Hiring a Consultant

Principles for Hiring a Consultant

This post is one of the first posts I wrote during the startup phase on my consulting practice.  It lays our some principles for hiring a consultant and still has some relevant and useful information.

My twenty-plus years working in in management positions has given me exposure to a wide range of consultants. Consultants who provide niche content expertise have proven absolutely critical to the success of the various challenges I have faced. For example, HR consultants helped me navigate a challenging performance issue that had legal overtones and a highly skilled technology team solved a potentially traumatic database conversion that was a high stakes conversion for the organization.

However, my experiences working with facilitation consultants have been very mixed. I have experienced facilitation consultants who have empowered me and my team, coached and mentored me, and more than anything else, helped me achieve improvements in performance. I have also experienced consultants who, as the old joke goes, “borrows my watch and then tells me what time it is. Then walks off with my watch and two days later sends me a bill for the cost of the watch.” In these worse-case scenarios the consultants have, in one case, cost me an inordinate amount to time and energy to compensate for their skill deficits and, in another case, the consultant grossly underestimated the complexity of a project costing my team time, money and missed opportunities. My experiences led me to develop five principles of consulting.

1. If you have the skills and staff capacity to do the work yourself then save yourself the money and do it yourself.

2. Along the same lines, if you have the staff capacity but not the skills, focus on building your staff capacity rather than hiring a consultant for his or her skills.

3. When engaging a consultant be very clear about how your performance will be improved by engaging a consultant and make sure that you tie consultant compensation to performance.

4. Remember the axiom of fast, cheap, done correctly –choose any two. If you want the job to be done correctly, it will either take time or require additional resources to compress the timeline.

5. Finally, it  is a myth that a facilitation and process consultant is an external neutral observer. If a consultant won’t enter into the vision, thinking, culture and aspirations of your organization, then run the other way.

I personally believe that most agencies and teams should develop and strengthen their internal ability to design and facilitate meaningful work processes that support performance improvement. Hiring an external consultant should be reserved for those times when a team does not have the capacity or expertise to manage the processes themselves. In those cases, the consultant needs to function as a partner complimenting your skills and acting as a coach and mentor so that at the end of the consulting relationship, the team is closer to autonomy and self-reliance in the future. To that end, consulting agreements must clearly specify primary deliverables that include delivering the specific “products and timelines” but also should include secondary outcomes related to developing the capacity of the team. This latter competency of building capacity is an area where many consultants fall short in delivering. Building capacity works against a consultant’s “repeat business” mentality and also requires a higher degree of functioning and commitment than many consultants are willing (or able) to provide. This point can’t be underscored enough, when you do hire a consultant, it is absolutely critical that s/he not only understands but is willing to enter into your organization and become part of it. 


Photo Credit: Startup Stock Photos


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.