Getting it Right: Working Successfully with Consultants


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For Boards and Managers planning a consultancy project or considering hiring a consultant. What comes first? What are the considerations and pitfalls?

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  • We’ve all heard of consultancy projects that have ramped organizations to the next level, and also those that wasted time and effort or worse caused huge organizational disruption. Here’s a methodical look at how to get it right!
  • Don’t hire a consultant before you have a project plan!
  • You know where you want to go but need expertise, tools in the short-term to facilitate long-term change. A consultant should not be hired because of a shortterm staffing need or a “friend of the Board”. You’ve done the work to develop your strategic plan, make sure that your consulting project will take you in the direction you want to go.
  • Examine the assumptions in your project. If you think you need to increase corporate revenue support, research how your org compares with other similar organizations. There is a tendency to want to improve areas of strength but often it is easier/more needed to address areas of weakness. Test the buy-in by querying needed managers and staff members about how they would priorize the tasks and how much time they would be able to bring to the project. If there’s resistence, address it before the project starts.
  • Projects without beginnings and ends tend to run over budget and are difficult to measure
  • One of the biggest areas of conflicts with consultant projects is lack of coordination with organizational schedules. Consultants plan sessions at peak busy periods, drop in unannounced or pile work on one or more staff member causing stress in the work team.
  • Many good consultants fail when hired by the wrong organization for the wrong project. Be sure of the “fit”.
  • Don’t just ask “Have you experience with developing corporate proposals?” Ask “Would you say that corporation X, Y or Z is the best fit for our organization?” . If they know the sector they should be able to say which corporation has a giving pattern that matches your organization. If a marketing research consultant details a plan that was heavily reliant on organizational staff to research, database and stuff envelopes, and you have a small staff, they might not be the consultant for you.
  • Understand the specialty you are looking for in advance and how the skillsets are very different. Grantwriters seldom make good event-planners and the reverse for example. One specialty is reliant on research, independent work and long hours of isolated writing. The other demands an extrovert party-going sociability.
  • We tend not to think about our preferred style of working until there’s a clash! If your organization prefers F2F meetings and the consultant’s style is to barrage staff with long emails daily, there could be a culture clash. If you need the consultant’s presence to assure buy-in and that’s rarely possible that could be an issue. If the consultant expects to be able to drop by and get cooperation by staff and your staff are highly mobile and busy, this could be an issue
  • Articulate your plan complete with opportunities, strengths and limitations that have impacted the plan. Listen carefully to consultants’ suggested modifications to your plans. How realistic are the new suggestions? Have they considered the strengths and limitations you have mentioned?
  • If no one takes ownership for the consulting project it will almost certainly go off course and be disruptive.
  • Staff required to support the consultant should know the scope, amount and priority of the work and also who to contact if there is a dispute.
  • Mysterious, frightening or seeming “make-work” projects may be sabotaged by staff.
  • Avoid staff grievances or the theft of organizational client lists with advance planning on information sharing.
  • No use spending consulting dollars/time on projects that your organization cannot do because of finances, facilities, union contracts, privacy laws, debt, etc.
  • How did this happen? You either didn’t have a clear plan or failed to ask the right questions.
  • How did this happen?  lack of clarity about workplan and style leads to a consultant that no one can connect with, ("I'm sorry but I am in Abu Dhabi for 6 months and I need to get my cellphone unlocked before I can call you back") or a consultant who is disruptive of daily work with a barrage of phone calls, emails and drop ins.
  • How did this happen?  No one at the wheel and the project goes off course and collides with ongoing work.
  • How did this happen?  Both staff and consultant need to know the limits of staff support to avoid the organizational chaos that can result.
  • How did this happen?  Information sharing has to be negotiated, understood, lawful and ethical.
  • Getting it Right: Working Successfully with Consultants

