Fieldstone Consulting, Inc.®
Retaining a Consultant
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fieldstoneClients often ask how to go about retaining the services of a consultant and then making best use of the consultant's expertise. This short guide, originally prepared as an address for the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, has been published in Private School Business (July/August 2003) as "The ABCs of Consultants: Do Your Homework Before the Hired Help Arrives." The guide covers:

  1. What consultants do
  2. Identifying your needs
  3. Making the best selection
  4. Best engaging the consultant's abilities with your needs
  5. Bringing the consultation to closure
  6. Characteristics of the good consultant
  7. Some reflections on consulting

  1. What Consultants Do

    There are consultants for every possible kind of work within your institution, including, but not limited to, governance (workshops, audits, talks, crisis intervention), performance reviews of board and chief executive officer, executive coaching, strategic planning, management analysis and audit, analysis of the functioning of a particular office within the institution, program or service development (which gets to the heart of an institution's distinctive mission), staff development, technology, facilities, risk management, legal audits, fundraising and capital campaigns, constituent relations management, security analyses, public relations and marketing, compensation analysis, executive search and preparation for it, and overall assessment—or some combination of all of the above.

    Consultants can add value in a number of ways. They can create consensus—and find it in unsuspected places; motivate and excite; change levels of awareness; calm a situation down—or bring it to a head; indicate best practice; provide a range of solutions that work—and give guidance for implementation; identify the problem(s); separate the presenting symptoms from the root causes; redefine the question and ask new questions; see connections and patterns that run through the whole institution and its history; confirm and/or question your basic assumptions and conclusions; place you in a broader context of institutions, some of which may not have struck you as similar; apply specific expertise to your situation; help you implement conclusions you've already reached; provide counsel—reality checks—on process you yourself are implementing; and, help you figure out what you need to do.

    As a final set of determinants in this initial assessment of your situation, consider the ways in which consultants can and do "intervene" in a situation. That knowledge is essential as you speak to consultants—and also in determining how you wish them to be engaged with your particular issue(s). Consultants tend to work in the following ways. They can review and analyze written and other materials (from board minutes to statistical data to building structure and well beyond); prepare and analyze constituent surveys; interview individuals and groups close to and/or knowledgeable about the assignment; facilitate group discussions and process, helping you create consensus and a broader perspective, resolve conflicts and solve problems, obtain counsel on how to proceed, collect scattered evidence into a broad-based analysis, help individuals work together more effectively, identify "outliers," build a viable "center," and set an institutional agenda; or, finally, talk through options with you and assemble the approach and procedures that make most sense. This last is a rare and important consulting skill in and of itself.

    Consultants present their findings in a number of different ways, generally including some combination of written and/oral reports and group facilitation.

    In discussing what consultants do, we must consider how they charge, which can be by time invested, a fixed fee (usually set with some estimate of time required built in), or some combination of both. If the job is simple and straightforward, the consultant may be able to quote you a price from the start; do not be surprised if the consultant gives you a wide range and says that the exact approach will determine costs. Most consultants bill expenses separately from their fees; you should find out about this and obtain some estimate of what expenses might be for a given assignment. Daily fees range widely, from hundreds to many thousands of dollars.

    Finally, in discussing what consultants do, it's important to think far in advance. Often, a group will set aside a date for a retreat, for instance, confirm difficult-to-arrange facilities, have the board mark dates on the calendar, and then telephone the consultant! Consultants tend to book many months out!

  2. Identification of Need

    The time you invest in addressing and answering the following rounds of questions, at the outset, is essential to the success of your selection process and your consultation: It's an investment in your future. If you know what you want and how you want the consultant to help, you can identify the right consultant and get the job done. As a suggestion here, consider bringing together a small group of individuals from the groups affected and work through the following questions and considerations together. That group—a steering committee—could then be responsible for guiding the entire consulting assignment. For a board-focused assignment the committee should be "charged" by the board to bring back a recommendation along specified lines. Allow sufficient time for this preparatory work!

