As a traveler in the worlds of employment relations, organizational behavior, and the non-profit and educational sectors, I encounter a lot of folks who market themselves as consultants and a lot of organizations that have retained them.
Consulting in general is pretty much a cottage industry. There are few or no licensing requirements. There is no necessary training or education. Just put together some materials (the imposters “borrow” liberally from others), hang out a shingle (literally or digitally), print up some stationery, and — bingo — you’re in business.
Some consultants are extraordinarily good at the work they do. They zero in on a client’s needs and provide wise advice and guidance. Others appear to be relying on a charlatan’s recipe that mixes a little knowledge with a lot of self-promotion. In the Digital Age, it is far, far easier for the latter to present themselves as something they’re not.
Questions and considerations
This makes hiring a consultant tricky business. If you’re in the market for a consultant, chances are that you’ll be doing the bulk of the screening on your own. I don’t claim to be the first or last word on how to do that screening, but these are among the questions I would ask:
1. What are their credentials? I don’t mean that in a snooty way. This isn’t about Harvard vs. State U. Rather, does a prospective consultant present a body of work, education, and experience that conveys substance, knowledge, wisdom, and insight?
2. Do they talk in generalities or specifics? You can get stock information and advice from a book. What’s worth paying for are expert insight and advice applied to your specific needs. If you don’t hear a sincere commitment to understanding your organization and your situation, run, don’t walk.
3. Are they faking it? This is related to the question above. The minute you sense that someone’s knowledge base is thin, or that they’re feigning a level of expertise they simply don’t possess, move on. Although I understand that building a consulting business involves a necessary dose of self-marketing, a consultant who exaggerates his or her qualifications and expertise probably is lacking in substance.
4. Are they serious and grounded? Personal qualities count. Good consultants are not saviors or stars, and they do not present themselves in such ways. Rather, they bring understanding and commitment to help you address your challenges.
5. What do others say? A good consultant should come armed with references, if at all possible from past clients. Call them, politely grill them, ask tough questions of whether this consultant was effective.
Generally speaking, a consultant should be retained when it is clear that existing resources are inadequate and the gap can be addressed by bringing in a third party. It follows that consultants should be used judiciously. If an organization has a record of retaining consultants every time a problem or crisis arises, its core leadership is lacking essential competencies and skills, perhaps significantly.