How do you know when it is time to seek an outside view of your operations or to seek advice? And if you do, what should you consider in selecting a partner to give you honest, critical and unemotional feedback and advice?

First, allow me to relate an allegorical story that is true in the sense that it happens to multiple consultancies, from small to international, every day:  At their monthly small business breakfast meeting sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, a restaurant owner told his group-mates about the really outstanding help he received from a consultant who turned his failing restaurant around. One of the business leaders at the table was so moved by the testimony that he asked for the consultant’s contact information. He wanted help with long-range planning for his business. A week later he made the plunge and contacted the consultant and enjoyed a first phone call the next day. He came away impressed.  He was more fervent after a month of phone calls back and forth.  After that month, he asked the consultant to meet him at the nearest airport for a face-to-face meeting. Over lunch and a three hour conversation, the business owner knew this was the right path to follow and decided to hire the consulting firm. He and the consultant even agreed upon a retainer fee for regular services. But then on the flight home, the business owner started thinking about his organization, his bottom line and the narrowness of margins. Over the following weekend it seemed the business owner got cold feet and began wavering on his decision. He told the consulting firm that he needed time to reconsider his decision and in the end, never called back.

As I said, this is an allegorical summary of experiences that any consultant can relate to you from multiple potential clients. I have found this possible outcome to be common in many industries and am ready for it with any potential client.  But why does it happen this way so often?

All leaders know on an intellectual level that they need an outside look.  All the business schools and journals tell them that.  They know that they need an outsider to facilitate their planning. But there is a sociological component of friction in their organizations which hold them back.  If they bring someone else in and the consultant makes things better, then the leader fears looking as is he was doing something wrong and will be questioned in the future.  And if he doesn’t go with the consultant’s recommendation, then he will be criticized for wasting the business’s money. It takes a really confident leader to do what the business schools and journals tell them to do. It takes a strong and confident leader to realize that you can’t just consider what the risks are of spending money on a consultant. The wise leader must also consider what the risks are of continuing down a path of loss and not hiring one.

I would offer the following considerations for organizational leaders when deciding upon a consultant. First, ask yourself if you would benefit from an objective outside look from someone not tied to your family and business. You can take a look through any business journal and find any number of articles telling you that the money you spend will return a magnitude of profit if you follow the advice. Be honest with yourself and start writing down what you want help with. Prepare yourself for the process of finding a consulting partner and opening yourself to him or her.

Second, do your homework. There are many options out there.  You can find any number of national and international consulting giants out there. It may be that you want to make a statement to your clients that you take your business so seriously that you’re willing to spend very big money on a super high-end consulting firm. In that case, you may not be as interested in the product you receive as the perception that you are a serious player in your field. That is not a bad strategy, especially if you have a good operation going and don’t necessarily need a lot of help in making change or if you think that only one of the major firms can get you to where you want to be. If, on the other hand, you are a small or mid-sized business that has narrow profit margins, you may be very wise to consider a small consulting firm with limited scope in your industry, or one that focuses on your specific organizational challenges or needs. But it is most likely that you have several broad needs, like organizational culture change, your personal needs as a leader, and your strategic plan. So seek out and find a consultant that has a solid track record of success in these areas. Don’t hesitate to ask for references and to call on them if you feel you need to.

Next, look in the mirror and ask yourself whether or not you are committed to bringing someone in. This is not a facetious point. Look in the mirror and ask if you really mean it.  If you don’t, then stop here.  Don’t put yourself and your people through a process of self assessment and reflection only to stop it during the process or not following through. If you do mean it, then dive in head first and embrace the process. Be the champion within your organization for this consulting process. Do NOT give this process over to a subordinate and be aloof. This is a senior leader issue.  Embrace it and lead with it. If you cannot do this, then do not begin the process.

Fourth, be open to following the process to wherever it will lead you.  An outsider honest broker will lead you to list, aggressively challenge and validate assumptions. The consultant will assist you in developing multiple courses of action from which to score against the objectives you developed for your organization. This is where you get to show that you mean to follow through. You’ll get to show that you will develop a plan based on the best course of action, whether or not it was what you thought to do before bringing in the consultant.

So to sum up, decide if you really are open to someone helping you determine if you’re on the right path. If not, don’t pretend to be and take your people down a false path. If you are genuinely open to help from outside, then seek it out and follow through.  You can pay a lot, or pay considerably less, for probably the same product. Ask around and ask your potential consultant some hard questions.  Decide what is important to you and then follow through.

keep thinking…