How to hire a great consultant in a bad economy… Buyer beware!

May 4, 2009 by Lisa Oshima | Consulting, Enterprise

In a deflated economy, the number of people calling themselves “consultants” is on the rise.  Plenty of job seekers are “consulting” while trying to find a full-time, “permanent” role.  Taking on an interim consulting project is a good option if you’re trying to pay the bills while looking for full-time jobs, but consulting isn’t for everyone.  If you’re looking for a consultant to complete a project, in times like this, it’s buyer beware. The kind of people that make great employees don’t always make great consultants.  Doing your due diligence before hiring a consultant is critical.

Being a consultant often requires very different skills than being a full-time employee.   The difference between a bad consultant and an outstanding consultant is visible in the ways that each handles change and embraces new experiences.   Anyone smart can offer sage advice, but an outstanding consultant is used to change, hits the ground running, and performs well in a short period of time, under pressure and without hand holding.  An outstanding consultant is one that takes an entrepreneurial approach to problem solving, isn’t afraid to tackle issues from a new angle (if best practice isn’t working or relevant), and has enough experience weathering the turbulence of unpredictability and change that they’re able to swiftly handle new challenges on the fly.

I’ve been a full-time management consultant for almost seven years.  I’ve learned to expect the unexpected and embrace it.  I spent my first couple of years as a consultant working for a big firm in London – mostly as a road warrior – living an often unpredictable life – frequently five days a week from different client sites.  As an independent consultant, I travel less, but my schedule is still busy, varied, and challenging.  And, my experience handling change is an advantage to my clients.  Why?  Managing a busy schedule, trying new things regularly, and striving for constant learning, keeps a consultant sharp and better equipped to perform in quickly changing circumstances.  A great consultant manages risk effectively and is always be willing to try something new, as long as it’s reasonable.

In addition to keeping a robust project schedule, maintaining a sense of adventure, and trying something new is an important part of reminding myself how to think outside of the box.  By way of example, last week, I was on vacation in Maui, Hawaii.  I make it a habit to do something new (and ideally challenging) on every holiday.  On this trip, in addition to the usual snorkeling, hiking, etc., I went zip lining.  You can my first hand account of one of the longest Zip Lines in the world, below.

Is zip lining directly related to the work I do as a consultant? No, but it does demonstrate a desire to step outside my comfort zone and try something new, and this mindset is an important part of being a good consultant… Taking initiative, being proactive, and going for it.

When hiring a first-time consultant or part-time job seeker for a short-term assignment, look not only at a candidate’s employment track record and recommendations but also assess the candidate’s ability to multitask and handle change.  Ask behaviorally-based interview questions to assess the candidate’s experience…

  • “Have you started a company before? If so, tell me about the experience?” [Note: you’ll get a sense for whether they were an active participant or a just a cog in a wheel.]
  • “Have you been part of a start-up? What was your role, and tell me about about a major change and/or problem you had to navigate…”
  • “Tell me about a new program/initiative/ etc. you spearheaded in your previous job(s)… How long did it take to get started?  What were the results?”
  • “Tell me about a time when you had to quickly form strong connections/ alliances with people you didn’t know to complete a project?”
  • If you’re still not sure about the candidate’s ability to manage change… talk with them about it!
    • “We’re looking for someone who can quickly accomplish X,Y, Z with little guidance.  You’ve never consulted before. Tell me why you think you’re the right person for the job.”

It’s important to consider the impact hiring a first-time consultant or job-seeking consultant could have on your project.  Doing so could unintentionally put your project (or company) at risk… What happens if your consultant:

  • Isn’t comfortable in a consulting role after s/he starts your project?
  • Gets a new job before they complete your project?
  • Doesn’t carry proper insurance (i.e.: liability, Errors & Omissions, etc.) and the unexpected happens?
  • Underestimates the length of time the project will take and gets a full-time job before your project is complete?
  • Takes details of the project they worked on with you to a competitor who hires them as a full-time employee?

If your candidate mentions that they’re consulting while they’re looking for a full-time role, be up-front and honest with them, and ask good questions:

  • “What happens if we hire you for this consulting project and you get a full-time job that starts immediately but your project with us isn’t complete?”  <The candidate will likely try to convince you that they can delay their start date…>
  • “But, what happens if you can’t delay your start date?
  • “What happens if your project with us runs late, and you’ve already found a full-time job?”

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that first time and part-time consultants often struggle with time management.  Accurately estimating completion dates for a consulting project at an unfamiliar company is a different skill than project planning at a company where you’ve been working for years and maintain relationships.  To that end, experienced, full-time consultants bring a wide variety of experiences and best practices to the table from their work with many companies, which is often an advantage.

Lastly, when comparing a new consultant with one who has experience, look beyond the rates when making your decision.  New consultants may quote lower rates than experienced consultants – either because they haven’t factored complete self-employment costs into the equation (health care, self-employment tax, liability insurance, etc.) or because they see consulting as a short-term fix to their lack of employment and are willing to sacrifice salary in the short-run in favor of looking productive to future employers.  However, hiring a consultant because they have low rates is short sighted.  As they say in the circus, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” Put another way, when it comes to consulting outcomes, there’s “good”, “fast” and “cheap”, and at any one time, you can only have two of the three.

If you want the job done right, hire a consultant that has the best experience, references, and fortitude to succeed.  Hiring a consultant that’s looking for a full time role rather than a full-time, experienced consultant isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but before hiring a consultant, it’s helpful to understand their short and long term motivations and the risk of unintended consequences.

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