring at the ceiling at 3:30 a.m., it's probably time to call for some help. Think of it as outsourcing.
Identifying the Right Consultant or Determining the "Fluff to Substance" Ratio:
Talk with colleagues who have used consultants, as well as representatives of national and regional organizations, to gather names of appropriate and reliable consultants. Definitely do reference checks. Skipping this step can be very costly. You wouldn't think of hiring permanent staff without doing a reference check. The consultant is being brought in to affect your future in a positive manner. Therefore, you need to feel confident that that individual can and will deliver. As an aside, go beyond the client names provided by the consultant when doing the reference check.
You will need to focus on the following areas in discussions with references: the consultant's relative store of knowledge, the problem-solving ability, the code of ethics, the communication ability and the degree to which staff and all those involved responded to her/him, and--a very important point--the results of that individual's efforts during previous consulting assignments.
Is Personality Match Important?
You bet. As a point of clarification, it matters not how competent the consultant is if you end up being uncomfortable with one another. When you meet or talk by phone and the personality match isn't there or you sense that (s)he will not be able to relate to your staff or your setting, move to the next candidate on the list. It is extremely important that you feel comfortable with your consultant and that you will be able to establish a partnership with that individual. If the attitude is condescending, inflexible or if it "just doesn't feel right," it isn't. You'll be spending intensive time with your consultant. The interaction should be comfortable and easy and you must have complete trust in the individual's integrity. Additionally, you must feel that (s)he has your best interest at heart--not that the resultant fee is the priority. If the latter is the case, you can expect no follow-up and less than stellar performance while on-site.
Are there any sacred cows?
So you've decided that you're going to bring in a consultant and you have identified the person you want. Now what? Well, it's important that you remove anything that will prove to be an obstacle to a productive consultancy. One item that can prove to be a major obstacle is...sacred cows. You know. Those things that you don't want to change no matter what? If there happens to be a herd of those creatures or simply a bovine or two, you're probably not ready for a consultation. In fact, bringing in a consultant under these circumstances can be more detrimental than helpful. Bringing in a consultant signals change. If that doesn't happen because of a protected area on the part of the manager, it can cause substantial dissonance among staff and damage the manager's credibility. Not good. Once you have done the analysis and "slayed any sacred cows," formulate the goals and expectations that you have for the consultant's visit.
Establishing Goals for the Consultancy:
Why are you bringing in external assistance? What do you want to accomplish during the on-site? Are those things feasible? What results would you like the consultant to achieve? What kind of change should be affected? After you have gone through this analysis, make a list of your needs and your expectations as a result of the on-site. This analysis will help clarify your objectives and will help make the consultant's visit more effective. You should also determine what mechanism(s) you will use to measure the anticipated change as a result of the consultancy.
Involving and Engaging Stakeholders:
The more you can involve staff in the process the better. Any concerns or fears that staff members may have can become exacerbated when a consultant arrives on the scene. For example, job security is often an unexpressed concern on the part of staff. When that fear is present it doesn't make for a very productive conversation between the consultant and a staff member. Therefore, if staff are to be involved in the consultancy it is important to meet with them early on to discuss the goals of the on-site, as well as to identify and then alleviate any of their concerns.
As mentioned above, the arrival of a consultant at the station signals some kind of change. No matter how small that might be, our species doesn't seem to collectively cozy up to change very well. Therefore, it is critical that the manager allay fears as much as possible and that (s)he share as much information as is feasible. The less information staff members have about why someone is coming the more apprehensive they will be. There is a direct correlation. A case in point: I was once brought in to assist a station during its on-air drive. Upon arrival, I was greeted with hostility and staff were generally uncooperative. After experiencing an hour of the "freeze out," I called the Development team together and queried them as to their attitude. I found that my arrival was a total surprise. The manager had not told them I was coming. Therefore, they did not view me as being there to help. Rather, they felt I had been brought in as a spy for management. Of course, this example is an extreme case. However, staff needs to be kept in the loop. You want the visit to be as productive as possible. Wasted time and effort is money down the drain.
In addition to preparing staff, it is important that the licensee also be apprized of what you're doing and why. Explaining the consultancy in the context of the station's strategic plan or illustrating how this action will be reinforcing the institution's goals would certainly be advisable.