    The first question is whether you even need a consultant, and it must be asked. What would you do if you didn't have access to a consultant? Would some well-placed calls to colleagues at other schools provide the necessary guidance? Are there some data bases that would serve your purpose? Would a course in, let us say, marketing or fundraising procedures do the trick? What is the desired outcome of this consultation?

    If you think you do, in fact, require a consultant, there are a number of rounds of questions to answer to help you think the situation through. The first is the most general round. Could you yourself "do it," but do you simply not have the time or staff to make it happen? Do you need special expertise that simply is lacking within your organization, such as assembling a master site plan or setting up a capital campaign. Do you need assistance that structurally requires outside assistance? Assessing constituent opinions—which no one inside will communicate to an insider. Do you need an answer to a specific question? Do you want some broader and different perspectives, perspectives that generally only come from an outsider? Do you seek the kind of wisdom that comes from long experience in the field? Do you seek different constituent behavior?

    Another round of questions has to do with the seriousness or gravity of the situation. How many constituents and constituencies does the issue affect? How many constituents and constituencies do you want to be and need to be involved in resolving the situation? How many parts of the institution are tied up with this issue? What are the variables in this situation? How many of them are there? Do you know? How do they relate to each other? How much passion surrounds the issue? Disagreement? Confusion? How long has this been a challenge? What attempts have been made before to meet it? How have they turned out? Why? To whom does this issue belong? A specific unit within the organization? A group of them? Top management? The governing body? Assessing the performance of a chief executive officer, for instance, belongs to the board, as does setting the direction of a planning process, which, normally, will engage other parts of the community as well. The lesson to be learned in this piece of the questioning is how difficult and/or complex the issue is and how best to address it.

    With answers to these questions, you can go back to the lists of "what consultants do" and start imagining ways in which all of your needs and their services might be packaged together. Identifying a number of alternative approaches will ease your work later considerably. After doing so, make sure you've given some of the basics sufficient thought. What is our timeline? How much flexibility do we have on it? How much are we willing and able to pay? How much flexibility there do we have? Who at the institution will be the point person for the project? Do we have the staff necessary to support the project? Now that you've completed your preparatory work, you've completed the most difficult piece of your own assignment!

  3. Selecting a Consultant

    First off, you need to collect a pool of candidates. Most organizations turn to board members and executives within their own field and ask for suggestions, frequently also contacting the associations that serve them as well. Your most reliable source of viable candidates consists of those individuals who've worked with the consultants personally.

    With a list of possibilities in front of you—and your committee—you can begin making telephone calls. Allow some time to complete them. With the kind of answer you've developed in your preparatory work, you should be able to give a short and revealing description of what you need and why. Inquire whether the consultant handles that kind of assignment and is interested in exploring the possibility of working with you. If the consultant has not done an assignment just like yours, don't necessarily cross him or her off! Good consultants adapt well and enjoy new challenges. How does he or she normally work? What range of approaches does she or he practice? Which does she or he prefer? What are the pros and cons of each? Given the complexity of most consulting assignments, it's important to recognize the difficulty of a consultant instantly understanding your situation. Good ones will probe for more information, but you can help the process of "connecting" by taking on yourself the burden of describing your institution and the situation. If you have none at this point, ask whether there are clients or other references with whom you might speak. Do not be surprised if the consultant does not wish unnecessarily to burden past clients with regular "duty" as references; ask yourself what you already have in the way of such evidence, and remember the importance of firsthand observation from individuals you know and trust. Inquire also, if you wish, about fee structures and how they're set. This is a good time to check availability, as well. Ask the consultant how he or she would like to proceed from this point. Some may volunteer to send you some information. Some may refer you to a web site. Some may make themselves available for a telephone interview or even say they'll come out and meet with you.

    Think carefully before asking for a proposal at this point. Unless the consultant has a "canned," "one size fits all" approach and that approach makes most sense for you, no good consultant can say too much to you at this point.

