How not to (mis)use a consultant

Except a few funny bits, my career has been spent with about a 50/50 split between line finance roles and finance transformation work as a consultant. People hire consultants for different reasons, some good, some not so good. I have had the pleasure of being hired for both.

I have worked on some awesome projects alongside clients to solve hard problems and implement solutions. I have also been hired as a human shield, to discover things that everyone already knew, I have had to explain what we are doing there because the client who hired us could not, I have cost a fortune while waiting for the main stakeholder to come back from vacation and I have been accused of being an overpaid PowerPoint jockey who is unable to do any “real work”. I have also been told what to do by people with no finance or change experience because they consider bossing the consultant around is part of the “excessive fee”. As you can tell it is a very interesting line of work.

However, I have also been a client to consultants, both before and after I myself was one, and it has helped a lot in thinking about when and how to use one. As any other solution or tool, consultants come with benefits as well as drawbacks. Consultants end up being blamed for most things, some of it justified, but they also tend to take just a smidgen of blame that perhaps has to do with other things. If you are of the feeling that consultants never are any good and always fail. Just maybe you, or your organisation, had something to do with it?

A few things I have seen the last couple of years that I think would be very helpful to consider before hiring a consultant.

In a more elaborated form (Bullet points at the end)

Be at least reasonably clear on where you want to go and why

  • A consultant walking in through the door can create uncertainty (fear even) and if people get a whiff that it is unclear what they are doing it gets even worse. There is nothing wrong with hiring them to either figure out where to go and why (that is the objective then), or to refine it, but you are best off to have a serious internal think about it before hand. Starting the work with them with an open mind is good, starting with a blank mind is not.
  • They will cost money from the moment they walk in, changing your mind after that is something that will cost you. I have personally been told (and I quote) “what the f**k are you doing here, we don’t need to look at the planning process, you need to focus on a new organisational design”. That was very interesting since the agreement they had signed two weeks earlier said, “planning process review” and included a detailed plan of what we would do and what the outcome would be.

Interview the most senior full-time resource

The most senior consultant that will be full time on the project (or close to full time), is the person that will make this happen for you. They will have the best understanding, deal with the team, be the contact point etc. That is the single most important consultant to you. Don’t buy a project from a partner without eyeballing the most senior delivery person.

Be prepared for their arrival

  • I know, this sounds like a no brainer, but it happens all the time. After double checking the start date, I have walked into a client office with a team costing 8-10K per day, to learn that the key people to bring us up to speed happen to be on vacation (ops). We can try to redirect some effort, but that cannot always be guaranteed. If you are not ready, delay the start. Waiting to start is on their expense, waiting after they have started is on yours.
  • Tell people who they are. There are reasons for not telling the whole world what is going on, but a lot of unnecessary issues happen once consultants start roaming the floors and people are unsure why. And if they don’t now why, they will assume the worst. They are obviously there to cut cost and fire everyone.

Read the deliverable, don’t skim it

You want good results out of your consultant. Read what they write, and provide constructive feedback. I have seen clients read 200 page decks in 90 seconds (which means looking at the titles on the executive summary) to then say “not convinced, don’t like the look and feel”. Then make a gut feel decision on what to do anyway. That is fine if you knew what to do all along but just wanted some 3rd party assurance to defend yourself. If you are after a true option, opinion or recommendation. Please spend some time reading it.

Don’t ask for too much out-of-scope work

Realise that asking them for out-of-scope activities stretches them thinner and may eventually even put the original deliverable at risk (yes, they should tell you no before this happens but that is not a strength of most consultants). Push them for sure, that comes with the price-tag, but once they start to look too hollow-eyed, remember that these are the people drawing up your future organisation or setting up your new system etc. You will want them reasonably level headed, not to be sleep deprived and over stressed, just looking to wrap the damn thing up so they can get some sleep.

True quote from a colleague: “I got home at 4am, had some water, threw up, had a shower and went back to work”.

Maybe not the person you want thinking up your crucial market entry strategy.

Have a plan for how you will handle it when they leave

  • You want them to eventually leave. They are way too expensive to have around as almost full-time resources. Just make sure there is a plan for who will pick up any work that needs doing once they leave. I have spent 3 months (at a dayrate of 2500+ AUD) to run reporting because nobody was around to actually run what we had setup
  • Make sure that all the necessary work is documented, and that important information and knowledge does not walk out the door when the consultant does

Be sure to understand that it is hard work to have consultants around, so don’t leave them in a dark corner to solve your problems

  • Consultants have very limited time to get up to speed and having them around usually means supplying information, getting access to stakeholders on time, reviewing drafts etc. to move things forward. Not doing these things will significantly slow things down.
  • Left to their own devices, all of a sudden, they know more about your company/process than your staff. Don’t underestimate how fast someone can understand how things work when that is their full-time job and they have done it 20 times before. It simply makes it harder to get rid of them, they are in like a fish-hook, and usually on a mission to “land & expand” (yes, that is a thing)

Same content in bullet point form:

  • If you have people in your company who are willing and able, let them do it or at least help do it
  • Be at least reasonably clear on where you want to go and why
  • Interview the most senior full-time resource, not just the parter
  • Be prepared, once they land, it is on and you are paying for them
  • Actually read what they write
  • Don’t ask for too much out-of-scope work
  • Have a plan for how you will handle it when they leave
  • Support them so they can move as fast as possible and be their shadow to be sure you understand what they are doing
  • Get them out

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