Oh, and don't forget to share those goals with your consultant...preferably as a result of several discussions with that individual, and in writing for the protection of both. As a part of the preparation for the visit, it would be a wise idea to share the vitae of key people with whom the consultant will be meeting. It will help the consultant come up to speed more quickly and will help him or her hone their questions to these individuals. Once again, share any sensitive information regarding political issues. One client uses a rather folksy expression to denote being unfavorably surprised. That is: he never wants to get "hit in the face with a dead squirrel." Lest your consultant meet up in an unexpected and unpleasant encounter with a deceased rodent, make sure you have provided a complete map of the mine field. You could get smacked yourself as a result of that kind of skirmish.
Necessary and Unnecessary Paperwork:
It is wise to have a written agreement with your consultant. It serves to protect both interests. If the work will only require a few days, this may be accomplished with a simple letter of agreement. It should spell out the work scope and expectations of the consultant; the station's responsibilities as a part of the consultancy, such as arranging for meeting rooms; the anticipated completion date; and the projected fee and payment arrangements. For long-term assignments, a formal contract will be necessary. This document should clearly spell out expectations, timetable, fee and payment schedule, period of time the contract is in effect, termination clause and conditions for ownership and use of data generated during the terms of the contract.
If the project is large or complex, you may ask several consultants to tender proposals. However, do this only if it is truly warranted. Consultants may or may not charge by the hour. No matter. To them time is money. Certainly they must set aside time for R & D. However, if a consultant is good at what (s)he does, that person will be extremely busy. There may not be time available to generate a proposal and your kind invitation will be declined. As a result, you may lose a good candidate by requiring a written document. Therefore, to reiterate, be judicious in requesting proposals.
Setting the On-site Agenda:
One of the critical components to a successful on-site is the agenda. Let's look at the various approaches to the consultant's visit and the financial impact of each. At one end of the spectrum, is the Indentured or the Simon Legree Approach. In this situation, the consultant is strapped into a harness and then engages in such an ambitious schedule that the poor devil's eyes have glazed over by day-two or three and (s)he is having trouble remembering not only where the rental car is parked, but also whether or not one was actually rented? Clearly, the client needs to get his or her money's worth. However, it is extremely important that your consultant be alert and be able to function at 100%. If exhaustion takes over, your money is not being used effectively and you may end up with one cranky individual on your hands.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Laissez Faire Approach. This is the no preparation, Let's Set the Schedule and Decide What to Do Once the Consultant Gets Here Strategy. This is definitely not a good use of money and time. Too much of the on-site will be used up on planning--planning that should have been done beforehand. And this approach certainly won't get you points with those people you're trying to corner for appointments at the last moment.
In the middle of the spectrum is the Holistic Approach. This is a well balanced visit, the agenda for which has been developed as a result of a joint process between the manager and the consultant. Activities and appointments have been scheduled with careful thought to the goals for the on-site and time has been built in for notes between each appointment or agenda item. Time is spent efficiently and, therefore, this approach is the most cost-effective.
In setting the agenda, also give careful thought to the flow. For example, if the consultant is being brought in to handle a situation that has been precipitated by a particular individual, it would not be wise to schedule that person at the outset before a great deal of information has been gathered. Additionally, if a university or Board president is on the roster, it would be prudent to schedule that person toward the end of the on-site so the consultant will be prepared to answer questions and address issues.
Think through the schedule carefully enough that sufficient time is set aside to accomplish the goals of the visit. Now. It is true that no matter how carefully the visit has been planned things will nearly always surface which were not anticipated. However, adding numerous items that weren't agreed upon at the outset will defeat the goals of the on-site and set the consultancy up for failure.
It is also wise to meet on a one-on-one basis with the consultant at the outset of the on-site to go over the agenda and to provide additional details on those with whom the consultant will be meeting.
Do be cognizant that while the consultant is on-site, it cannot be work as usual. No matter how carefully planned, work schedules of both management and staff will be disrupted due to various conversations that will be scheduled. You may also count on requests for additional information once the Consultant is on-site. This will consume additional staff time. All participating staff should be advised to maintain a flexible schedule while the consultant is on-site.
Logistics and Amenities:
It sounds like a small thing, but where a consultant conducts interviews is very important. For example, the site should afford a great deal of privacy and have as few distractions as possible. It is recommended that meetings be held away from the station. Neutral territory, especially territory with thick walls, is always more productive.