    Remember through all of this that the consultant is "qualifying" you. How serious is this person? Am I one of a list of 20 people being called? Is this a waste of my time leading to what consultants call a "beauty pageant"? Am I filling out a list of possible consultants so the board can say it's done its homework and collected bids, even though someone essentially already has been chosen? Does this institution have much sense of what it needs? Who's been thinking about the project? How far down the line is it? Am I being asked to give counsel on how I would structure and perform this assignment, counsel that, with other consultants' counsel, will be used by someone else to do the job? Who is asking for information about me? Am I being asked to come into an institution other than through the chief executive officer? Could becoming involved here harm the institution? The chief executive officer?

    Complete any follow-up work, including reference calls, reading company brochures, web sites, and proposals. Gather together to share your notes. At this point you have some choices.

    1. Indicate to one of the consultants that you'd like to proceed, talk through more of the terms, and/or have them come out and visit with you to set up the process. You also could ask for a letter of agreement outlining what the consultant will do and what the fees will be. If your chief executive officer has strong feelings here and/or you yourself know others who've worked successfully with the consultant, you can save yourselves considerable time and difficulty by proceeding in this fashion. This particularly can be the case if the assignment is a relatively small one.
    2. Schedule a conference call to speak with your selected pool of consultants, one by one.
    3. Ask a number of consultants to come and meet with you in the space of a day or so to talk the assignment through. Some fairly obvious guidelines apply here. Be clear with them that others are being invited. Giving the impression, however well intentioned, that an assignment is all sewn up when you're interviewing the field is unethical. Be clear also that you are picking up all expenses—unless, of course, it's a cross-town drive! This is not advised, but, if you expect to use the consultants to help you decide what you want to do, recognize that you are using consulting expertise and should be paying for it. One or two thousand dollars spent isolating exactly what has to be done may be the best money you spend on the project and guarantee its success. Ask for a further proposal only if you're serious about proceeding.

    If you decide to conduct on-site interviews—not normally advisable for simple and straightforward assignments—prepare yourself well and leave an hour or two for it. Obviously a comfortable room is important. If you're at a table, name tents are a nice gesture (as is sending out a list of participants in advance). You may ask the candidate whether she or he has any comments to make at the outset, and then move into some questions. Do not fix the same questions, in the same sequence, for all candidates: You want to be able to judge spontaneity and the ability to respond to and interact with you. So, have a few questions you want to drop into the process for each of the candidates, such as: What is the core of your business? What kinds of assignment would you reject? What kind make you uneasy? What is the range of kinds of assignment you typically perform? What assignments have you seen like this one before? What makes this one unique? What kind of assignment gives you greatest pleasure and/or satisfaction? Can you give us a sense of an assignment that did not work well and why? What range of approaches do you see working in this assignment? Which makes most sense to you? What are the scheduling implications for our calendar of this assignment? Are you the person with whom we would be working? What is your schedule over the months to come? How many assignments like this do you work on at a time? What kind of support do you need from the institution if you are to succeed? What kind of costs do you imagine coming out of this assignment? How do you bill? Where do you think our greatest challenge lies in completing this assignment?

    In the course of the interview, listen closely for evidence of the following: A lively interest in you as an institution and as leaders of it; an ability to grasp your special situation and place it in a broader context; the ability to give you a number of ways of moving ahead, with pros and cons of each; clear expertise growing out of long experience about what will not work—and what the consultant will not do, either for ethical or very practical reasons; good questions of you and an ability to get to the heart of the matter; a clear relationship between the consultant's skills, interests, and experience, on the one hand, and your needs; how much you're learning from the consultant (are you taking notes furiously, asking more and more questions, or bored?); how well the consultant listens to you, hears you, "gets it"; good chemistry, a sense of comfort and ease in the consultant's presence; how you feel when the consultant leaves the room: Do you want to see this person again?

