Posted: Sept. 27, 2017, 3:09 p.m.
Choosing a Management Consultant: What Kind of Consultant Do I Need?
Especially if you've read part one or part two of our series on choosing a management consultant, odds are you're here at our third part because you've decided outside help is in order for your organization's needs—and you're ready to find out what kind of consultant you should look for. This post is designed to help you identify and hire the right consultant when you need one and begins to help you make sense of all of the options that exist.
Depending on your need, there are a variety of consultants out there—each with a different claim on the name consultants. There are several of these that do not actually fit what we would classically call a consultant, but the important thing is that they call themselves consultants—we can help you better make a distinction.
"Helping hand" consultants don't fit the traditional definition of a consultant as we're using it here. Helping hands are better defined as temporary employees or contract laborers. After all, it is not uncommon for an organization to find itself in need of filling a job or a role for only a short time. This need may be due to a spike in business, an extended illness, a vacancy left due to maternity or paternity leave, or for other reasons.
The key point that separates helping hands from other consultants is that they are filling a role that an employee should—or does—fill. They are usually expected to fit into the current workforce as seamlessly as possible. We have seen helping hands hired to do pretty much everything:
- enter data
- eliminate backlogs of work
- act as a temporary CFO while a long-term replacement is sourced
Those are just a few examples.
Helping hands are generally supervised like any regular staff member and might even be evaluated as full-time employees are evaluated. Just because we don’t identify them as consultants does not mean they do not have a vital role in supporting organizations. We have suggested helping hand temporary workers for a variety of clients, including the CFO mentioned above.
There are three camps of those that identify themselves as trainers or training specialists. The first is one you should be especially wary of. There are far too many people out there who identify themselves as consultants (or trainers, or training consultants) and who have a system that they sell regardless of organizational needs. With tag lines like, "We guarantee..." or “Our system creates engaged workers...”, they can’t actually guarantee anything since they don’t yet know what your organizational needs are, nor can they be sure their system will create engaged workers without understanding a) if the workers are even disengaged and b) why they are disengaged, if they are. Be very wary of these types of providers.A second type of training specialists are the actual trainers. These people are often not consultants either, but they do offer an invaluable service.
These providers are useful when one of more of the following criteria apply:
- When the concepts they present are generic in nature, in that they apply equally to a variety of participants, regardless of the organization. For example, presentation skill workshops, interviewing skills for the workforce, or hiring and developing the right people are all beneficial concepts for most any organization at most any stage.
- When the concepts are best taught to people that do not work together day-to-day. There are several workshops we offer which ask people to take some risk in that we want them to feel safe and free to express themselves and experiment with different behaviors. If they have too many co-workers there, it can hinder this. Some examples here are: giving effective feedback and dealing with difficult people
- When a diverse voice benefits the learning and development of the group. Diversity of opinions, experiences, and perspectives can offer invaluable insight into our own experiences sometimes. When we run supervisor training courses or leadership courses or consultant training programs, we love to have participants with a variety of organizational backgrounds, functions, and levels to increase this varied perspective.
We offer many of the above types of workshops, but we do not consider this an aspect of our consulting, per se. Rather, it's another service we provide. We do, however, offer training as part of our consulting, which fits into the next profile—the Training Consultant.
Training consultants often take the view that they do not yet fully know what training your organization needs until they have done an assessment. Most of the time, they are individuals or firms that have the skills and experience necessary to execute a variety of things:
- Assess the training requirements of the persons or groups within your organization
- Custom design training intended to meet specific, prioritized training needs
- Assist in the implementation of the training within the organization
- Facilitate and/or, when possible and appropriate, enable the organizational staff to facilitate training development
- Assist in the evaluation of the results of implemented training activities
Expert consultants are everywhere, but that is in part due to the rapid advances in technology and the ever-growing reliance on external, non-payroll help from organizations. Expert consultants have some skill or knowledge that a team needs for the short term. The difference between expert consultants and helping hands, though, is that expert consultants do not fill a role in the organization that currently exists—though they may be bringing organizational members up to fill a role.
Often an expert consultant will take on the role of a training consultant within a particular realm. More often than not, once a particular problem is solved or a task completed, an expert consultant will move on to the next project. These consultants fall into a variety of niche categories for very specific company needs, including IT, software, and marketing, to name a few. We have met extremely niche consultants, including a fantastic organizational consultant that specializes in helping people manage their workspaces in ways that make their lives easier.
Similar in nature to expert consultants, there is a set of consultants out there who can offer significant benefit to an organization by identifying an area of the organization that can be streamlined in ways that save time, movement, steps, paper, supplies, and of course, money. From Six Sigma to TQM, these specialists are fantastic at working with organizations to find ways to reduce waste and identify areas that are barriers to success. Many are also great at integrating this knowledge with process consulting.
If you could put Effectiveness Consultants into one category, this would primarily be it. The major difference between expert consultants and process consultants is that expert consultants are quicker to offer solutions. Process consultants work with an organization and its members to collaborate in helping them identify, assess, clarify, prioritize, and resolve problems within the organization.
A common goal for process consultants is to transfer their knowledge and skills to others within the organization. I often joke that my primary job with many of my clients is to work myself out of a job. There's a nugget of truth to the joke, though—I have done my job when my client's organizational members can solve a problem without my input. This, of course, requires buy-in from the organization and its members.
There are a variety of process consultant assignments you might encounter:
- Develop and implement a cultural shift in the organization (e.g. from an autocratic to a more participative workplace)
- Assess and realign the core mission of the organization and bring all functions and departments in line with that mission
- Assess and develop a more appropriate organizational structure
- Create a more cooperative workplace through conflict management and/or teamwork development
- Develop strategies to more efficiently use organizational resources
- Formulate a strategic plan and gain commitment throughout the organization
There is a long-standing discussion about academics as consultants and it is an important debate to touch on here as what some academics do is not quite consulting; but at the same time, some of the best consultants we know are or were academics (ourselves included!).
The primary guiding purpose of academics can sometimes go against the needs of an organization. An academic's primary goal is to understand. Thus, they may not look for solutions, but rather for explanations. However, it is important that academics get access to organizations and be allowed to do research because the theories they develop can inform the best consultants out there. If you do make the decision to hire an academic, you need to probe a bit to make sure they are also a consultant.
At the same time, we know of some consultants that speak ill of scholars and downplay their contribution and the contribution of theory and research in general. Some consultants we have met spend time in the trenches as executives or managers and have turned that experience into a consulting business. We argue very strongly that theory and practice inform each other and that both are vital for offering the best advice and guidance when consulting.
Without theory, we react blindly, and without practice, we miss important real-world feasibility.
The table above breaks out the types of consultants we described in this article, what their primary focus is, and when you should reach out to them.
Our next post will move from choosing the right consultant to hiring that consultant. Stay tuned. And if you think a process consultancy might be what your organization needs, Effectiveness Consultants is ready to take your call. Reach out to us at 805-770-2659.