    1. 1. Working with a consultant Getting it right! Organizational work plan for a successful consultancy project for arts and non-profit managers and boards ArtsCubed:
    2. 2. Step One Before you hire a consultant! Developing the organizational plan for a consultancy project. ArtsCubed:
    3. 3. Your organization is positioned to make good use of a consultant when: Your project is responsive to your strategic plan and will help achieve long-term goals
    4. 4. Your organization is positioned to make good use of a consultant when: You project addresses a real organizational need and your organization has buy-in for the work and is equipped to use the project results Examine assumptions about organizational needs Test the buy-in by organizational members whose cooperation will be needed for success and address any concerns before work is started Next steps: what is the plan? e.g. No sense having a marketing plan if you don’t have staff or budget to implement! ArtsCubed:
    5. 5. Your organization is positioned to make good use of a consultant when Your project is time-limited with clear beginning, end and expected outcomes. You cannot measure success without goals and benchmarks  Your project’s budget could be exceeded without a firm schedule ArtsCubed:
    6. 6. Your organization is positioned to make good use of a consultant when You have a draft work plan for the consultancy project  Whether you use a Gantt chart or a simple calendar, managers and staff know when meetings with the consultant and joint work will happen, minimizing disruption of ongoing work ArtsCubed:
    7. 7. Your organization is positioned to make good use of a consultant when You have a plan for project over-sight, project communications and project support.  Consultants, managers and staff understand chain of communications, authority and priorities ArtsCubed:
    8. 8. Step Two: Hiring a consultant Find the consultant that’s right for your organization and project ArtsCubed:
    9. 9. Finding the consultant right for your organization Talk to colleagues, funders, professional organizations Add recommendations to your list of people/firms to consider Even if you are leaning toward someone known to you consider and interview a range of recommendations ArtsCubed:
    10. 10. Finding the consultant right for your organization Look at the past experience of the consultant for indications that they know your sector and how to work with organizations of your size, especially when sectoral knowledge is very key to the project. . Prepare questions needing specialized knowledge to answer such as funding programs specific to sector Ask specifics about implementation of past projects to gauge ability to work independently or with a large team as needed. ArtsCubed:
    11. 11. Finding the consultant right for your organization Be sure the skills and expertise of your consultant is a match for the specific focus of the project "social media marketing" and not just "marketing" if they are charged with a social media marketing plan  corporate fundraising, not just “fund-development” if you are charging them with a corporate campaign ArtsCubed:
    12. 12. Finding the consultant right for your organization Be sure that the consultant is able to be as hands-on and present in the organization or as independent as needed. Be frank with the consultant about what you need and don't need  Ask about their ability to attend meetings and their own expectations about frequency and method of contact ArtsCubed:
    13. 13. Finding the consultant right for your organization Discuss the draft plan with the consultant as well as the opportunities, strengths and limitations of your organization. Be receptive to suggestions that enhance your plan but wary of someone who wants to make huge changes to work plan Consider whether suggested changes are new ways of looking at the problem or run upstream against your organizational culture ArtsCubed:
    14. 14. Define project communications Assuring the success of your project by defining authority, communication channels and priorities ArtsCubed:
    15. 15. Define project communications In successful consulting projects there is organizational oversight Who directs the consultant's work? Who intervenes if a consultant's work is not being done, goes off-course or is being disruptive of operations? ArtsCubed:
    16. 16. Define project communications Is there a staff member(s) assigned to assist the consultant? Are those staff members aware of how they will be expected to assist? How well is the work defined? Example: You will be required to occasionally assist X by research and database entries. This is not to take precedence over your regular work and should take approximately 1-3 hours work per week." Who intervenes if a consultant misdirects or abuses staff? ArtsCubed:
    17. 17. Define project communications Do staff understand the scope of the project and how it integrates with their own work?  Communicate the project goals with staff who will be assisting Buy-in is facilitated when staff understand and do not have unrealistic fears about the outcomes of consulting projects ArtsCubed:
    18. 18. Define project communications Do staff know what information is permissible to share? Privacy considerations need to be addressed in advance Sharing HR or client information and lists has legal as well as organizational effectiveness implications ArtsCubed:
    19. 19. Avoiding Common Pitfalls What are the most common reasons for consulting projects to fail? ArtsCubed:
    20. 20. Common consulting pitfalls Fail No. 1: Irrelevant projects A marketing plan for an organization without the staff or finances to support the plan.  A "think outside of the box" innovational strategy that is not doable or sustainable due to known factors ArtsCubed:
    21. 21. Common consulting pitfalls Fail No. 2: Choosing a consultant with the wrong skill set. You picked someone with a knowledge of foundations and government funders to plan and pioneer an individuals and corporate donor campaign You picked someone with strengths in social media marketing for an outreach to an audience that doesn’t use social media very much ArtsCubed:
    22. 22. Common consulting pitfalls Fail No. 3: Choosing a consultant with the wrong work style You suffered with an absentee or “in your hair” consultant Lack of clarity about work plan or organizational style led to a disconnect, disputes and ultimately caused project to fail. ArtsCubed:
    23. 23. Common consulting pitfalls Fail No. 4: Lack of over-sight, some symptoms . . . Consulting project takes on a life of its own due to lack of oversight. Results unlikely to reflect original goals and project either becomes irrelevant or disruptive. Results become hard to assess when it is unclear what the consultant actually did. Staff resent a consultant taking on roles/work that is in their job description and have no referee to mediate ArtsCubed:
    24. 24. Common consulting pitfalls Fail No. 5: Lack of clarity about staff roles Due to busyness and poor delegation, staff are uncooperative, stalling the project Frightened staff unduly priorize consulting project to the detriment of higher priority work. Consultant, unclear of how to get needed help, goes to anyone who answers the phone for help causing duplication and confusion. Consultant unclear of boundaries, contacts staff at home, via personal email etc. Staff who have no mechanism to refuse to put in extra hours for consultancy project ask for huge overtime payments or time in lieu due to work heaped on them by the consultant resulting in hidden costs. ArtsCubed:
    25. 25. Common consulting pitfalls Fail No. 6: Information Sharing Disasters! Wary staff refuse to share information needed for the consultancy. Staff fail to priorize information sharing because they don't know how it will be used. Staff who misunderstand Consultant's scope share privileged information Consultant offers the organization contact information that is not supposed to be shared. Individuals added to our contact list complain about spam, damage our reputation. Our contact list is shared against our wishes and our contacts complain. We see a decline in funding results from known sources the following year and discover our list of funding contacts is being used by a competitor who has hired our former consultant ArtsCubed:
    26. 26. SUMMARY: Key Points Strategic needs and long-term goals should drive the project, not short-term opportunities or needs Select a consultant who matches the project, the organization and the work style of the team Provide clear oversight to the consultant and be clear about responsibilities & communication lines for the staff Get the necessary buy-in from staff by sharing the project's goals and likely outcomes Be thoughtful about information sharing making sure protections and permissions are clear Track the project regularly assuring reports are accurate ArtsCubed: