Managing a Consultant

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Once you've selected and hired your consultant, your mission is to get the greatest possible value out of the consulting experience. This comes from taking an active, hands-on approach to help manage the consulting process. And that means devoting the necessary time and resources to make sure that the consultant's efforts are a success and the organization-consultant relationship remains positive. First, it helps to keep your goals and expectations reasonable. It's important for the consultant to respond to your needs, but consultants are not employees. They usually work for more than one client at a time. Therefore, not all of their working hours will be devoted to your project, unless you specified that arrangement in the contract. Normally, it's a consultant's choice where and when they do the work, unless the particular needs of the project require them to be onsite during set hours. As long as you're clear and reasonable in your expectations, a good consultant should be happy to meet them. Most consultants want to complete the project to your satisfaction as much as you want this. However, even the best consultant can get off track without the proper guidance. Your lead contact or project coordinator should keep these factors in mind when working with the consultant.

Here are some suggestions for managing the consultant you hired.

By following these suggestions for managing the consultant, you can gain maximum value from your consulting investment.

Orient the consultant

Before the consultant starts working, give this individual as much information about your nonprofit as possible. Start with an oral orientation about the organization’s mission. Introduce the consultant to any staff members ┬áhe or she will be working with, and give a tour of your facilities, including any off-site locations which may be relevant. Help the person understand the services you offer, what your market is, and who your key stakeholders are. Much of this can be communicated through materials you already have, such as strategic plans, budgets, policies, annual reports, or promotional literature. Even if the consultant will be working primarily off-site, have the person spend some time in the office to get an idea of how you organization operates. The more a consultant understands about your organization, the more the individual can customize the work to truly meet your needs.

Check in regularly

Even if the consultant is working with a number of staff members, the lead contact is still responsible for being the official liaison, monitoring progress, and ensuring that the project is on track. Holding regular meetings is a great way to keep on top of potential issues before they become real problems. Be sure to be an active participant, rather than “switching off” during meetings and simply assuming that the consultant knows what he or she is doing. Even a good consultant can fall into trouble spots without realizing it. It’s the job of the lead contact and the management team to keep the consultant on track.

The lead contact should also make sure that other involved staff members are not procrastinating. If a consultant is waiting for a decision or more information before moving forward, you could be wasting the person’s time, and therefore, your money. The lead contact should check in regularly to make sure the consultant is on target and that staff members are holding up their end of the deal.

Pay attention to warning signals

In the often-busy nonprofit world, you may not be motivated to deal with consultant issues that seem small, such as late interim reports or the consultant appearing distracted at meetings. However, these issues can signal the start of larger problems which could threaten the success of your project. It’s important to trust your intuition when there are consultant actions or inactions that make you uneasy. Potential signs that something is going wrong include:

  1. Projects falling behind deadline
  2. Staff or board members not wanting to work with the consultant
  3. Confidentiality being breached
  4. Poor quality of work
  5. Consultant avoiding contact or not wanting to work with you

If you have a hunch that something is amiss with your consultant, communicate with this person promptly and directly. You may discover that everything is fine, or you may catch a problem and resolve it before it becomes serious.

Evaluate at several points in the process

Evaluation should happen at the end of the project, as well as at regular periods through its duration. By evaluating as you go, you can keep the project on track and recognize shortfalls in the consultant’s work or in your organization’s contributions. However, remember that it can be easy to get “false positives” when it comes to evaluating consulting work. A firm or consultant will obviously be eager to declare that a job has been well done. Also, the lead contact or manager often has a stake in the situation; staff members will look good if the project is successful. Therefore, they may be inclined to declare a positive result prematurely. Lead contacts and managers should be aware of this potential conflict of interest on both sides and make sure that the evaluation process involves an honest look at the work.

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Evaluation means more than giving a passing grade.

Evaluation doesn't just mean giving the project's deliverables a passing grade. It's also important to examine other factors, such as:

  • What was the organization's input or contribution? How could it have been more effective?
  • What was the process or relationship by which the project was conducted? Could it have been improved?
  • Did the project accomplish its goals?
  • Did the project move the organization towards its long-term goals?

It may be useful to ask these questions both within the organization and with the consultant. The consultant may have insight into ways the process or the organization's participation could be improved in the future.

The evaluation process can sometimes become very subjective. Try to recognize what views are motivated by feelings rather than objective facts. Using the contract as the standard against which the project's successes or failures are measured can help you to maintain a clear perspective. Three months and again six months after the project's conclusion, take the time for another evaluation. How well are the consultant's recommendations being implemented? Are the materials produced by the consultant being used? Evaluating the success of the project from a longer-term vantage point will give you a far better understanding of its effectiveness and make it more likely that future endeavors will be even more successful.