Frequently, the consultancy will extend beyond a single on-site or a one-time project. Therefore, maintaining a strong relationship will be important to both the manager and the consultant. As such, amenities become important. Having said this, it isn't wise to lodge your consultant somewhere you wouldn't stay. In other words, any motels with single digits after their names-- especially lower than the number eight--aren't good candidates. If you will not be picking the consultant up at the airport, provide good directions to the hotel or station so they're not rattling around in the underbrush for a few hours. The latter gets the visit off to a bad start.
Pay the invoice as promptly as possible. Dragging out the payment process for several months is not pleasant. This is especially the case if expenses, such as the hotel, aren't direct billed and the consultant is carrying those expenses on the old American Express card. Imagine how you'd feel if your licensee decided to hold your paycheck for a month or two. In other words, treat your consultant as you would wish to be treated.
As a footnote to this part of the discussion, it is not necessary to entertain your consultant during the evening hours unless that individual indicates a desire for such a thing (and ya'still don't have to). Consulting may look like a breeze to those who have not engaged in such an endeavor. The reality is it's exhausting work. One has to be listening constantly, assessing, piecing together all the aspects of the operation, retaining sensitive information and myriad details. By the time evening comes, that hotel and room service look mighty good.
Follow-up and Evaluation:
If a report is required as a part of the work scope, clearly define any particular areas that you wish addressed and agree on a due date. Unless there is a set fee for the report, be clear on the scope of the document since the consultant will, otherwise, charge by the hour. It will also be helpful if basic recommendations are discussed with you in an exit interview, along with any associated follow-up strategy on the manager's part. Additionally, developing a timeline for progress or benchmarks of some nature will be very helpful. You are extremely busy, after all. Multiple people and issues are constantly vying for your attention. It is very important that you don't allow things to fall through the cracks once the consultant leaves and the day-to-day pressures push recommendations to the back burner. With this in mind, it is wise to schedule follow-up telephone conversations with the consultant. Some consultants are reluctant to make recommendations for follow-up work because they are concerned that they will be perceived as drumming up business for themselves. You should ask for any follow-up they envision and why. It will provide you with more information and you can then choose to take the recommendations or not.
As a part of the evaluation, it is important that you provide the consultant with feedback on his or her performance. An evaluation at the midpoint of the consultancy and certainly at the end of the project is very wise. Also keep in mind that this person will be working very hard for you. (S)he will be trying to do the best possible job. A thank you or a letter of appreciation goes along way in cementing the relationship. You may think, "They're getting paid. Why go beyond that?" You get paid. Don't you appreciate a kind word or compliment from your boss?
In closing some dos and don'ts
You should: give adequate time to the planning and implementation of the consultancy; engage stakeholders in the planning process; and provide the consultant with a complete picture. If you don't trust the person with sensitive information one of two things has happened: either you have the wrong person or you're simply not ready for a consulting relationship.
You should not: wait too long to bring in a consultant. It may mean that the problem has advanced to the point that it has no good solution and--that money thing again---it's gonna cost you more in the long run; have any sacred cows that are off limits for recommended changes; or let the momentum created by the consultancy die once the consultant has left town. If you do, as time passes it will become harder and harder to implement recommendations.
A good consultant should: work in partnership with you to problem-solve and accomplish goals; have your best interest at heart; provide both the good news and the bad news; and request a substantial amount of information prior to the consultancy in order to be up to speed on your setting prior to initiation of the project or the on-site.
A good consultant should not: tell you what you want to hear at the expense of the truth; take on an assignment unless comfortable with the scope of work and the skills required; be inflexible or condescending; or agree to serve as your consultant if he or she perceives any obstacle that will result in anything other than the most productive of consultations.
Bringing the right consultant in at the appropriate time can be one of the best expenditures you'll ever make. It can either save or make you money down the line. Too often managers simply look at the expense side of the ledger rather than projecting the potential benefits, whether those be efficiencies, upgrades, expansion or harmony--all of which contribute to the bottom line. However, if the consultancy has not been thought through properly, if the wrong person has been brought in, or if adequate planning has not been invested, the expense side of the ledger will certainly be the one to focus on.