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The good consultant: advice for consultants and hiring organizations

In a detailed paper, Clinton Jayne sets out to capture lessons learned from more than 25 years as a consultant in the continuity and resilience profession. These are aimed at assisting other consultants and also managers with responsibility for hiring consultants.

Introduction

I accept that this subject may be considered by some as controversial. However, it is relatively common that sub-standard consulting is accepted and not recognized as such in the business world. It is equally true that clients are often unsure what they need as opposed to what they ask for. This paper will hopefully assist and support a better understanding of what a good consultant should do and how they apply themselves; and how a client can better manage the consulting work and learn from it. If managers seeking consultants better understand the skills and standards that a good consultant will seek to apply and achieve, then this article will have achieved a positive outcome. I am a consultant of 25+ years and have been fortunate enough to work with many consultants and organizations and have first-hand experience of organizational expectations versus actual performance.

There are many of us (consultants) across many disciplines. We have been a valuable resource for decades, conducting specialized work that an organization does not have full time staff available for. Our work is usually temporary, contracted for a period with specific deliverables. Personally I am one of those consultants, having worked with consultant co-workers, managed them, led them, mentored and supported their endeavors, sold consultancy and worked to deliver the best I can to the clients that accepted me. I have had the good fortune to have worked across many different types of organization and, with each, gained valuable experience that has been invaluable as I continued my profession. I hope you find this paper an interesting read and that you will gain some new insights into the weird and wonderful world of consulting.

This paper has five sections after this introduction:

  • Understanding the organization
  • Skills a consultant should possess
  • Delivering the best outcomes
  • Teaching and mentoring others-management buy-in
  • What to look for when hiring a consultant.

Within these sections we will cover;

  • The contractual phase,
  • Planning and preparing for the work,
  • Conducting the work and
  • Concluding the contract.

Much of the subject matter is brief. I could wax lyrical about all the headings included and we would end up with a book. However,  I have tried to keep the content short and to the point. Consulting and client-based projects are never simple and almost always fraught with complications and difficulties.

Who should read this paper?

The recommendations that consultants make have a wide range of implications for the organization contracting them. Armed with those recommendations the board, executives and senior managers may well make important and critical decisions related to financial outcomes, organizational changes, outsourcing and structural changes and many others.

So, who should read this paper? Just about anyone that interfaces with, manages or directs consultants including but not limited to:

  • Managers in understanding how to best manage and support their hired consultant/s;
  • Recruiters that seek resources/consultants in hiring for their client base;
  • Consultants that are new to the business and those that have an interest in improving their reputation;
  • Senior managers who manage contracted personnel that deliver requested outcomes;
  • Executives that rely on consultants to provide advice;
  • All managers that have expectations of hired consultants in providing a long-term solution to a problem or business need;
  • All consultants, lawyers, accountants and other professionals that act on behalf of their clients offering brain power but perhaps not always acting in their clients best interests.

A brief introduction to consulting

The term consulting can be confusing and easily misunderstood. There are many ‘types’ of consultant and this paper directs attention to the senior consultant:  one who leads consulting teams or acts independently as a consultant. Having said that, much of the content applies to most consultants except perhaps those juniors doing their time in a specific discipline such as financial auditing.

Formally, a consultant is not an employee. However, this is not strictly true. There are many support staff in all organizations, those that provide support for the core business. HR staff for example, are specialists that offer advice and assistance to core business managers. Risk management is another such function. They are all acting in a ‘consulting’ role. They offer advice and help the core business run smoothly through quality and professional support.

Peter Block in his book Flawless Consulting (third edition), begins his book with the following definition:

‘A consultant is a person in a position to have some influence over an individual group, or an organization but has no direct power to make changes or implement programs’

The key for me is ‘have influence’. It is the duty of a consultant to provide guidance, and influence their client to follow a specific path, set of actions, a change to the work environment and so on. The consultant does not ultimately take on the responsibility for these actions. That sits with the manager/s to whom responsibility is delegated. This does not imply that a consultant finishes the work and leaves the project without providing an action plan, set of documents, actions to ensure continuity of the outcomes.  I have so often seen incomplete work submitted as final; and observed project failure because there was no mentoring of internal staff, and no one appointed to carry on the actions required to maintain the outcomes. We will address this in a later section.

Let’s begin  by considering the external consultant taken on through a short term contract. This consultant, or consulting team, may work for a consulting company that is the middleman in a three-way agreement;

  • You may work or be hired by the consulting firm;
  • They in turn would have a contract with…
  • The company seeking consulting knowledge and skills.

My last point in this introduction is that a consultant is very importantly a change agent. In almost all consulting scenarios the consultant will propose changes to individual jobs, culture, structure, and many other aspects. Consultants therefore have to be a good managers or agents of lasting change.  One difficult aspect is obtaining the board’s commitment to the project. This is essential and without it the chance of difficulty and possible failure is high. Change management is covered in more detail later in this paper.

