Consultants 101

Tips to consider when bringing in a consultant

Hiring a consultant can make sense for a number of reasons. Oftentimes, consultants bring specialized skill sets that you don’t have in house and don’t wish to develop. Sometimes they simply add capacity to get a job done when you have no bandwidth to spare. In other situations, they are the outsiders who can deliver perspective that you might not reach on your own.

Many consultant stories end up as cautionary tales of unmet expectations, wasted resources and relationships gone awry. Indeed, I have a few consultant war stories of my own tucked away in the memory banks. But most recently, we have had very positive engagements with consultants — for strategic planning, change management and the development of a shared economic development strategy for Greater Akron. Today I’m reflecting on what has gone right with these consultants.

Start with a request for proposal. Not all consultants will respond to an RFP, but many will. Importantly, the process of writing the RFP will force you, the client, to distill exactly what it is that you want out of the engagement. That exercise — the clarification of goals and expectations — may be the single-most important ingredient to a successful engagement. One consultant will emerge as the best fit for your work, but you will almost surely learn something from every proposal you review.

Beware of the cookie cutter. While there may be some projects for which a consultant’s “patented approach” is a sensible solution, my experience is that the most successful efforts are designed around the unique nuances of your situation. As such, a red flag goes up for me when I look at a consultant’s body of work and see overwhelmingly similar work product across different settings.

Who’s on first? Be sure to ascertain whether the people you meet during the consultant shopping process are the same ones who will be working with you for the duration of your project. You want to spend time with your actual would-be team to ensure that they can respond to your needs as well as the pitch team can.

Stack hands on the work plan. Related to the question of who you’re working with is how you will work with them. At a minimum, you need to agree on a clear project scope, a timeline and deliverables. A consultant who commits to scheduled recurring check-ins throughout the project is likely a keeper.

Plan for the day the training wheels come off. The best consultants prepare their clients for life after the project, empowering them to carry the work forward independently. Heads-up: consultants who frame their work as “phase one” of a larger project may be fostering a dependence on their services, effectively turning you into their annuity.

Here’s hoping that, armed with these tips, you will become a pro-level consumer of consultant services.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of GAR Foundation, which awards grants to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations in Akron in the areas of education, economic and workforce development, arts and culture, basic needs, and nonprofit sector leadership.