    Reach a decision, incorporating into it the many strands and kinds of evidence you've been assembling. Speak almost immediately with the chosen consultant and work out details for how to proceed. You may wish to ask for a letter of agreement; a blessing of being clear about what you want and working with someone known and trusted in the field is that paper can be kept to a minimum. Notify the others immediately as well. The stories come back all too often of schools bringing a consultant in, at the consultant's expense, with all sorts of praise about the individual's reputation, working out the details of the assignment, and then never getting back.

  4. Making the Most of the Consultation

    The hard work now is over! The consultant and the "point person" can begin to put together the necessary details for the visit(s). Some final considerations may make the assignment more pleasurable and productive for all concerned. Send the consultant a copy of the schedule in advance of arrival: Alterations still are easily made. Make sure to provide quiet, comfortable accommodations for the consultant. In most instances, consultants need evening "downtime" to check notes, rest up, and prepare for the next day. Assign one person on campus to look after details for the consultant. Take time with the consultant at the start of the first day to review the schedule and what probably will occur within it. Make sure also to schedule time along the way to get some feel for how the consultant's observations are developing. If there is time at the close for a quick and confidential debriefing, it can prove helpful to sum up work to date and look to the next part of the assignment.

  5. Bringing Closure to the Assignment

    The institution and the consultant have been on an adventure together, and one outside the bounds of its normal organizational experience. Be sure to telephone the consultant shortly after assignment's conclusion. Review what you really liked about the process, what you learned, and what suggestions you have: Good consultants want to get better, and they listen closely for such constructive ideas. A letter thereafter also helps seal the assignment. Of course, the consultant may call you, as well.

    Bravo! Nothing is more difficult than trying to make up for long, long periods of internal, unchecked focus! Good institutions profit from outside assistance, want to be challenged, and seek to grow!

  6. Characteristics of the good consultant

    The good consultant:

    • Is experienced and successful, as a consultant. Consulting is a profession in and of itself, with its own rules, procedures, and principles.
    • Knows how to help define an assignment—and so build its success. Can help leaders think through multiple, appropriate ways to approach large issues and concerns.
    • Is expert in the use of standard consulting techniques for gathering valid data—from interviews, retreats, surveys, focus groups, statistics, institutional records—and knows how to interpret the results.
    • Reads institutions and their situations quickly and accurately.
    • Readily identifies both those characteristics unique to the institution and those shared with others.
    • Is alert to underlying patterns and themes, even among seemingly different institutions.
    • Has worked with enough institutions to recognize signs of emerging success—and potential difficulty—in various approaches.
    • Provides fresh perspective on old questions—and asks new questions.
    • Thinks in terms of possibilities, alternatives, and potential—what can be done.
    • Believes that honesty, spoken with humility, is a requirement of professional integrity.
    • Knows how to excite, inspire, and challenge; build shared institutional understanding and build vision; develop trust; and bring out leadership's best.
    • Is sensitive to vision, insistent on practicality: Habitually and readily translates enthusiasm and commitment into delineation of specific and workable tasks.
    • Prepares leadership to make the necessary moves.
    • Speaks convincingly and articulately to a wide range of audiences, writes well, and presents well. Allows clients to boast.
  7. Some reflections on consulting
    • The best key to the future is an understanding of the present and how we got here. That understanding is not easily reached; a seasoned professional knows how to get there.
    • You need to know how to ask the right questions—and how to interpret the answers. Among those questions are how best to implement a strategy and the consequences of adopting alternative approaches.
    • With the right consultant, you are in control, but can see further, act more wisely and consistently, and with greater confidence.
    • A good consultant helps you reach the right decision.
    • For a consultant, and the consultant's clients, a diverse client mix—with its shifting variables—makes each assignment distinct and also recognizable. The consultant's perspective is fresh.
    • There is no substitute for an experienced consultant, when you need new and original questions, independent judgment and perspective, and viable suggestions on ways to proceed.
    • An approach that is specifically tailored to your own institution will benefit you most.
    • Think of your consultant as the guide at the back of the white water raft who helps the oarsmen move through the rapids safely and successfully.
    • A good consultant helps you identify an approach that best matches and balances your needs and budget.