Expertise, objectivity and supplementary assistance are the primary reasons for a health care organization to hire an external consulting firm. It is wonderful when a consulting relationship works well, yet not all do. Why do some external consulting relationships seem to thrive, while others become challenging?
In this article, we explore how and why a major health care provider significantly benefited from an external consulting relationship, and how you can apply these lessons to your organization, no matter its type or size.
The Three Vital Success Steps
While strategy-setting is a vital and necessary part of any consulting relationship, the reality is that strategy is typically just a small part of the overall work provided by a consultant. Far more time and budget is spent on project implementation, which highlights the need for a great consulting relationship fit. With that in mind, here are three vital implementation-related success steps to consider when engaging a consultant.
Step 1: Determine and gain a trusted advisor – Think of this as the difference between a “good,” a “bad” or an “ugly” consultant. At the end of the day, you want a scrupulously honest and trustworthy “good” consultant who will tell you what you need to hear, in an artful and informed way, and integrate well with your team. That is invaluable counsel you may not hear from anyone else in your organization.
By contrast, a “bad” consultant is a “yes person” who does not add unbiased insight or value to you and your team’s relationship. An “ugly” consultant is “bad” plus also someone who is negatively disruptive to your team’s chemistry and activities.How can you find the ideal fit of expertise and personality in a “good” external consultant, or be referred to someone with these characteristics?
- Know your team – Take time to understand each member of your team, including their personalities and likes and dislikes. Know that while you can choose your consultant, you cannot immediately choose the employees who already work in your organization. Understanding your people to this level will help you in other ways, such as helping identify the “right” consultant.
- Gather and consolidate your team’s input – When considering and interviewing potential consultants, be sure you have select team members involved in the vetting process. Seek a consultant who has the proper credentials and someone whom your team trusts and will openly share their beliefs and feelings with.
- Consider your culture – A “good” consultant becomes part of your existing culture, as opposed to seeking to impose his/her own cultural interests on yours. Ideally, you want to strike a balance between having a consultant who “blends into” your organization yet still retains an independent and candid perspective.
- Think collaboration – In very limited cases will a consultant be able to solve your problem(s) by himself/herself. And more than likely, your team members will not be able to solve your problem(s) by themselves. Results will come only by your employees and consultant working together, which is why team/consultant chemistry is so important.
Step 2: Set expectations and position yourself for success – It’s important to know right away if you’ll be able to gain open and honest feedback from your consulting firm, including hard truths – things you may not “want” to hear but still need to know. How to achieve this? Start with small, winnable projects, and let your consultant demonstrate his/her abilities to you and others in your organization. Collect input on your consultant’s performance from team members. If the consultant’s reviews and results are positive, engage the consulting firm with larger, longer-term projects. If negative, part ways and use this information as background for the next time you hire a consultant.
Other ways of ensuring you receive open and honest feedback:
- Lay the ground rule: no repercussions for candor – It is common for staff members to be afraid of escalating issues to their superiors, because they think they will be reprimanded for doing so. It is important to find an artful consulting firm that can flex and accommodate the input of a range of personalities. Consultants can be an excellent source of “anonymous” information within your organization, provided that trust has been established.
- Get recommendations – While most consultants can easily spot flaws and faults, not all are equally adroit at proposing and executing solutions. A good consulting firm can not only tell you what you need to hear, but will also recommend multiple options to address issues and risks.
- Request feedback about yourself – Proactively seek and gain feedback about your own performance, and be open-minded to the input. Bear in mind that many team members will not be comfortable sharing their assessments directly with you. Obtaining feedback about your style, outcomes and communication is another benefit consulting firms can bring to you and your organization. If you learn you are part of or contributing to a problem, take immediate steps to address this deficiency and make your team’s performance stronger. Your team members will admire you for it.
Step 3: Prepare to collect and transfer your consultant’s knowledge – It is critical to have in place a system and processes for gathering and storing your consultant’s knowledge where it can be readily retrieved. This is not just a summary report but rather a transferrable roadmap.
Gaining your consultant’s input in knowledge collection and transfer includes:
- Specify up-front your knowledge transfer expectations – Make known to your consultant and team your up-front expectations for knowledge transfer, and the roles and responsibilities of each person in the process. Do not wait until your consulting engagement is done or nearly complete. Knowledge transfers should be ongoing. Ensure your consultant has a plan in place for regularly sharing knowledge and your employees have a system for learning, collecting and using the knowledge, tools or data.
- Emphasize tool-gathering – Collect all tools that can help perpetuate your work, such as a work plan, issues log, software solution, etc. Think sustainability of efforts. The worst thing that can occur in a consulting relationship is that all of the work your team and consultant achieved comes apart once the consultant departs.
- Seek input on future needs – Be open to future needed changes within your team and organization, and ask your consultants, before departing, for a list of recommendations. Do not consider these recommendations a perfunctory future wish list; this can become a solid roadmap to help guide your future work goals and strategies.
By equipping yourself with a solid consulting engagement plan, you minimize any doubts (around budget, ego, etc.) that you or others might have about a consulting relationship. Ultimately, your goal is to create a win/win for your organization and your consulting firm. The goal of both organizations should always be that the client gains maximum value from your partnership. By following the steps above, you should be well on your way toward achieving this goal.