When is The Right Time For Your Business to Bring in a Consultant?
What to look for when choosing a consultant or a coach to help your business get back on track.
Business is tough. In this economy, it's tougher. Sometimes, you need to stop and re-examine your strategy and your team's performance. Other times, you need help to successfully carry out a large project.
Let's use a sports analogy for a moment.
It's fourth-and-forever on the other team's 20-yard line. You're taking your last time out to talk things over with your quarterback. Do you try for a touchdown, go for a field goal, settle for a loss, a tie, go back to the training room, restructure your entire team or acquire the other team's franchise in a leveraged buy-out?
But the questions don't end there.
How is the team's morale? Do they feel that the work they do is valued by the boss, and that there's a greater purpose for their labors beyond making touchdowns and collecting a paycheck? Is each team member in the right position to maximize his or her skillset? Are they all communicating efficiently and effectively? Do they have the right training? Are they able to relax and breathe once the job is done, or are they drowning under a relentless schedule?
It's these kinds of questions the business consultant — or, nowadays, a business coach — is here to help answer.
"Business consulting has been around forever," said Mark Raciappa, a Tallahassee-based certified business coach with ActionCOACH Business Coaching. Recognized as a leading global business-coaching firm, it's one of the most awarded franchises in the world today.
"Business coaching" is a new methodology for solving old challenges, Raciappa said. Namely, how do we run better businesses, how do we make more money, how do we attract and keep the right people, how do we market to our customers, how do we get them to come back?
"Consultants have been dealing with those questions for eons," he said.
Raciappa likes using a sports metaphor to describe how he works.
"In most cases you have athletes and you have a coach. The athlete represents the raw skill and talent, and the coach I like to say represents the old man with a clipboard and whistle," he said. "He's there to teach and train, to help refine. Come game day, though, the coach is on the sidelines and the players are out there competing on the field. And, periodically, they come back over to the sidelines to huddle with the coach and talk about what's working, what's not, what needs to change, what we need to do differently.
So the coach again analyzes the game plan, the strategy, makes the assignments, sends the players back on the field. That's basically what I do."
Coaching a business team in that manner requires an intermittent presence over a period of time, but sometimes companies, corporations and entire government sectors can face singular problems that require the services of a more conventional business consultant.
"It depends on the organization and depends on their direction, but typically a consultant will come in to solve a problem at a given point in time and ultimately work themselves out of a job," said Barbara Ray, vice president and office leader of the Tallahassee branch of North Highland, an international network of business consultants. North Highland has 49 offices in the United States and around the world, staffed with thousands of experienced leaders in the consulting industry.
Solving Problems Large and Small
There are a number of different reasons why a business would want to hire a consultant.
Companies generally hire consultants to advise on business or information technology (IT) initiatives that exceed the skills or expertise of their existing staff, according to Travis Goins, vice-president of Pensacola's H2 Performance Consulting Group. H2PC was founded in 2005 and today is a management consulting company that primarily provides project management services. Goins estimates that at least 60 percent of the company's current work is focused on "enterprise architecture" or project management for enterprise information technology systems.
Let's say something happens in the life cycle of a particular company that doesn't happen on a regular basis. Updating your information management technology is a good example. Those kinds of systems may not be changed out but once every five to 10 years. The state of Florida, and the federal government for that matter, may not change out a system but once every 20 or 30 years. Therefore, you may not have the expertise on staff to handle that kind of a major change.
In some cases, the change involves millions of users and huge, complex systems. Goins said that H2PC currently manages certain upgrades to the Veterans Administration's post-911 G.I. Bill system. After the terrorist attacks on 911, Congress passed a new G.I. Bill for veterans, and a new payment management system was needed to pay the participating educational institutions. That was no small task, he said.
"That would be a good example of a multi-year, complex project because of its size, importance and number of users," he said. "It's important that payments get processed appropriately."
In general, though, Goins said that any company, regardless of whether a start-up or a Fortune 500, may find itself in need of external expertise.
"However, high growth companies tend to use us the most on the commercial side, because they need to move quickly and sometimes don't have the time or resources or long-term need to expand their permanent staff," he said.
North Highland's Ray said that situations requiring a consultant are not unlike being a full-time writer who needs to repair a leaky roof. It's a complex job that he could possibly do on his own, with the proper preparation, but to be on the safe side, winds up hiring an expert roofer to tackle the problem for him.
