Flex Your Team – Work With Consultants
A consultant is a generic term which can be applied to a one man or a one woman band who is an expert in their field or to a large consultancy firm providing a range of knowledge based services. It is not widely acknowledged but getting the best out of consultants is the same modus operandi regardless of whether you are working with an individual or a large company. This piece will focus on the engagement with individual consultants but the principles are the same.
The number of competent self-employed people available to organisations has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Working with an external consultant allows you to buy in experience your team does not have or bring on board an extra pair of hands only when you need it. Charged at a day rate or an assignment fee, the cost may seem high initially but consultants incur none of the “hidden” costs of a directly employed member of staff. For the purposes of this article we are using the generic term “consultant” to apply to any professional external resource even though some would not describe themselves in that way.
There are many reasons to seek outside help:
- To have an impartial view or an expert opinion
- To access a skillset you need for a particular project
- To train or mentor in-house staff
- To increase your resources at a particularly busy time
- To avoid having to request an increase in headcount
The first step is to establish in broad terms what you want the consultant to do. Invest time in talking to candidates who seem to have the right expertise for the role. You are looking for someone you can get on with and someone you believe will be honest and straightforward with you. These two aspects are every bit as important as the person’s professional expertise. This initial period of getting to know a candidate enables both of you to decide whether you can trust each other and work together successfully. It is also an opportunity to develop the brief before you commit.
Before you do commit to the appointment, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this assignment something I really want to happen?
- Do I have the support of senior management to make it happen?
- Am I happy with the way we have agreed to do the work?
- Do I feel that I have sufficient control over how the assignment will proceed?
- Am I prepared to give the consultant the time and resources he or she will need to be successful at this assignment?
- Am I sure that I have found the right person?
The secret to working successfully with consultants is to agree in advance mutually beneficial and unambiguous terms detailing how the work will be done. This need not be in the form of a legal contract but should be in writing so that both parties can read it, reflect on it and revisit it during the work. It is also important for both sides to acknowledge that circumstances may change during the assignment and it might be necessary to revisit it.
Discussing the potential agreement can be a useful part of the selection process as you gain a better insight into whether you and this consultant can work together by the type of issues that are raised during this negotiation. The working agreement, whatever its form, should include:
- A clear statement of objectives (why this person is being employed and to do what)
- A description of how you, the consultant and any other parties will work together
- A specific timetable and milestones
- A process outline covering who, what, when and how
- Details of any approvals required at different stages
- Specifications about data (eg: confidentiality, who owns the data etc)
- Any constraints or boundaries
- Termination process*
It is highly unlikely – and usually undesirable – that the consultant takes an initial brief and then disappears for three months without further contact. A successful consultant depends on the client’s commitment, involvement, advice and feedback at regular stages. Given their expertise, a consultant may know best what aspect of a problem to analyse or how to approach it but the client knows the organisation, the priorities and the politics.
Making It Work
The groundwork for a successful consultancy relationship should include:
- Investing time and effort in agreeing a framework that suits and pleases both sides
- Ensuring that everyone the consultant will come into contact with is aware of his/her role and objectives
- Regular contact to review progress
- Flagging up concerns by either side at an early stage to prevent them from becoming major issues
- Renegotiating aspects of the original agreement if circumstances change
- Paying the consultant promptly
A good consultant with a well-negotiated agreement can help to solve your problems, move your organisation forward, enhance your effectiveness, save you time, save you money and improve your standing in the organisation.
A good consultant, however, only succeeds with a good client.
*Never hire anyone who won’t agree how the assignment can be terminated midway through – this is the best piece of advice I can give you