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Getting Value from Your Management Consultant

At a time when more organizations are turning to the talents of external management consultants to help cure corporate ills and plan their long-term change strategies, a curious paradox has arisen. Consultancy services have achieved a high level of acceptability but many companies that retain consultants ultimately report disenchantment with the experience.

In my view, there are three basic factors involving careful preparation and evaluation, which every prospective client must consider, in order to heighten prospects for a successful assignment. These cover:

  • Preparation and appraisal within the organization before a consultant is engaged to undertake an assignment.

  • Questions that an organization should ask of the consultant before he or she is retained.

  • Content of the actual contract agreement.

Client Preparation:

Before a company’s senior executive acts to bring in an external consultant, there is some essential spade- work he or she must do. A fundamental in such a decision is to assure as much internal support and commitment from other senior managers as possible. Without wide-ranging executive support and commitment, most assignments are doomed to failure from the outset.

It is important, also, for an organization to carefully evaluate the ability and availability off its own internal resources to do the job. In fact, external resources should be considered only when it is clear that internal resources are not available.

In my experience, assignments which turn sour and cause disenchantment usually occur because clients in the initial period fail to set specific objectives and expectations to be accomplished by the consultant.

In many cases consultants come into an organization and have to decide for themselves what it is that they are going to do, and how they are going to go about it. In this situation when expectations, both on the part of the client and the consultant are never clarified at the outset, there is bound to be disappointment and disenchantment. Furthermore I find that clients fail to define end results to be achieved in terms of assessing how the organization will differ at the conclusion of the assignment.

A client organization should also seriously consider the type of consultant and consulting style they believe would be compatible in their environment. They should be confident that the consult will be acceptable at all levels of the organization, and that he or she will be able to work with, for example, production line personnel and union delegates, while at the same time being able to make an impact on the Chief Operating Officer.

The client should immediately determine which internal executive should be responsible for the consulting of project, and more importantly, which executives(s) or group should evaluate the consultant’s performance.

It is vitally important for a consultant to be told early in the assignment how well, or otherwise, he or she is performing so that corrective action can be taken. This practice should be maintained throughout the assignment.

Finally in this preparatory period the client should honestly assess the readiness to hear critical things about the organization. The client should be receptive to hearing such criticisms without becoming defensive, and taking punitive action either against employees within the organization, or against the consultant. These, then, are the major matters for the client to consider during the preparation phase.

Questions for the Consultant:

There are, of course, a number of basic background experience questions that a client will want to ask a prospective consultant. They include:

  • How many years of consultancy experience does the consultant have?

  • What kinds of organizations and industry segments have the consultant previously work?

  • What kinds of projects or problems has the consultant been involved?

  • Does the consultant have a record of repeat business?

The client should question the consultant about his or her professional code of values. This could pinpoint a particular value conflict between client and consultant that might disqualify the consultant from acting to carry out a prescribed organizational objective.

There are also a number of practical questions concerning method and approach to work to be asked. For example:

  • How much time will the consultant spend on the assignment? Who will provide the service? Having agreed to a contract, will the client be serviced by a junior consultant?

  • Does the consultant give you an estimated budget of fees in advance, the number of consulting days to be worked, and a time frame with dates in terms of planned action?

  • Does the consultant suggest a process, or specific plan which shows how he or she will work with your organization as well as a strategy that will be employed to help solve the problems that have been identified?

  • Will the consultant arrive on the assignment with preconceived “expert” solutions to classic casebook organizational problems, or by suggesting that the client work with the consultant to determine appropriate strategies for dealing with the problem?

  • Will the consultant make the organization independent of his resource? Will he develop internal resources and transfer his technology and expertise to make the client self-sufficient?

  • Will the consultant be willing to confront senior management with unpalatable information or opinions, or will the consultant be more likely to tell the client what he would prefer to hear rather than the reality of the situation?

Finally in the area of consultant evaluation, a client should look to see if the consultant models the same behavior that he is prescribing for the client system, and whether he is prepared to admit personal weaknesses in any given situation, and refer the work to those who might have more appropriate skill.

The Contract:

A number of items that should be included in the ideal contract agreement are presented for the protection of the client as well as the consultant.

In addition to such obvious items such as fees, daily rates, out-of- pocket expenses etc., it is desirable that client and consultant expectations and specific deliverables should be set out in the agreement. From the consultant’s viewpoint, his own list of expectations should clarify what the client will have to do during the project process.

As part of the contracting process, ownership of the consulting project should rest mainly with the client. This item should describe how a client would accept prime responsibility for solving major problems or issues in close collaboration with his consultant.

The contract should spell out not only the time the consultant will spend on the project, but also an estimated amount of time that senior management will commit to the project. This section should indicate the kind of other internal resources that the organization will supply to help overcome a problem situation.

The consultant should describe the type of technology or knowledge that he will transfer to internal resources. This item should include a reciprocal provision demonstrating the client’s willingness to teach the organization’s business to the consultant.

The contract should include a client commitment to ongoing diagnosis throughout the organization.

There should be a contract statement that assures the consultant accessibility to top management and the freedom to confront the organization on matters that may tend to threaten it. The contract should also contain a clause giving either party the right to cancel for non-performance.

Lastly, the contract agreement should cover a full-scale evaluation of the assignment. This would include the project itself, objectives, and the impact the consultant has had; the consultant skill, competencies, abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and the client’s levels of time and energy resources available to help solve his own problems.

If the consultant and client have prepared themselves as thoroughly as this guide has suggested, and made the type of commitments outlined in the contract proposal, then both parties will enhance the likelihood that the assignment will produce enhancement rather than disenchantment.

Dr. Karl Larson

HR Expert / Consultant

Karl brings to his clients over 40 years of professional experience from the fields of international consulting, corporate management, retained executive search, executive outplacement and higher education.

For many years he owned and operated his own international consulting firm with offices in Houston, New York, Los Angeles, Manila, Singapore and Sydney. He has had extensive living periods while serving clients in the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Holland, the Philippines, the Balkans-Macedonia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

His corporate experience has included senior level positions with Corning Glass, Rockwell, and Tiger International. He also has held various administrative and academic appointments at Northeastern University, UCLA, Springfield College and the University of Texas at Austin where he taught graduate MBA courses in Strategic Management, Global Marketing and Human Resources Management.

Karl also served as Senior Vice President for a retained executive search firm in Southern California as well as an Executive Vice President for a well-known retained Outplacement Firm.

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