"You can take time and your weekends and nights and read books and manuals and figure how to repair your roof. But since you probably only need to repair your roof once a decade, and you'd want it done right, you'll probably hire outside help. It's the same as that," she said.
Consultants also are there to take certain companies, like banks, through the process of making even bigger changes. Geir Kjellevold, Ray's colleague and principal at the Tallahassee branch of North Highland, said that during the early part of the recession clients such as banks needed consultants to help them go through mergers and acquisitions.
"That's a good example of where consultants are often needed. To take you through a large change like that," he said. "During the recession there were some companies and industries that scaled back on their usage of consultants and others, like in the example of banking, that would use them probably more than they had in the past because they were going through a lot of changes."
Kjellevold said he also noticed that companies needing help to figure out where to cut costs and save money without affecting services or product offerings often called up consultants to help them figure things out.
"And so I think on the cost-cutting, cost-saving, greater operational and organizational efficiencies, that type of work, we saw continued need for those services," he said.
Another case is where a smaller company suddenly finds itself growing by leaps and bounds. That can be unfamiliar territory, too, Kjellevold said.
"So all of a sudden things are more complex than they were before. They were a smaller company before, now they've become twice the size and finding they're training and stretching in all sorts of ways," he said. "You can help them get to that next level. Or maybe they're facing some competitive threats they haven't seen before. They have to start thinking through how to address that."
Oftentimes it might be that a company has a number of problems they're trying to sort out. It can be difficult to distance yourself, Kjellevold said.
"You need somebody you can bring in who has an external perspective, someone who goes around and does this for a living and can spot the pattern and what looks to them (the business owner) maybe as unrelated things, to look for the underlying issue," he said. "So that's more problem-solving. They know they want to reach some next level, some next goal, but they don't know quite how to get there. So I would say consultants, if you want to think about it this way, we're sort of part architect and part guides.
We help you draw blueprints for how to get from one place to the other, and then we might help guide you to get there."
Coach Versus Consultant
Sometimes a business owner may want something simpler, such as improving communications and teamwork among employees. That's where a business coach can be useful.
Denise Owens, a career and personal development coach and owner of Coaching Options in Tallahassee, offers coaching, training, assessments and sometimes helps facilitate team-building exercises. When she is hired by a company as a consultant, she will likely begin by making personality assessments that help coworkers learn how they fit in.
"Maybe they've got a new team of people together and they want to be able to have that group of people really work well together, to hit the ground running and not spend a lot of time trying to figure each other out. They want to be able to spend time doing what they're supposed to be doing," she said. "I would say my role is one of being a partner … connecting with people to find out where they are and help them get to where they want to be."
Each participant in these exercises receives an assessment that gives them information about their behavioral style and also what Owens calls their workplace motivators. That report is an opportunity for them to learn about themselves, how they communicate, how they behave with other people and also what motivates them in the workplace.
"During the training they have an opportunity then to build what I call a ‘team wheel.'
"And that wheel is where they really do get a chance to see … how they communicate, what's their behavioral style, and a lot of light bulbs go on at that moment," Owens said. "That first training session is really a good opportunity for them to learn about each other to start the whole learning process."
In Owens' line of work, it's not unusual to have recurring clients that require ongoing coaching.
"I started my business in 2005, and I'm still working with my very first client," she said. "She has continued to move around within her organization and she has been over different groups of people. So whenever she gets promoted or moves into a different job she'll call me and say, ‘Denise, I need you to come in and do this with this group of people now.' "
This continuous loop of feedback and affirmation is what makes "coaching" different from "consulting," Raciappa said.
"If you engage a consultant to help you in your business, they come in, they analyze what's going on, they ask you some questions and when they get done they basically say, ‘Okay, based on what you told me, here is what I think you should do,' " he said. "And then you have a credible opinion based on an expert in that industry."
But having a credible opinion poses its own challenge, he said, because there are as many opinions as there are consultants. He cautioned that mere opinions may not get to the heart of the matter all the time.
"If we bring in 10 economists right now, which are one form of consultant, and ask all 10 of these knowledgeable, credible experienced experts what is their opinion of our recovery from this recession as a nation you will likely get 10 knowledgeable, credible different opinions. Now what do you do?" he said.
