When you sign a consulting contract on the dotted line, the stakes are high. You’ve called in the experts to guide a project that will have a significant impact on your association’s future. It’s almost always a highly visible, big-ticket item. People across the organization are invested in a positive outcome. None more so than the leaders who evaluate your own performance—the board of directors. Failure is typically not a viable option.
Yes, you are taking a risk. But don’t let fear stop you from getting the support you need. A smooth consulting relationship can make you a hero. These are some advantages you stand to gain when you hire an outside expert:
- A fresh perspective on your project and your activities
- A professional with years of experience implementing similar initiatives
- An opportunity to discuss pros and cons with an objective, neutral observer
- A source for the data and analytics necessary to speak truth to power
- Expertise that will instill confidence in risk-adverse participants
- Knowledge of the latest best practices, tools and technologies
- Someone who is outside of the association’s political and personal issues
I’m proud to call many of my client’s friends. These relationships are among the most rewarding in my professional experience, and the beauty is that they keep on giving. I’d like to share a few of the strategies that have made my consulting adventures both productive, instructive and, most importantly, fun.
Making the decision to hire a consultant does not necessarily mean that you are ready to bring one on board. Once you’ve gone further than floating the idea, make sure that all of the operational and administrative pieces are in place to rollout a successful initiative. Here’s a short checklist to assess readiness:
- Do you have the staffing and budget resources to conduct a search and hire a consultant?
- Do all stakeholders agree on the importance of the project and the need for expert guidance from outside the organization?
- Are the project goals clearly defined and understood by participants?
- Have participants received coaching on how to best work with consultants?
- Have the point people been identified and briefed on the scope and their responsibilities?
Know Your Endgame
Whether you’ve written a full-blown request for proposal or are using a more abbreviated option to identify candidates, make sure that all stakeholders have agreed upon specific goals for the project. Your consultant will help you develop the objectives along the way, but not without a clear destination.
Learning as much as you can about candidates goes without saying. Check references and ask colleagues about their experiences.
Use the collective knowledge of the association community. The Association of Consultants to Nonprofits is a good place to start the search. I was recently nominated to the board as vice president, nonprofit relations. Feel free to contact me if you would like to learn more about this great source for expertise and information. Reviewing the directories of related organizations such as the Association of Fundraising Professionals or the American Marketing Association can also be helpful.
Make a Connection
Don’t wade so far into the weeds of due diligence that you neglect chemistry. A good fit can be the deciding factor in whether your relationship moves forward quickly or stalls at the starting gate. Your consultant should be someone with whom you can speak candidly about your project and your association. A doctor can’t prescribe the right medication when the patient hides critical symptoms. So, share the good, but don’t hesitate to explain the bad and the ugly. Remember, that the right solution may be something you have not even considered. That’s why you are asking an expert who can analyze the issue from a global perspective.
A consultant’s familiarity and comfort with your culture is as important as his or her personality. Someone who has worked consistently with Fortune 500 companies is probably not going to hit the ground running with a smaller association. There will be a learning curve. Hiring a consultant who has experience working within your staffing and budgetary resources can help to jump-start your project.
Ask yourself whether this candidate has the charisma and credibility to capture your board and your staff’s attention. Do they mirror what your group values in terms of attitude, professionalism and execution? Then, go for a check-in. Introduce them to key players and make sure that the feedback matches or complements your own impressions. If there are significant objections or criticisms, be prepared to go in another direction. Questions like these can help you to assess whether a consultant is right for your culture:
- What do you know about our association, our industry and our competitors?
- How do you manage conflicting personalities, opinions and priorities to create buy-in? Give examples of your success in this area?
- What unique attribute can you bring to this job that we could not find elsewhere?
- What do you find most rewarding about working with clients like us?
- What do you value most about your role as a consultant and how will that contribute to our culture?
Be a Partner
Trust is the source of a solid partnership. It keeps the communication flowing. Make sure you are comfortable with the sales presentation the consultant uses to win your business. Don’t be cowed by scare tactics (If you don’t hire us, you’re doomed. We’re the only ones who can help.) or enticed by a low-ball bid. Consultants should be eager for your business not desperate to find a client. Look for straight forward, honest answers to your questions.
The relationship that you have with a consultant is not like the relationship you have with your staff. You won’t be using your time or your budget wisely if you try to supervise their work. Provide them with the resources and environment they need to do their job and let them run with it. (Remember this is someone you trust.) Consultants want to work with you like a partner. If you treat them that way you will get the benefit of their best advice—and that’s the point, right?
Be in the Spotlight
A project that launches to cake, balloons, high-fives and kudos is the result both you and your consultant hope to achieve. Everyone enjoys the luxury of the big sigh of relief. For consultants, success may mean additional business or referrals and the satisfaction of a job well done. For your association, it’s a moment to enjoy the spotlight on your accomplishments. In the best of all possible worlds you learned lessons that will support the ability to launch another big venture, and the next time you need to change or grow, you’ll know that someone you trust is waiting to help.