The Truth About Consultants

Early in my career I learned two important things. The first is that most of the answers any executive needs are already resident within the organization. In effect, you and your people already know what needs to be done. You're just not doing it. (We'll get to that later.)

The second is that consultants, in far too many cases, are not as concerned as you think they are about successfully completing the contract they have with you. They're more interested in ensuring the next one.

This is accomplished in a variety ways. One option is that whatever has been proposed is based on a fraction of what they know you need. As a result, even as they are achieving the results they promised, they're laying the groundwork for why it is nowhere near what is necessary and could be achieved...with another contract.

Another option is that the most senior consultants know that they are responsible for generating business for other parts of the larger consultancy. Not only is their performance measured on that basis but, if they are partners in a large firm, their annual remuneration is dependent upon their ability to generate new, lucrative contracts across all the consulting practices.

The worst option, though, comes from those consultancies that are aware that they are providing services that either cannot or are not designed to be transferred and applied within the organization. Those consultants base their business model on the client developing a dependency on the consultant to keep filling in the holes...which, in fact, the consultant created in the first place.


You may think that I'm making this up. I'm not. Unfortunately, both during my career as an executive within organizations and in my conversations with consultants in the years since, I've had way too much exposure to how these games are played.

Let me give you what has become my favorite example - timely as it is. It's all about management and leadership development for Lean.

I was talking with the owner of a consultancy that specialized in providing services to very large organizations. Some of their work came from direct contracts but much was generated by contracting with other consulting entities. The services they provided were, at that time, mostly focused on the public sector but some activity was going on in the private sector as well.

(Be prepared. This is why "your tax dollars at work" so often ends up being such a disappointment. No matter the country, in this case, it's not the government's fault.)

As she was explaining to me what they did, I asked her about sustainability. Given that their services were primarily training based, did they have a system in place to ensure that there was transferability of the skills from the managers and supervisors to the employees?

This, as everyone knows who works in any realm of quality improvement, is the key component to success - that ability to access the knowledge and develop the skills of everyone at every level so that implemented improvement becomes a constant component of the organization's operations.

No, she said with a smile. She explained, proudly, that by not building in the means to sustain the skills in the organization, she ensured ongoing contracts.

Wasn't she doing a great job?

Well, she was and she wasn't. Given that it was her firm and that she wanted to make lots of money, she was doing fine. On the other hand, her clients were being systematically cheated because they thought they were buying one thing but, in fact, were getting another.

Oh, the reasons that were given to the client for why it was so necessary that the consultant must come back were easy. Managers weren't doing their jobs. The organization's quality infrastructure wasn't designed to ensure sustainability. Even, if she was brave enough and wanted to go for the big bucks, the executives needed training in how to lead an organization in a Lean environment.

Not that she knew much about that. After all, if she did, she would have known that quality improvement initiatives are based on integrity (personal and operational) that leads to achievement of the enterprise's profit goals and strategy from improved operations, expanded customer satisfaction and market base, an environment of ongoing innovation and simultaneous cost reduction.

The problem is, she and her firm are one of too many, not too few, who pull those games on their clients.

That means that you have to be on the alert. It's your job to determine what the success criteria are that you want and need and whether the consultant you've hired is delivering on your definition. Not theirs.

Successful consultants know customer service like the back of their hands. They know how to talk the talk and, seemingly, walk the walk that the executives who hire them need and want.

But if the consultant is the one who is telling you what the outcome will be, something is wrong. Deliverables, yes. Always. Measurable - hard and soft - again, yes. Absolutely.

All of which, by necessity and design, has to be based on what you want. Because you know - and will always know - your organization and industry better than any consultant ever can or will.

Keep in mind, consultants work in the consulting industry. That's their job and sector. They may have specialization in your industry, but that's a subset of what they do. It gives them knowledge and experience (which is for the good and the bad, in fact), but it doesn't make them expert.

Not like you and your people.

All of which takes me back to the first thing I learned. That the majority of answers already exist within the enterprise.

The bravest of the brave executives are not only willing to ask questions, they actively want and look for honest answers. People at all levels who disagree with them. People with insight that gets lost at the executive level - which it always will simply by virtue of the degrees of separation from the executive suite to the front lines, however they're defined.

You want people to argue with you and tell you, politely, why they think what the organization is doing or thinking about could be done better. Should be done differently. Or should be left alone.

Always with the why. The only way you will know and understand what they see and why they are saying what they're saying is when they explain why they see something differently than you. Then, when they tell you the how, you'll have their context as well as your own. You'll understand that bit more that allows you to make the best decisions possible.

Sound familiar? Sound like something you're convinced you're already doing? Maybe so. Maybe not.

But, however much you've already developed this kind of questioning /probing / debating / discussing environment in your company, you need to do more. You need to ensure that you get the best information from all levels and all departments before making the decisions that need to be made.

Ah, but now you're thinking, that will slow us down. We'll become uncompetitive if we're constantly talking. Don't we have enough meetings already?

To the last question: Yes. Not only do you have enough meetings. You have too many. And the reason for that is because they don't accomplish much.

And that's why you end up bringing in consultants. They do things and get them done. You know that because they have all sorts of interim deliverables that show their progress. They look like form in action at all times.

Well, your people are doing things at all times too. Only they're working within a system - designed by well intentioned people who came before you - that is not designed to succeed. It is designed, at best, to continue to operate. The only reason it - and your organization - does succeed is because generations of your wonderful folks have figured out how to end-run the system to get their needs met and achieve what you want them to achieve.

Organizations are filled with incredibly dedicated employees. Good economy or bad, the people within your enterprise are doing their best with what they're given to accomplish the goals at hand.

The thing is, they know more about how things can be done better than you - or any consultants - will ever be able to answer.

Let them. Give them that opportunity.

Because, then, when you bring in consultants, you can target them to focus on the disruptive, new, cutting edge needs you have to ensure your success into the future.

Consultants are not and should not be the answer to what you need today. Those answers already exist within. The best value for your consulting dollar is when you're investing in your future. When you bring in thinking that is purposefully outside the proverbial box.

Whether in skills training or designing whole new IT systems, the best value that you will ever get from a consultant is when they tell you - honestly and directly - and then give you what comes next. The only difference is, they're giving you that now. Not in some future contract.

Sure there will be times that you want to continue the relationship with your consultants. You may even need them to fill in gaps that currently exist within your organization. But in either of those cases, remember that consultants are outsiders - and you want them to stay that way. Then they can bring you the best value - because they're spending their time figuring out what, why and how best of breed organizations in every industry are doing in the rest of the world.

Then they can bring that knowledge to you.

So, as you look at the consultants you currently have on hand - or are considering in the future - think about what you need and why you're hiring them. Think, too, about the number of answers that exist within that you're not getting - and why.

Then think about what you want. What the organization you always envisioned leading would look, act and feel like. I'm willing to put money on that including being highly intelligent, collaborative, innovative, successful.

It's there. Now it's on you to figure out what treasures you can find existent within and how to get the very best value for your money from the consultants you bring in from without.