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Human Resources

An Outsider's Perspective

Twelve tips for hiring a consultant
University Business, Jul 2009

IT’S NOT UNUSUAL FOR HUMAN resource departments in higher ed to hire consultants instead of full-time employees to design a program, solve a problem, or reach a specific goal. Consultants typically are cheaper in the long run, possess unique skills, and can introduce HR to creative business strategies used by other educational institutions across the country.

However, hiring the wrong consultants can be disastrous. Personality clashes can develop. They may not be accessible when HR needs them. Their ideas, solutions, or perceptions may not be in line with the school’s values. Relationships can deteriorate, with HR being no further ahead at developing that plan or finishing that important project.

Hiring consultants is no different than hiring employees. It involves a systematic process, says Lanny Goodman, owner and president of Management Technologies in Albuquerque, N.M. Whether the organization is a corporation, a small college, or a large university, the process is similar. Goodman, a management consultant for nearly 30 years, compares it to hiring a senior-level employee. The key, he says, is to put greater care, thought, and attention into the front end of the hiring process.

Here are some tips to help bring the right consultant on board for your school.

Hiring a consultant is like going to the doctor. You wouldn’t visit an ear, nose, and throat physician to diagnose a brain tumor. The same logic applies to consultants, says Goodman. Your first step is to diagnose the problem. What are you trying to solve, what do you need to accomplish, or what system are you trying to improve? If you’re not clear or can’t reach consensus, the consultant’s ability to succeed will be “approximately zero,” he says.

It's OK to dream big as long as you realize you may not get everything you want.

Is a consultant the best person for the job, or can an employee or in-house team accomplish the task? Perhaps you’re short-staffed or up against a tight deadline, or perhaps the problem requires expertise that your employees lack. Make sure your reasons are valid and can withstand scrutiny, especially if budgets are tight.

Think about the ideal consultant for the job. What skills and experiences would he or she possess? It’s OK to dream big as long as you realize you may not get everything you want. Or break your list down into two sections: must-have skills and nice-to-have skills, which may make it easier to weed out consulting firms or individuals who lack the basic qualifications. Then develop a timeline for the project with intermediate checkpoints.

Consultants need to understand their responsibilities. Once the scope of an assignment is defined, start soliciting feedback from individuals involved in the project about their expectations so there won’t be any surprises - on either end - about the work that needs to be performed, says Goodman.

Involve employees from different classifications who will be managing or working with the consultant, assigning tasks, following through on the consultant’s advice, or impacted by prospective changes, says Goodman. If employees don’t have an opportunity to offer input into selecting consultants or the changes they recommend that could potentially affect their lives or career, Goodman says their buy-in for making significant changes down the road or willingness to serve as HR’s ambassadors for change could be dramatically low.

“It would be foolish for an HR manager to say, ‘Here’s the consultant,’ and everybody walks in cold,” Goodman says, adding that the selection process should never be done in a vacuum. “There are a million reasons why it may not be a successful engagement, and the HR manager is sitting there holding a hot potato, saying, ‘Why didn’t I get other people involved in this conversation?’”

The rank of those individuals is also important, says J.W. Mason, associate vice chancellor for administration at Arkansas State University, who oversees HR. The higher the better, he says, explaining that decisions will carry more weight.

Besides building standard questions around the competencies needed to perform the work, it’s also important to ask consultants if they can complete the project within your time frame, says Ann Prenatt, vice chancellor of HR at Washington University in St. Louis. If interviewing large consulting firms, ask: Who is managing the project? What are this person’s qualifications or credentials? How accessible is this individual? Prenatt adds one more question: Why do you want the job?

“Often with larger firms, you get a pretty canned answer,” she says, explaining that the answer reveals the candidate’s interest or passion for the project. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re a bad choice. Sometimes it can tell you a little bit about how you’re going to be treated during the whole consulting process.”

Contacting HR associations or your peers at other schools for referrals is fairly standard. But when the assignment requires a niche firm or individual with specific skills, Prenatt hires a search firm—which, of course, is a consulting firm itself—to find a consultant.

“People may not think of search work as a consulting relationship, but in a way it is—you’re using a third party to do the work,” Prenatt says. Although she focuses on the expertise of the candidates, those who have had other higher education clients tend to have a better understanding of institutional culture and will be less likely to be “fumbling around.”

How many times have you interviewed just one candidate for a key position at your school— More than likely, never. The same holds true with consultants. Interview several. Every consultant will present different perspectives, opinions, and insights, which will make you smarter about alternative solutions or processes and give you insight into each consultant’s style and approach.

Some colleges and universities use a rating sheet as part of the interview process. For example, Mason explains that when hiring a consultant to review ASU’s entire fringe benefits program, members of the interview panel assigned a point value for each question. Consultants also earned points if they had delivered similar services to other, same-sized universities. But some ratings were subjective, he says, referring to points that were given for enthusiasm for the project.

Every consultant will present different perspectives, opinions, and insights.

How do you feel about the consultant? Chemistry between the consultant and members of the interview team is key, especially since HR’s credibility or political capital could be at risk.

Prenatt pays close attention to how consultants respond to her questions. Do they really listen to her and understand the school’s needs, or simply tell her what they’re prepared to do?

“After you review all the facts and do all of the comparisons, does your gut reaction say this is a person who will make good on commitments and accept the responsibility and accountability for the success of the project?” she asks. “Sometimes [your reaction] is just based on how you feel after walking away from that discussion.”

Mason says one of the most common problems schools have with hiring consultants is rushing to bring them on board. That’s when the process breaks down.

“Even though you’re working for chancellors or presidents who want to do things as expeditiously as possible, [you need] to be able to articulate that they must be patient to allow you to go through this process so you can make sure [you’ve hired the best],” he says. “That’s probably one of the most difficult tasks we have. Most of the time, when something surfaces that needs a consultant to advise us, they want it immediately—like yesterday.”

Your school’s legal team probably reviews each contract, but don’t bother handing them a contract that doesn’t link pay with performance or is front-end loaded, which means the consultant is paid the majority of fees well before the project is completed.

“Make sure a clause is also inserted that requires the confidentiality of the consultant,” advises Prenatt. “You don’t want the consultant sharing [your information] with another school.”

Consultants need feedback along the way so they have time to make adjustments. Keep in mind that feedback works in both directions. Prenatt builds a feedback process into each project’s timeline, which helps the project move forward as planned or identify which areas need to be adjusted by either HR or the consultant. Likewise, whenever a consultant is performing quantifiable activities on a regular basis, she says HR usually requests that the consultant e-mail HR a weekly update.

As with the other tips here, it helps to lay the groundwork upfront—and increases the chances of hiring right.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.