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How to deal with business consultants

Consultancy services | How to deal with business consultants Leslie Kossoff

When the email alert from Fast Company popped up on my screen promoting an article entitled, “6 Golden Rules for Turning Consulting Relationships Into Breakthroughs” I immediately thought, “I’ve got to see this one.” This was mostly because, no matter what it presented, I probably wasn’t going to believe it. Or agree.

Not that I have anything against Mr. Sohrab Vossoughi or his 27 years as an innovation consultant at Ziba (I’m sure he’s done some very fine work), it’s the consulting model that I have a problem with – and so should you.

Full disclosure, here. I’ve worked as a confidential executive advisor for as long as Mr. Vossoughi. During that same time period, I’ve written and spoken and been a serial entrepreneur – and fought against the consulting model starting from the days before I started my own business and continuing, as you can see, to right now. Why? Because it’s a toxic model designed to create a sense of dependency – not just for the immediate help you’re getting, but for any and every other service the firm or its partners can justify selling you.

Don’t blame the consultants – especially if you have them in house at the moment. (You really don’t want to get on their bad side.) They’re stuck within the same toxic model as they’re imposing on you. Instead, let’s take a quick look at how the model works – and what you can do about it now and in future whenever you think about bringing consulting help in.

The Consulting Model

No matter how expert in your industry the consultants you hire might be, the first thing to remember is that they’re not, actually, part of your industry. They’re part of the consulting industry only. Sure, they’ve got smarts and expertise you want – but they’re not you. They’re them and they have a different agenda than yours – even for your company. Because the way that consulting engagements work from an inside-the-consulting-firm perspective has nothing to do with the work they’re doing for you right now. It’s all about the follow-on work that they can sell you.

If you’re playing with the Big Boys, the partners are expected to cross-sell other services. If you’re playing with a mid-size or boutique firm, it’s in their best financial interests to generate continuing business with a handful of clients rather than the senior members spending their time marketing.

That’s what the writing and speaking is for. Marketing in absentia.

And even if you’re working with a small- or mid-sized firm, you can probably count on their being part of some form of consortium of consultants… which means they’re cross-selling into the other consultants’ expertise. Just like the Big Boys.

Don’t get me wrong. They won’t do a ‘bad’ job for you on the gig they’re doing. In fact, they’ll do the best they can to do a great job for you. It’s their agenda that’s important for you to know and understand. It’s not this gig. It’s the next. And the one after that. And the one after that.

So What’s an Executive To Do?

There are three keys to making the consulting relationship make sense from a corporate perspective. They are:

1. Define the Terms
2. Make Sense of the Measures
3. Terminate. Forever.

We’ll take them one at a time.

1. Define the Terms

You probably think you’re already doing this – and you are, at least from your perspective. But not theirs.

When you define the terms of the engagement, limit the services you’re buying to very specific, time-limited, highly measurable outcomes – one of which is to ensure that the consultants are building expertise and an infrastructure within your organization made up of your employees so that there is no need for the consultants to return.

2. Make Sense of the Measures

Consultants usually provide their own measures for success. They promise you that they will deliver a tangible thing – whether in the form of hours or cost reduction or something else that they can easily tie to their activities. The trick for you is to make sure that what they’re delivering ties directly into your strategic measures, not their operational ones.

Frankly, their measures don’t – or shouldn’t – matter to you at all. The only measures that count in your organization are the ones that demonstrate that the enterprise is achieving the strategic goals you set out for it. Otherwise – consultants or not – why are you doing what you’re doing? So don’t let them tell you how you measure the success of their activities. You tell them.

3. Terminate. Forever.

If the consultant has any inkling at all that there’s an open door for them – or their colleagues or consortia members – to come back and provide new services, you’re a goner. Remember, that’s their goal. That’s how they win. So, when you’re defining terms, make sure that the most important term is the time limit and the fact that they will not be invited back again. Ever. Even if they do the best job in the world for you. In fact, if they have done the best job, then you won’t need them back. At least not for anything like what you have them in for now.

Be polite – but show them that there’s a door and you’ll be escorting them through it exactly when you say you will. They’ll get paid – but only for this gig. They’re not going to be able to plan their retirement around you.

A Final Word

Consultants really are wonderful for what they do. They bring new knowledge, expertise and perspectives into your organization that wouldn’t otherwise be readily available. But, even as you look to the consulting world to answer your questions, look also at the local colleges and universities to see what courses – both credit and extension – are available. And don’t forget the technical and community colleges. Sometimes they’ve got exactly the answer you need at a much lower cost.

The goal – whether with consultants or any other means – is to build success within. Focus on that. Make sure that your people are being developed – all the time – and you’ll find that you don’t need as many consultants as you thought you did after all.

Leslie L. Kossoff is founder and CEO of Leadership Quantified and the author of The Proactive Guide to Troubleshooting Quality, Change and Development Initiatives (The Executive Series).

Copyright © 2011 by Leslie L. Kossoff. All rights reserved.

Tags: business consulting , Change and Development Initiatives (The Executive Series) , consultancy firms , consultancy model , consultants , Fast Company , Leadership Quantified , Sohrab Vossoughi , The Proactive Guide to Troubleshooting Quality , Ziba
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