Most senior execs will be familiar with the well worn joke about ‘engaging a Consultant only for him to borrow your watch to tell you the time, and then proceed to walk off with your watch’. Yes, frustration and cynicism about the value of management consultants abounds.
In some respects this cynicism is understandable, for example when a consultant produces a report which sounds good in theory, but is so impractical it sits gathering dust on the shelf. However, it really needn’t be like this as consulting success depends not only on producing an analysis of problems and drafting persuasive reports. Important as these ‘strategy consulting’ techniques are, management consultants are moving beyond recommending solutions, by assisting organizations implement and embed more effective management processes.
So, how and why should a Council CEO go about using consultants? As a Council Exec for over 30 years (and CEO of two Councils), I have hired numerous consultants, some have been worth their weight in gold and others have proved much less useful. I have also been on the other side of the fence, working as a Management Consultant with a range of public, private and voluntary sector clients, and while I certainly don’t recall any ‘failures’, I do recognize that some client councils have gained more from my consultancy endeavors than others.
Based on my experience, here are then my ‘top ten’ tips (5 ‘why’ and 5 ‘how’) when considering engaging a consultant for your Council.
First the why’s:
- Lack of staffing — Sometimes, it’s about a lack of top-tier numbers in your own management team. This can be for a variety of reasons. Top managers leave to move on to other jobs, or a key manager is struck down ill, or the cause is due to too much downsizing: consultants can provide interim management type support for the short to medium term. Used appropriately this is one of the best reasons to engage consultants.
- Specialist Knowledge — All Councils face, from time-to-time, serious challenges, such as strategic planning, ‘change’/‘transformation’ initiatives, or significant operational under-performance, this can necessitate the need for specialist expertise and can be an appropriate time to hire consultants.
- Outside the box thinking — To some extent we all become institutionalized. This is particularly true for those of us who have made a life long career of working in local government. Increasingly though Council CEOs and their top teams are expected to act as ‘agents for change’, and to assist with this, external consultants can offer an objective and fresh input from someone outside the organization. This can assist with both creative thinking all the way through to executing new strategies. Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees, because we are too close to the problems. At times like this an extra pair of eyes from outside can offer a fresh perspective.
- Saving Time and Money — There are some occasions where the use of consultants’ can accelerate an improvement process resulting in cost savings. Importantly the Council must be able to fully implement and embed the recommended changes. An additional benefit of implementing leading edge operational best practice is the ‘upskilling’ of the Councils staff, making the organization’s human capital even more of a valuable asset.
- Confidentiality — Occasionally an organization experiences difficult times when absolute confidentiality is required to address a sensitive in-house situation (eg issues involving the dismissal of senior staff). In inviting suitably qualified and experienced consultancy support, the Mayor and CEO have a guarantee that the advice they receive will be both objective and be kept in the strictest confidence.
Now the how’s:
- Track Record – Does the consultancy company have an enviable track record? Do they have the requisite experience to allow them to quickly add value? Importantly, how relevant is their experience to local government and the specific challenges you are facing? The best management consultant candidates will have a wealth of experience in local government and give you a sense of how their consultancy work will add value, not only in terms of concept and strategy, but also how their endeavors will make a tangible impact on the Council’s operations.
- Integrity – By this I simply mean do they have a reputation for doing what they said they will do? Check references carefully and in particular speak to previous clients both the ones the company puts forward but also the ones they don’t, (CEOs can use their networking skills to good effect in this regard). You are looking for a dynamic, ‘can do’ company with a great reputation among your peers, for ‘under-promising and over-delivering’.
- Innovation – Nobody wants to pay for an ‘off the shelf’ report. That is not to say that existing ‘best practice’ is ignored, but every consultants report should be crafted with the specific needs of the client in mind. In particular, every report should endeavor to propose some element of innovation. Councils no longer see themselves as mere ‘followers’, instead they want to be leading edge, promoting current best practice to maximize service quality and efficiency. In this regard, ‘curiosity’ is an important consultancy attribute – the consultants should be curious about your Council and community, your services, your back office, your partners and of course the big picture aspirations of your Mayor and Councillors. Legendary leadership guru Peter Drucker put it thus – “my greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions”. Or as leading consultant Richie Norton puts it “My job is to help my clients ask better questions. My mentor taught me, Ask a better question, get a better answer.”
- Telling it like it is – One hugely underrated attribute of a consultant is to share with the CEO the unvarnished truth. Sometimes when you are CEO it seems like you are the leader of a ‘happy smile’ club, where staff want to please the boss and many figure (wrongly!) that the best way to do this is to avoid rocking the boat. When checking out a consultant’s references, take the opportunity to ask former clients about the consultants ability to share bad news with the CEO. You need to be sure that you select someone who will tell you the truth, even when it may not be entirely comfortable to do so. You are looking for the one in the room willing to take a risk, and point out any uncomfortable truths.
- Can you rub along with them? – There has to be some chemistry between client and consultants, a sort of feel good factor. This is one of the great intangibles. You just sort of know that you are both singing from the same page. This doesn’t mean you have to be ‘mates’, it just means that you and your top team view the consultants as ‘gals and guys’ whose cultural ethos and core values are broadly in line with that of the Council. Your executive team – really, anyone in the Council – needs to see this individual as a hire consistent with your culture.
And Finally… Clarity of purpose is vital, the accurate drafting of your specific requirements is critical. It’s always imperative that you make crystal clear to the prospective consultants the nature of the task you are asking them to address. This should include a Scope of Work that lists all major tasks that will be conducted by the consultant. In turn the consultant should describe how the work will be carried out, what resources will be required, and a timetable of major tasks. The consultants’s bid document should also contain all costs, deliverables, references from previous clients and brief resumes of the consultants themselves.
Engaging a management consultant is a task not to be taken lightly, as handled badly their introduction into the organization can lead to resentment, confusion and even chaos; however if their engagement is handled in a professional manner then their endeavors can increase organizational capacity and productivity. Council CEOs who prepare their groundwork thoroughly in advance will have a consulting relationship that brings forth the desired results.
William J Taylor MBE
Will Taylor is a former Chief Executive of two UK Councils and has worked previously with Blackadder Associates serving both private and public sector clients across Australia. He now works globally as an independent consultant.