"You've got 10 experts with varying degrees of prediction as to what is right and wrong. So here's the primary difference. A consultant advises you what you should do, and a coach asks you what do you want to do."
Selecting the right consultant for your particular job starts with doing your homework, Goins said.
"Look into and research the firms that are in the local and regional area to help keep travel budgets down. Ask organizations in your area, for example, if they need project management expertise for an enterprise-wide IT project, then reach out to the local branch of the Project Management Institute," he suggested. "They will have member firms; certainly a few consulting companies among their members, who are certified as Project Management Professionals. Once these firms are located, then interview several companies and see if they are a fit for the initiative from both an expertise standpoint and culturally."
The right cultural fit is very important, according to North Highland's Barbara Ray and Geir Kjellevold.
"If you're going to trust them to build a roadmap for whatever, solving the problem that needs to be solved and helping guide you there, I think first and foremost the cultures should be well aligned," Ray said. "So if you're looking for sort of the checklist, specific things to look for, I'd say that would be number one."
Next, check to see if the prospective hire has a track record of solving problems, especially problems similar to what you're experiencing. And look for references. The last piece is looking for a consultant that has a track record of moving on once the job is done. You may not want someone who basically becomes a part of the staff. You want a consultant who will want to move your organization to whatever the next level is, or solve whatever problem is there in front of you — as opposed to doing it for you or becoming another staff member.
"There are some … that might be more looking for almost becoming a permanent part of your staff, in a way," Kjellevold said. "That can be pretty expensive. And it's probably not the best use of a consultant."
However, long-term management of a complex system involves months, perhaps years, of client support, Goins said. It just depends on the types of service the consultant provides and what the customer's needs are.
"We work with our clients from the beginning to establish a very specific scope of work with very specific deliverables over a specific timeline," he said. "Those tend to be three, six or even 12 months in the commercial realm and longer in the federal market. Our philosophy is geared around helping the client through their project, to get them to a successful go-live and maybe just a little beyond go-live. After that, we like to turn over daily operational components to the client. Typically, we'll help build a training plan early in the project life cycle to prepare the client's staff for eventual hand-off."
Meanwhile, your own mindset as a client is just as important and shouldn't be overlooked when selecting a consultant. You have to be mentally prepared to "go back to school," in some cases, and accept the changes suggested by the consultant.
"They should be open to the advice and recommendations from the consultant, however, the consultant has to do a good job in explaining why they are making recommendations," Goins said. "Our philosophy is to give the client multiple options and then explain the pros and cons of each option. We also try and highlight what our other clients have done under similar circumstances."
In the business coaching line of work, Raciappa said, the client has to be mentally prepared to "hit the books."
"I think it really is a function of peoples' willingness to learn and grow and develop themselves," he said.
"Some people truthfully take the impression been there, done that, got the T-shirt. They don't want to go back to school. And those are the people who are not amenable to a coaching program because coaching is like going back to school. Some people don't want that accountability."
But that is what a business coach is there to do: provide a level of accountability that ensures a company's objectives are reached. In a way, it's similar to Ray's philosophy of "teaching them to fish."
"A coach wants to make sure you implement those great ideas you said you wanted to do, and then as a coach helps you assemble the game plan," Raciappa said. "The coach now becomes your accountability partner. In essence, your conscience, to make sure that you're going to in fact do all the things you said you were going to do. Coaching helps people do what they want to do and tends to help them get it done quicker."
Ryan Boyett, owner of B&T Fencing, Inc., of Tallahassee, is one of Raciappa's clients. He said there's a certain amount of delayed gratification involved with this kind of consulting work, but it's been worth it.
"It's a very positive experience," Boyett said. "It's like going to school. It keeps me from being complacent or standing still. We meet with him once a week and go over the plan that is in place, where the problems are, what we want to change and how we want to change it."
Boyett and his wife Elisabeth, the company president, have owned the business since 1999 and they signed on to ActionCOACH after attending a motivational open house seminar. Inspired, they attended a consultation meeting, liked what they saw and signed up. Three weeks later, new office procedures inspired by the consultations allowed them to cut their accounts receivable in half.
"That is phenomenal," Boyett said. "The biggest thing for me is there is no one above me to hold me accountable, but Mark holds me accountable."