How to Hire the Right Kind of Consulting Help
Where do Consultants Come From?
On the surface, this can be a tough question. Consultants are easy to find. Throw a rock in any major city and you’ll find your pick – they are everywhere. Problem is, giving oneself the ‘Consultant’ moniker is an easy thing to do. Anyone can call themselves a Consultant without have a single credential to support the claim. There is no special higher education degree in consulting nor is there some magical land where Consultants are minted. So how do you sort the good from the bad? The rock stars from the posers?
There are certainly the ‘puppy mills’ of consulting like Deloitte, PwC, Accenture and the like; that take bright eyed and bushy tailed college grads and pump them through a rigorous training program. Sometimes this happens on a campus in the middle of Farmville where they are shown the tricks of the trade in under a month all the while developing deep bonds with their start group. Upon graduation, these plucky individuals are minted with the title “Consultant” or “Analyst” and then spend a night partying in the big city to experience team building first hand.
Despite being inoculated with all their consulting knowledge in such a short period of time; the fact remains that even folks with these come off the farm having little to no real world experience in a true business environment. That’s where you, the client, come in. Anyone who has bought consulting services from a major national or international firm before knows that when they hire a team of consultants, they get a handful of people that know what they are doing and then a bunch of arms and legs learning on the job. The dilemma is that you are paying this tax for their training. Have you ever thought you’d pay someone $200/hour to take meeting minutes and write status reports? Probably not – but you have anyway and there’s no easy way to get off this roller coaster once you’ve started the ride.
So Many Choices, So Little Time…
Now that we understand where 90% of the consultants in the world come from, let’s talk about hiring consultants – the good kind. There are a lot of places you can go to hire consultants. Here’s a sampling of your options at a macro level:
- Independent Consultants – mercenary ‘Lone Rangers’ who are out on their own hunting and killing their own food.
- Small to Medium Firms – typically local firms that have anywhere between 10-150 people working at them from a variety of backgrounds.
- Large local/regional firms – ranging from several hundred to a few thousand employees with breadth across multiple practice areas. Examples would be North Highland, Point B, Slalom and West Monroe.
- Large National Firms – companies with several thousand people that travel to clients and focus on a multitude of practices. Think BCG, McKinsey, et al.
- Large International Firms – massive companies like Accenture, Tata, Infosys and the like. Typically have operations in multiple countries and a broad spectrum of capabilities.
- Big 4 firms – defined traditionally as PWC, Deloitte, KPGM and Ernst & Young focusing on a broad spectrum of professional services across many clients.
- Specialist Firms – typically smaller firms that focus on one or two related practice areas, i.e., Change Management, Public Sector, Business Intelligence, Strategy, etc.
- Mom and Pop Shops – 1-10 person local firms that generally have a couple of key clients and focus on a single line of service such as Project Management or Portfolio Management
- Staffing Companies – body shops that can ramp up rapidly and find people quickly to do short term work. May come with varying quality and consistency at a lower cost.
Damn – that’s a lot of options!?! Good thing there’s a healthy supply of these folks.
Let’s narrow things down a bit by asking a few qualifying questions:
- Is money an object? Do you own your own home?
- Do I want local or traveling consultants?
- Is my project esoteric or generic? Do I need a specialist/subject matter expert or can I get by with a good generalist?
- Does my project cross multiple disciplines where I’ll need multiple people each with their own set of expertise?
- Do I want to use a ‘one stop shop’ company that can supply resources for all of my project needs or am I willing to work with multiple suppliers?
- Do I need to pay for support and oversight or do I want someone that can stand on their own two legs?
- Do I care about my consultant having access to ‘the fraternity files’ or outside resources if they need help?
- What kind of relationship do I want to build? A personal one with an individual or one with a firm that can do more for me in the long run?
Based on the answers to the questions above, you should be able to narrow down what type of firm you want to work with. Each of these answers will help you focus on the type of firm you are looking for which will help you get to your shortlist of where you want to be hiring consultants from. Now, let’s talk about hiring consultants who fit the bill.
Hiring Consultants: Book Smart vs. Street Smart
So, now that we have our options outlined, we need to figure out what kind of people we want to work with. Now I’m partial to underdogs and resourceful people. I also like working with people I like. Most people would prefer to hire someone that they like with good credentials than a jerk with great credentials. Team chemistry is key to any successful consulting project.
The key question here is: Do I want Freud or MacGyver?
No matter what option you select from the types of firms listed above, you will assuredly be showered with a deluge of resumes. Many will have fancy titles and letters next to consultant names. A cacophony of acronyms and titles will follow: ITIL, PMP, Black Belt, LEAN, CRPC, CPA, ABC, 123…it’s an exhausting and endless list. And in the end, it may not matter much. Yes, I give you props that you spent all that time studying, passing tests and paying your fees for those certifications. But what I really want to know is – can you do the job?
Some people are addicted to these certifications. I call them ‘Professors’. They spend every dime of their training budget getting certified on one thing or another without even knowing how they will use those skills in the future. They are serial academics. Sometimes getting these certifications can be valuable for those looking to progress into a new career. But sometimes it’s an ego-inflation tactic that does little to no good. Don’t get me wrong – some of these folks can be very good. And, if you need a specialist and have a big hairy process project you may need a Six Sigma expert to do the job. Just pick one that’s a practitioner and not a professor.
I’ll bet you a dollar that any smart person can go to a ‘boot camp’ and sit for their PMP certification and pass within a week. But if you’ve never actually managed a real project, end to end, and come through it with lumps and bruises then I don’t care. Passing a test does not equal competence. Give me the street smart consultant who has tried, failed, learned and then succeeded the next time. Don’t give me the guy who has passed every certification test known to man and accomplished nothing on the job. I’m a true believer of learning by doing – not just by reading and memorizing. You learn by figuring out a solution when your project is flaming red and so is your client’s face. You learn by screwing things up a bit and fixing them. And you learn from cobbling together solutions from whatever resources you can find and making it work.
Next time you are interviewing a consultant, ask them this simple question: you are lost in the woods and have a pocket knife, a piece of string, a rubber band and a tin cup – how do you use these things to survive for a week? If they can answer that question intelligently and creatively, then you have a start to finding your MacGyver.
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