A brief note regarding COVID19 and consulting

The whole world is having to rethink the way of work and for each industry the approach will be different. Factories require staff on-site to manufacture, insurance and finance and trading sectors can work from home better than others. The service industry such as banking will have to rethink their walk-in operations and perhaps look at ways of switching to more on-line functionality.  For the entire world, the situation is new and stressful for employers and employees alike. For consulting life will, in the short term, change and less on-site work will be sought. Continuity and resilience projects will almost certainly be placed on hold even though they can probably be of the most value given the current situation. New planned projects will almost certainly be shelved in preference to business survival. The IT sector will benefit from the drive to automate and enable work from home (WFH). Thus IT project consulting may be significant as the drive to automate continues. Consultants are going to suffer considerably. Eventually a slow return to the workplace will happen.

The number of meetings that will be conducted remotely and driven by software where individuals log into meetings from home has already increased several fold. In general terms this works for business meetings with a fixed agenda. I am trying to imagine conducting a workshop under the same conditions and I am already very concerned that this would not be 100 percent successful. There are aspects of remote workshops that are very different from face to face workshops.

In face to face one gets to see everyone around the table as individuals speak. Body language is very visible. Levels of participation are easy to identify. Managing interruptions and varying opinions is very easy. In remotely managed workshops and meetings none of these aspects are easy and this makes successful outcome more difficult to attain.

I suspect that as the world moves forward a new hybrid of WFH and on-site will appear. There will, along with that, arise new and revised employment practices and procedures.

The way in which consulting will be affected is at this stage an unknown. I do believe that once the world economies have stabilized and moved back into profit and growth consultants work will resume. Until then it is going to be difficult to earn an income.

Let us now get down to the intended content of this paper.

Understanding the organization

“Oh no, he’s wearing suit and tie and about to deliver a presentation. He’s clearly a consultant and he thinks he knows how this organization works but really has no clue. He/she is here for a few weeks and then leaves. I have been here for years and know the business backwards, Ha! Do I really have to listen to this?”

Ever hear similar words from managers sitting around a table about to witness a presentation? I have, many times. Taking the employee point of view, one can understand why they would think that way. It is absolutely true that staff and their managers know the nitty gritty, the fine details that drive the organization, most certainly better than the consultant they are about to listen to. How can a consultant possibly know better than they how to run the business? Who is this person that is so ‘expert’?

It is true that not all employees adopt such an attitude but there are always a few that do. A consultant has to face many challenges and none is greater than gaining acceptance and trust in their host company. The absence of acceptance leads to potential failure and wasted effort of both parties. No one wins. Acceptance and a strong trust relationship provides the basis for successful outcomes; mutual respect, and everyone wins. It has to be there and engendered from day one.

So, how does a consultant enter a new project/organization? 

She or he arrives dressed in an appropriate suit, smart and ready for action, attends the opening meetings, requests the company to provide resources and delivers his/her methodology, clarifies the objectives, time frame and possibly costs and contingencies.

All good and correct. Formal arrangements are essential to a clear understanding of the work at hand. But does she/he know enough about the company to address questions, possibly technical and unique? I will call this ‘technical knowledge’ and will address this under the skills and knowledge section. Suffice to say preparation must, not maybe, must be done. If one cannot answer questions related to the organization’s core business the project will fail.

What next?

The consultant...

Observe the culture of the organization, how formal is it? What is the dress code? How does the workspace function? Open plan, offices, or a combination? How many staff? How large is the organization? Who are the key players you need to know? Where will you sit? Introduce yourself to those around you. Don’t play big-deal. Openness and a genuine friendly approach is always an important characteristic to display. A good understanding of the core business is essential. Look at the company website, brochures, research the core business, do whatever it takes to learn and comprehend the technical aspects of the business.

Normally the consultant/s will be given a walk around tour of the business. Use this to gain as much as possible about the culture and work methods, communications. MAKE NOTES ALL THE TIME. This is so important and why I capitalize the phrase. Make more detailed notes afterwards. You cannot commit everything to memory, and to be seen making notes engenders trust and recognition that you are a professional. Embed the company culture into your mind and begin to understand and have a vision as to how the project will run. What are the best methods of communication, are staff very formal or more casual? After a day or so make sure your dress code matches the staff and managers, you want to align with staff and build relationships, blend in and be accepted as one of the team. In meetings obtain the support of the company project sponsor or project team. The better the team spirit the more likely success will follow.

Sadly, I have met and worked with consultants that like to stand out, show their ‘seniority and expertise’ think they are the bee’s knees’ and generally display an ego that does not lead to general acceptance or build trust. Thankfully they are few.

You will probably be assigned a contact person to assist and support your day to day needs, typically a secretary or project assistant. Spend time with that person and build a relationship. This will be such a powerful relationship in getting things done, dealing with other staff, arranging meetings, ensuring attendance, supporting administrative work and many more aspects.

In order to be successful, a consultant must be accepted by all he/she interfaces with. Talk and act as one of the team, gain information and knowledge that is valuable to the project, be friendly and not aloof. Remember, the staff and management have the knowledge and ability to make the project succeed or fail. The best consultants I know are those that staff like and enjoy communicating with, that don’t talk down but gather information as a professional. When walking through an office seeing staff and managers nod recognition, say “hi”, stop and chat and respond positively is an indicator of acceptance. Now the job will be so much easier.

A good consultant does NOT know better than the staff. They have been doing their job for years and do know what they are doing and she/he should not ever be seen as challenging the veracity and methods applied. The consultant has what employees and managers usually do not; exposure to many firms, international best practices, and the specialist skills to gather data and generate outcomes that drive improvement or change.

A final note on understanding the organization. The culture and work ethic is different in different countries and regions. Working in the Middle East is very different to Europe or UK or Americas. It is imperative that you understand these differences when working in other regions. If you do not, you will surely fail. Work ethics, communication protocols and authority are key focus areas.

The accountable person may not be part of the project directly, but you can be certain that he/she will be watching and receiving feedback on progress and issues. Get to know and be introduced to all key personnel and executives with a stake in the project.

Building trust is the key to success. The managers and executives must learn to trust the consultant and vice versa. Being open and honest is a major component of trust. If a consultant or manager needs to ask a sensitive question, ask it, don’t let it lay there and fester. Success and trust go together like bread and jam.

Leading a team

The consultant is either part of a team, or leading a team, made up of other consultants and permanent staff.

This is always a challenge from day one. Typically, roles will be assigned prior to the commencement and all participants will be made aware of their role. If you are a team leader then ensure that you have a meeting at commencement to establish relationships, build trust and engender a team spirit and work ethic. Do not under any circumstances act as a strong dictatorial leader that will control every move. All team members have expertise required for the project. You will need their input.

If you are a team member, work at building relationships with all other members. You may know many of them and have worked with them previously. You still require leadership skills within the project. All consultants are leaders!

The responsible personnel and accountable person within the organization…

This is likely to be a manager newly appointed to this project within the organization over and above normal duties. Here is some advice for this person:

As the new project owner or person delegated responsibility for the consultant/team you need to ensure that internal communications explain who she/he is, when he/she will be there and for how long, what their job is and the expectations of staff toward the project. Seek support and acceptance from all personnel the consultant will ultimately interface with. Also include a broader introductory communication to all staff so they may understand when they see this ‘stranger’ moving around and asking questions.

On day one, take the consultant (and the team) around, introducing them and familiarizing him/her/them with the work areas, rest areas, diner arrangements, emergency  evacuation procedures, and other aspects of the organization.

The contract

I would like to make mention of some concerns. In some regions of this world contracts are not always fair, may be one sided and punitive with unrealistic deadlines. I think most experienced consultants have observed this. Sometimes the contract negotiator may be unsure of the client’s motives and wording. Occasionally the company seeking consultancy believes they can negotiate with penalties and benefit financially from doing so. My answer is that a good contract adopts a win-win approach and no other will lead to successful outcomes. I am absolutely opposed to penalties and any punitive clauses to a project and associated contract.

It is senseless to sign a contract that is punitive to the point of being unrealistic. I have seen some really poor contracts in my time and some really good ones. From the employer’s perspective one wishes to ensure the contract delivers the desired outcomes. I have seen contracts that pressure for deadlines with punitive consequences if not achieved.

Most consulting work is initiated through a tender issue. The consultancy response leads to a final agreement or contract. The issue here is that the tender often describes the conditions and terms of the contract and acceptance of the tender content, meaning that those terms and conditions become part of the contract. Take care when responding to tenders and read the fine print. The final contract must include shared responsibility and many other key components. Preparing a RFQ is an expensive process and if the client issues an open tender you could be one of 20-30 RFQs. Beware the client that plays one against another and also the client that agrees and accepts your RFQ and then doesn’t conduct the project or delays it too far into the future. I prefer a closed tender with selected suppliers because, although it is more competitive, you know you are competing with the better suppliers and won’t end up competing with those suppliers that put in a ridiculously low price and you know almost certainly are not in the same league professionally. I could write several pages on tenders, RFQs  and contracts but that is not what this paper is about.

Included in the contract are many things, needs and wants, from both parties. Include them and be specific. For example; the consultant may require the organization to provide someone/persons who will take over work once the project ends. The consultant will mentor this person/s throughout the project and ensure she/he has the required knowledge and skills to do the job. The employer must be comfortable with this, agree to it, and do so without reservation. Know what your and the client’s pre-requisites are and the core outcomes expected.

The contract must include all the needs and wants of both the consultant and client and provide detailed outcomes that cannot be misinterpreted. Any terms, conditions, or deadlines must be included; and of course the cost and payment arrangements.

Every consultant will almost certainly be requested to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Treat this request as serious and respect it.

Project planning twists and turns…

At the outset, the consultant must be very aware of the rationale for his/her involvement. On occasion the consultant may be confronted with the views of an individual or group of staff/managers that have strong views about the project and why they need your attention. They may seek your endorsement, rather than contradiction, of that view. Take care, do your research, and if the views expressed are correct then work to further endorse them and support the project fully. If the consultant needs to modify that view or adjust it in the best interests of the project, then endorse the aspects that are of value and in a supportive approach propose changes in a supportive manner. Similarly, the project should be assessed for its cost effectiveness, asking the question: “Will it achieve its financial objectives?” If there is doubt, express your concerns and ensure that everyone is on board and fully aware of the possible issues. Often a project will only see a financial return over years not just weeks or months. Some projects may not have a highly visible financial rewards; continuity and resilience planning is one of them. Be fully aware of the project outcomes and financial aspects and expectations in preparing for the project.

Fees and deliverables

The consultant is paid by the consulting firm who are in turn paid by the hiring company. This can be a stressful set of relationships subject to contractual agreement and clauses therein.
One often finds that the consultant is the last person to be paid, usually because the hiring consultancy argues they have not been paid.  In many instances the consultant has little if any say in the contract negotiation. Three-way relationships require careful negotiation and payment terms.

In some cases the consultant may happily be a participant with the consulting firm (a two-way relationship) in building and agreeing the contract terms (a much preferred choice).

Ideally, a consultant is in a two-way relationship and contract between the consultant and the hiring company, jointly involved in building and signing the contract and terms of payment.

From the consulting company/consultant point of view one needs to address the risk of not being able to deliver what is contractually requested against the contract penalties. I am not supportive of any penalty based contracts. They usually end up in conflict, disagreement, and possible arbitration. I prefer contracts that encourage performance and reward success. They are more positive and more likely to end in successful outcomes (win-win). Lastly if you are operating internationally, jurisdiction is everything. It may be costly to arbitrate or take legal action outside your own country. This and all factors must be taken into consideration when negotiating the contract. If possible, include input from specialists when writing proposals and negotiating a final agreement.

Certification

Certain consulting disciplines could include client certification e.g. ISO certification. information security is one and business continuity is another. There are many. In order to achieve certification the requirements are strict and an auditor is sent to verify the quality and achievement of the required standard. The client needs to have a strong and well maintained database and history within that discipline. My advice is, don’t seek certification for the client until they have a proven capability, which could be years ahead. It is really not worth the expense unless it becomes a strong corporate need. The important aspect is that the consultant uses the standard in conducting the work, thus applying best practice. This is very important because if international best practice is not applied, the quality of the work may be sub-standard. The client will not have the quality outcomes they sought. Thus, understanding and applying best practice provides the client with greater assurance of a professional and successful outcome.

The client should take the time to develop a reasonable understanding of the standard and best practices within the discipline for which they seek consulting. This helps create a common language and understanding in discussions.

The knowledge and skills a consultant should possess

Knowledge and professional standards

All good consultants are:

  • Typically a member of an institute that recognizes their professional status;
  • Possess internationally recognized credentials and qualifications/certifications appropriate to the discipline.

A short note on communication skills, undoubtedly the most important skill of all: one will face many emotions during a project from frustration to anger to complacency to “I don’t care”. Consultants and managers will need to address these competently and successfully.

Many years ago I purchased a book by Dr Eric Berne called “Games People Play – The Psychology of Human Relationships”. Without going into detail, the book outlines the theory of ‘transactional analysis’ which states there are three ego states within each individual: Parent, Adult, and Child. So, two people conversing will each take part from one of the three states. The communication channels could be any of: Adult to Adult, Adult to Parent, Adult to Child, Parent to Child, Parent to Adult, Parent to Parent, Child to Parent and Child to Adult and Child to Child. Essentially one needs to stay in an Adult-Adult mode to obtain maximum benefit.

Suffice to say that this is an excellent book and no matter that it is old (published in 1964), it provides an excellent model of how communications can be identified and managed. It has been a major influence in my communication style and has helped me a great deal over the years. There is of course much more to the book than I have taken from it.

Skills

The good consultant will possess many skills. It is a tough job and done well it provides a great deal of satisfaction for both the client and consultant. All the skills together make a mature, well rounded specialist. The following lists are not finite and will vary with each discipline. They do represent the ‘common ground’ skills needed.

Meetings preparation

There will be many meetings, mostly with the client, some with the project team, usually formal and scheduled in advance, some with executives, presentations, investigative and many informal meetings. Make preparatory notes and prepare your questions in advance and how you will tabulate the responses. Think about the attending delegates/attendees and what you may expect, understanding beforehand their job title and a brief description of their work. Try and identify areas where each can offer good input. Identify decision makers and note their position, authority, and role in the project.

Skills:

  • Planning and project management
  • Computer literate in the software to be applied
  • Able to think outside the box.
  • Strong professional writing skills
  • Budgeting and project planning
  • Communication skills.

Research and high level planning

As mentioned in the introduction, do research on the client organization, its structure, their products, their competitors, risks, the company history including successes and failures. You can never do enough research. And when meeting with managers and staff your research will carry you through the process and will help build acceptance with everyone you interface with.

All the above will stand you in good stead with the company and enable you to gather relevant and valuable data required for the project.

From a project planning perspective, this will be governed by the project methodology applied. This may vary from a small project team to a more complex one with specific client and consultant roles and several team members. Make the effort and take the time to plan the project carefully. Technical projects adhere better to planned timelines because activities are repeatable, used in many projects, and time frames are known. People-based projects, i.e. ones that depend on people for meetings, deadlines, and multiple deliverables from different sources, tend to require constant adjustment. Set a baseline that is reasonable and allows for potential delays. This will reduce the degree of adjustments required as the project rolls out.

Skills:

  • Good at analyzing data and project related information
  • Extracting data and understanding relative importance
  • Strong project management skills including software
  • Time and priority management
  • Leadership
  • Communication skills (team building)
  • Setting objectives
  • Sensitivity and confidentiality
  • Problem solving
  • Show respect for your host country and any religious and cultural protocols.

All these skills are important. Success has many factors and being sensitive to the input and needs of others is vital. Ignoring others and following your own ideas is not helpful. Team discussions, decisions on timeframes etc. should be team-constructed and approved. Having the entire team on board from day zero is a pre-requisite. The client has needs that must be taken into consideration. They may have time frames they need to adhere to, budgets to control, corporate needs, and individual needs of managers that seek a successful outcome. Accept and follow any unique national, cultural, or religious requirements with respect. You (the consultant) may not subscribe to the cultural norms but that is not relevant. You accept them and show respect.

Interviewing and data gathering

This is a challenging component of a consultant’s work. Only good planning and preparation will get a consultant through this. The most critical skill is that of being able to ask the right questions and, if necessary, delve deeper into a response to gather more pertinent data. The main reason that many project outcomes are less comprehensive than they could be is because some key aspects of a business function have been missed; and the appropriate level of detail was not obtained.

Begin ALL meetings with a short but reasonably detailed awareness session explaining the project, its outcomes, and why the meeting is necessary. This is such an important item I cannot place enough emphasis on its inclusion in all meetings. It can be brief or longer. In the continuity/Resilience discipline it takes at least half an hour and increases the success of the meeting very highly.

The company manager involved in the project must know what data will be gathered, how it will be tabulated, and how it will be used. The consultant will need to spend as much time as required to assure and inform the company of the process and how the data will contribute to the desired outcomes.

Skills:

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Public speaking
  • Managing meetings
  • Developing presentations
  • Note taking
  • Formulating questions
  • Communication within groups
  • Leadership
  • Team building
  • Project management
  • Technical knowledge of the subject matter
  • Integrity.

Integrity is important. Consultants will likely be given an in-house email address. Use this wisely. No personal emails or sensitive communications to other consultants or the consultancy that hired you. When it comes to billing hours, be absolutely honest and charge accurately, and openly show the client how you charged so there are no breakdowns in the trust relationship.

Thus, a combination of professional certification and skills are necessary. The former is really important. If I had to choose between a degreed consultant that was not a registered and accredited professional in their discipline and a non-degreed consultant that had many years recognition and was certified professionally, I would take the latter.

Communications

Understand the communication protocols. It can be very different in each organization. 75 percent or more of the communications will be basic and form part of the discovery process. However, a few times a consultant will be required to present to and meet with executives. At this highest level the communications are typically strategic in nature and, as such, questions are a little more difficult to answer.

The consultant:

Young and inexperienced consultants often seem to have difficulty with different personalities.  This is natural and as one becomes more experienced it becomes easier. Consultants are required to communicate at all levels from the staff to board members and CEOs. The easy part is communicating at low levels. The roles and work are simpler and one is usually obtaining information.

The diagram is straightforward and highlights the nature of the communications in a consulting project environment.

With executives their typically strategic questions will be ‘big picture’ related:

  • “Show me the project schedule and describe why we are behind?”
  • “The project manager indicated the costs may increase due to delays, please explain?”
  • “How will managers benefit on an ongoing basis after you have completed and left us?”

The difficulty for consultants is in formulating responses that answer the executives’ queries without entering into a detailed time-consuming response. The wrong approach is to avoid the question and redirect the discussion.

  • Rule number one: be honest. Untruth’s or partial information is not appropriate and could come back and bite you later in the project;
  • Rule number two: be frank and to the point without being negative toward individuals or the project;
  • Rule number three: never make excuses and avoid accepting responsibility. Rather respond with facts and how you intend addressing the issue or concern within the project. Executives are also very cost conscious and will almost always want a financial review. Be prepared and have your project information up to date;
  • Rule number four: be professional, communicate like a professional and you will be successful;

One further point on communications: when planning meetings and discussions one cannot just walk in and begin a data gathering workshop. The function executive and her/his managers must have pre-knowledge of the planned activities including the why and wherefore. One key component of all agreements and plans is that they must include preparatory meetings with function executives and managers informing them of the planned workshops and rationale behind them. It is essential to include the project line manager in all meetings to provide support and establish the company need for the project, answering any internal questions.

The internal client manager/project manager:

The project team will never walk through a project without facing some issues. They could be unforeseen delays, higher costs, personality clashes, personal circumstances and many other reasons. You (as the internal client manager/project manager, and a company representative) need to be close to the consultant and have an honest and open relationship about the project. Following this approach, all issues will be overcome. Allow the consultant/s the opportunity to address any issues, offer guidance but avoid dictating how. If you are aware of the potential for conflict, address it with the consultant and agree on how you can jointly deal with it.

Peter Block in his book Flawless Consulting (third edition) [page 22] discusses three kinds of client-consultant relationships:

  • Expert role, where the relationship is a ‘client to expert’ and the consultant is used for his/her expertise, knowledge and skills and the manager is ‘inactive’;
  • Pair of hands role. Here the client manager sees the consultant as an ‘employee’ delegating required actions and thus preventing and ignoring input from the consultant;
  • Collaborative role where a combination of expertise from both the client and consultant collaborate to resolve an issue or problem. A joint undertaking allows for use of the best expertise and knowledge is applied.

The best fit is of course the collaborative role where both are engaged in the solution and therefore both committed to the best outcome, usually with no dissent from either.

The contract will (hopefully) include the responsibilities and commitment of the hiring organization and the line manager assigned responsibility for the project. Build a trust relationship with your consultant. Be open and always discuss concerns, praise successes, help resolve problems and issues.

  • The line /project manager plays a key role in resolving problems, discussing options, negotiating through issues, and helping implement solutions.
  • The line manager plays a key role in building awareness and an understanding of the project within the organization.
  • The line manager plays a crucial role in obtaining commitment with all internal staff and management that will be called on to participate.
  • The line manager is a good communicator that is effective in pre-empting issues and communicating to mitigate them.

So, Ms or Mr. Line Manager, please know that you can make the difference between success and failure. Your ability to provide support, communicate, generate awareness, and obtain commitment will be the most important work you can do.

Project meetings

Have regular project meetings; and these must be formal. By mutual agreement with all parties, plan ahead and pre-arrange dates and venues. The agenda is typically standard for all meetings. Usually the project manager would act as chair but he/she may delegate this for some meetings. Always ensure a full set of minutes is taken. The project assistant can be asked to take minutes and share them with both the consultant and project manager prior to final issue.

I like minutes to be quite detailed with items numbered, status, actions required, by whom, and, of course, date action required. You can set up your own template but beware of minutes that are vague and brief. The more detail, the better the outcome; and no one gets bitten by uncertainty about the actions etc. Minutes can also become complex with carryover items etc. Follow the client procedure where appropriate. The company will usually have a meeting template that can be modified for use.

Skills

  • Leadership
  • Communications across all levels
  • Team building
  • Presentation skills
  • Project management and planning
  • Problem solving
  • Managing meetings
  • Problem solving
  • Sensitivity
  • Writing Minutes

Delivering the best outcomes

During any consulting project there are, and will always be, obstacles. Progress feels slow. Delays frustrate the team. Any project that is people-related and relies on staff and managers to provide information is susceptible to delays. Face reality, meetings get delayed and attendance at workshops becomes erratic. Managers and supervisors will make excuses and not attend thus leading to a rescheduled workshop. The issue is, of course, commitment.

The focus should always remain on the desired outcomes, the objectives of the project. This is where project management becomes the vehicle to drive forward. The client hopefully is in sync with you and the status. The project schedule tells the story. The team of consultant-client needs to work together to move forward.

Managing change

This is the tough aspect of consulting and forms part of our work every minute we are acting as consultants. This is our job, it is what consultants are best at (I hope).

In every project that a consultant undertakes she/he will meet with, engage with, and have to interface with on a detailed level thousands of different personalities, management styles, ego’s, behaviors, and degrees of resistance to change. In my 25+ years I have met and worked with them all. I am the first to admit that not all those interactions were as successful as I wanted. I have my fair share of failures and that is nothing to be ashamed about as long as they resulted in learning and noting the experience for next time.

What are the key components of managing change?

There are of course differing approaches to managing change. Step one is defining the type of change and what functions will be affected, what jobs may require adjusting and how the executives view the desired outcomes. Is it a change in organization structure, work method, a change in individual roles, an additional aspect of work not previously considered or additional responsibilities for specific jobs?

How does one identify resistance?
If one is constantly aware of the communications around you, it will not take long to identify any resistance to the project or the changes it will bring about. What are those characteristics? The following represent only a select few of the possible reasons.

Non-attendance or unwillingness to attend:
Some staff and managers will begin with excuses for non-attendance. Once is acceptable assuming there is truth in the reason. However, when attendance is declined a second and third time it is clear the manager or staff member is not interested.

Silence and indifferent behavior:
The delegates to the workshop may be active and keen to contribute. There may also be one or two that sit and do not participate. Furthermore, they may constantly check their watches or mobile and even respond to messages.

Frequently/constantly raising objections:
Delegates sometimes raise objections and reasonable objections are handled normally and the workshop continues. Occasionally someone raises multiple objections sometimes making negative comments. This person is at this point disrupting the workshop.

The next question is how do we overcome resistance?
There are many differing approaches to implementing change and overcoming resistance and I don’t want to write several paragraphs unnecessarily. There are also some don’ts. The biggest ‘do not do’ is confront the resistance. This will likely provoke a negative response. If you recall the book I mentioned earlier ‘Games People Play’ you may surmise a response from the Parent probably to your Child. Confronting resistance generally does not work.

For me the most successful tactic is to take the person aside and have an honest and open discussion asking why, what is it about the project outcome that you do not like? Obtain as much participation as you can and generate involvement. This may help change their perspective. Also involve the client project manager guiding him/her as to the concern and soliciting their assistance in turning the situation around.

We speak of participation often. Associated with participation is another important word; ‘ownership’. Once a person is directly involved in the process and not simply a recipient she/he will likely accept and support the project and outcomes.

A word for the junior consultants out there

Becoming a good consultant does not happen overnight. Learning the necessary skills will take time and will be gained through experience. It takes years to become a really good consultant and requires tenacity, a great sense of humor, an open mind, and most importantly a willingness to never stop learning. There is always something new on the horizon. Upgraded standards and certifications and keeping current with the times and developments is equally important.

Technical skills is another component of a consultant skill set. With each new project one will need to study the technical aspects of the new project. It may be manufacturing, distribution, banking, petrochemical industry, finance, insurance, municipal and services, or education.

Please junior consultants, be as professional as you can, take the time to study the technical aspects of the proposed work. It will be the most important piece of preparation you will ever do. Have a constant drive to learn and become better at your chosen discipline.

One more concern is that a good consultant never prejudges a project. Keep an open mind, listen to others, take in what they want to say, obtain advice and don’t be shy to do so. Modesty and the realization that some advice would be of great benefit is not a weakness.

Teaching and mentoring others - management buy-in

The single most important outcome in many projects is the transfer of knowledge and skills from the consultant to the client. In my opinion a good consultant is by his/her very nature a mentor to client staff nominated to take over the work post project.

I had a client for whom I created a complete continuity solution. After I left it was forgotten and placed in a low priority. After several years I had a call from a newly appointed manager in the client who, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, was looked for continuity solutions and found the documents I had created. He explained that I had produced a really excellent (his words) set of continuity actions that enabled the company to continue functioning (albeit at a reduced level). He told me the managers had no idea that they were in possession of these documents because, after the project ended, the deliverables were forgotten and no one followed up, even though there was a high degree of mentoring. This is not unusual and to my mind very sad. Why I asked myself? Am I at fault here? Why did they not follow up and maintain the program? The answer is singular: there was no executive buy in. As much as we tried to obtain buy in, it was not taken seriously enough. No one was formally given the role to maintain; there were no KPIs to measure against. There was very little formal management of the discipline

How do we overcome this problem? If I had all the answers you would all call me a liar! There is no single answer. The factors to consider are as follows:

Commitment

The client needs to commit to providing someone that will take over the reins once the project is over. Their job description should include the new role if it is part of another job. Management and executives need a great deal of explaining to about the importance of continuing the work and the long term benefits. This should be included in the agreement and initiated at the start of the project.

Mentoring

When the consultant leaves the project one would expect the organization to continue the work started and ensure the ongoing work continues so that the project time and money was not wasted. As part of the contract it is important, where appropriate, to ask the company to appoint someone with the responsibility to continue the work post project and ongoing into the future. The last thing we want to see is a project that ends and is filed in the bottom drawer and forgotten. This I unfortunately have witnessed on more than one occasion.

Include the appointed person in all meetings, day to day activities during the project, and help her/him develop expertise and understanding. Give them reading material and, to add value to communications, allow them to read all project communications and advise on content. That person represents the client and can provide great insights into appropriate communications.

Mentor the person and get them to participate as much as possible. Build a trust relationship. Provide the opportunity for the appointed person to run small meetings and continue to guide and mentor that person. Train every manager engaged with in the subject matter.

Display a caring attitude. If a consultant places effort and shows that he/she cares about the outcome and post project upkeep, then the client will show greater interest in ensuring continuation of the program.

Awareness and training

Conducting a short in-house session would be preferable. The session can be repeatable to accommodate large numbers. Every meeting should be prefixed with a short training/awareness session. This generates a better understanding of the work undertaken and why it is important. Please make the training sessions interesting and enjoyable. There is nothing worse than attending a boring in-house awareness session.

Request the appointed person to attend a course and gain certification. This gives the appointed manager some reward for taking on the program and another skill that he/she can place on their CV / resume.

Awareness is so important. This is especially true at executive level. It’s the exec’s that drive the business and they have to have buy-in to ensure continuity after the project ends. Make extra effort to educate the executives. This is a challenge as they have much more important matters to attend to and will be the most difficult to meet with. Run one on one sessions if you have to. Work at providing long term benefits of the program.

What to look for when hiring a consultant

This section is aimed at the clients that need to ensure a good client-consultant relationship and work towards successful outcomes. It is a summary of what this paper has covered but allows the clients out there to establish a requirement for future consulting type projects.

A good consultant is all of the following (not in any specific priority):

  • Professional in every aspect of the project and a member of an internationally recognized institute/professional body;
  • A high standard of work - check references that may advise on suitability;
  • Able to apply international best practice and recognized standards;
  • A specialist that has the required technical knowledge and background;
  • Someone that you know you can trust and build a good trust relationship with;
  • An excellent communicator at all levels;
  • Someone that is accommodating, likeable and easy to interface with;
  • A really good planner and project manager;
  • Flexible and able to resolve complex issues and problems;
  • A leader and someone that can run meetings and workshops to successful outcomes;
  • Accepts responsibility, takes corrective action and moves forward;
  • Sensitive to all he/she interacts with. Is aware of company employees’ feelings or understanding of the project and ensures that each individual is treated in a manner that promotes their participation.
  • Someone that keeps her/his eye on the project and knows the status ALL the time.

Most of the above will be unknown at the time the initial meetings are held. As the client I advise you take the time to get to know the consultant and work together to create the ‘trust’ environment. Always be honest and straightforward in communications and as long as he/she is the same, all will be achieved.

Deliverables

As a client ensure that the deliverables you expect are well understood by the consultant. They should be clearly identified in the agreement/contract where possible. In my time I have witnessed some who call themselves ‘senior consultants’ deliver final documents that are full of gaps. Usually a template they have used repeatedly and simply requested the client to fill in the gaps. The consultant firmly believes they have done a good job… not in my opinion!

Templates are always useful and provide best practice and internationally accepted standards. Each organization will have their own unique work environments and structures that require inclusion in final documents. The emergency management plan is such an example. It must contain procedures and content that aligns with each. It must be usable, well understood and incorporated into the emergency structures of that organization.

The good consultant will provide completed deliverables and also run exercises and workshops to ensure these are embedded into the organization and deliver the intended outcomes. Do not EVER accept sub-standard deliverables and insist on a proven solution through workshops, testing, exercises and whatever is necessary to meet the project objectives.

Project conclusion

The good consultant will be well experienced across many disciplines and he/she must bring them all to bear on every project.

Once the consultant has completed the project, handed in all contracted deliverables, produced the necessary end of project report, and analyzed any financial changes approved, a final project meeting will be held, and any post project activities planned. A consultant should leave a project in a manner that does not require his/her return. However, the client may ask the consultant to return and conduct reviews, assist in some way, train new intakes, and offer advice. This is always good business and a well-run project may well result in stronger relationships and bode well for future business.

If the client is congratulating themselves on the success of a project, you, the consultant, have been successful. Let them take all the credit. You know the part you have played in the successful outcome; be satisfied that you have a happy client!

The author

Clinton Jayne MBCI, MIRMSA, CISA, PMP is a consultant with 25+ years’ experience. He is based in South Africa. Contact Clinton at clintonjayne@mweb.co.za.



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