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What you see isn’t always what you get!

Let me begin by telling you something you almost certainly know.

Management is hard.

(If you don’t agree, you should probably stop reading now.)

But throughout my career – as managing director of successful professional services firms, as COO of a national not-for-profit, and a host of other similar positions – I’ve yet to take on a management role I thought was easy.

Management is hard because there’s never been a definitive guidebook. There’s no certain ‘go-to’ when you’re unsure about making the right decision.

And management is a constantly varying mixture of art and science. Knowing when to trust your data, and when to trust your instinct, is a constant dilemma.

But there are times you have to be realistic and acknowledge that you, and even your team, don’t have all the skills you need for every management task.

And that’s where the consultant comes in. If you don’t have a specific kind of expertise, you can hire it in.


Or maybe not.

In all the management roles I’ve had, selecting and appointing consultants was an inevitable and often challenging part of the job.

The key challenge, of course, is that if you’re engaging someone to do something youdon’t know about, how can you make a judgement about their knowledge and ability?

For me, it took some dismal failures, and a few brilliant successes, before a set of guiding principles began to emerge, that helped me enormously, and that I’d really like to share with you.

Whatever your formal selection process, and however many proposals you’re considering, the following 10 questions can really help you identify which consultant is most likely to deliver the best outcome for you and your organisation:

Is their experience narrow or broad?

  • Can they draw on a wide range of past management successes, or is their experience limited to your specific sector or business type?
  • Can they help generate solutions to new and emerging challenges, or do they only bring standard answers to known problems?
  • Can they be creative and flexible in working with you, or do they just roll out thesame approach for every client?

Are they genuine?

  • Do they boast about their competencies and achievements, or focus on your project and organisation?
  • Do they try to mislead by promising results that seem too good to be true, or are their methodologies realistic and their proposed outcomes attainable?
  • Do they try to appear sophisticated by using excessive jargon, or is their story clear, authentic and comprehensible?

Will they just identify problems, or propose solutions?

  • Are they going to simply help you find out what needs to change, or work with you to develop the necessary models and methodologies to implement those changes?
  • Are they able to analyse and review your inputs, or will they simply document the information you provide to them?
  • Are they involved in experimentation and constant research, or do they rigidly adhere to a long-held approach or philosophy?

Are they prepared to challenge you?

  • Will they tell you if they think any of your expectations are unrealistic or unachievable?
  • Will they question your assumptions, to make sure they’re dealing with your real problems and not just papering over cracks?
  • Will they say ‘no’ if they don’t agree with you, or if you make an unreasonable request?

Do they prioritise your success?

  • Is their success measured by maximising the value of their fees, or by adding valueto your organisation?
  • Is their emphasis just on final deliverables, or will they follow up after project completion and be around if you need further help?

Is their communication one-way or two-way?

  • Will they forge a strong and durable relationship with you, or simply play the expert, who has all the answers?
  • Will they seek a thorough and detailed understanding of your problems, or just roll out their process regardless?
  • Will they try to build a meaningful rapport with you, or are they more interested in you for future referrals?

Do they just want to please you?

  • Are they aiming to do what they think you want, or what they believe you need?
  • Are they confident and experienced enough to share ‘difficult truths’ you may not want to hear, or do they adopt a ‘customer is always right’ approach?
  • Are they prepared to earn your trust, or do they expect blind faith in their recommendations?

Do they focus on ideas or outcomes?

  • Does their approach simply generate or explore lots of ideas, or does it lead to implementing focused, high-value and strategically targeted actions in your business?
  • Does the support they offer emphasise just setting organisational goals, or is it about planning to deliver them?

Do they seek feedback, and take it on board?

  • Will they encourage and be open to your feedback about their service, whether positive or negative, or will they just be defensive?
  • Will they welcome and incorporate your suggestions and advice?
  • Will they progressively test your responses to their approach and outputs, or simply hope that you’ll unconditionally accept their final recommendations?

Do they ask questions?

  • Are they going to request detailed information about your organisation and key people right from the outset, before any real engagement or analysis?
  • Are they good at seeking clarification where details are inconsistent or incomplete, or will they just make assumptions?
  • Are they prepared to make certain their understanding of your problems and desired outcomes is clear, or will they say ‘trust me, we’ve done this many times before?’

Most importantly, make sure that you meet and talk with any consultant you’re considering appointing. Don’t just rely on a written proposal. And especially don’t make your selection based primarily on the proposed fee.

Ultimately, most professional consultants are likely to have the core skills andexperience you’re looking for.  So, how comfortable and confident you feel that your preferred choice will relate well, and engage with you genuinely, can end up being the deciding factor.

Take the time to ask these 10 questions, and you will almost certainly engage a consultant who can add real, practical value to your organisation and its future.

Ross Clark is the founder of Melbourne-based strategic consultancy,WhyWhatHow. He has more than thirty years’ experience working on, in and with professional services and not-for-profit businesses.

Learn more here about how to evolve the why, what and how of your organisation.