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Is there a consultant for that?

TheTwila Zone
|Written By Twila Reid
Is there a consultant for that?

The headline in the local news is: “Province hires external consultant to review practice of hiring external consultants.” This follows a report from Newfoundland and Labrador’s auditor general, who found that costs for consultants had been double (or, in one case, quadruple) the original estimate. As reported by the CBC:

“Newfoundland and Labrador’s auditor general knows at least one way the deficit-running province can save some cash: Clamp down on bloated contracts for improperly hired external consultants.”

At the same time this report comes out, my kids, Lily and Seth, are playing on a play structure. It’s the type with a second-storey clubhouse, which leads to the top of a slide. Lily has meticulously placed a series of red and blue beanbag squares (the kind you toss in one of those wooden planks with a hole) in the clubhouse in some sort of design that only makes sense to her. Lily, pleased with her beanbag design, descends the slide and decides to swing. Seth, being the little brother, climbs into the clubhouse and immediately throws each beanbag to the ground. Being three years old, throwing things from a high place to the ground is almost as innately satisfying as wrecking something his sister has created. Lily on looks in horror — “MOMMMMMY!!!!!”

I hate these moments. The last thing I want to do is pick sides. After all, Lily had abandoned the beanbags for the swings and shouldn’t Seth be able to play with them? On the other hand, Seth really had no interest in the beanbags until Lily so carefully placed them in the clubhouse, and I can tell from an all too familiar twinkle in his eye that his motives were not honourable.

I think to myself how awesome it would be to outsource this decision. That would allow me to play innocent bystander while someone else decided who’s right and who’s wrong. There are some neighbours nearby. Of course, I would only want to outsource this decision if I was confident the person making the decision would come to the same conclusion I have — after all, raising children is an important responsibility and, even though I don’t want to be perceived as picking sides between the two kids, I want to retain control over the outcome.

Similar dilemmas are also occurring in business, and it seems more and more people are hanging a consultant shingle to fill this need. A quick search of the word “consultant” shows a definition of “a person who gives professional or expert advice,” implying some sense of objectivity and independence in the advice provided. However, more and more, it seems that “consultants” are being criticized for not being independent at all but rather clandestine advocates for a particular position, particularly the position of the person or group who hired them. Should consultants be neutral, independent third parties or hired guns?

As a labour and employment lawyer, I often recommend people who fit into the category of consultant to do training, investigations, surveys, focus groups, hiring, reviews, and many other human resource-related tasks. These people play important roles in human resources, and their independence (both perceived and actual) is critical to have buy-in from all stakeholders (some of whom may be in conflict).

So, I believe consultants should be neutral, and preserving consultant independence is of particular concern to me.  

If your business or client is looking for a consultant to place legitimacy on some pre-determined outcome, I think you are better off making the decision on your own. You are not only hurting that particular consultant’s reputation, but also the industry as a whole. Further, if you are looking for a consultant to achieve a predetermined outcome because you don’t think you are able to achieve that outcome yourself, then you have much bigger problems in your organization then you think you do.

Consultants should be reserved for circumstances when you truly want objective, neutral advice and recommendations. Before hiring a consultant, you should ask yourself:

• Is the mandate of the consultant finalized (it should be)?

• Does this consultant have a reputation of neutrality? Can he or she provide references?

• Have you used a transparent process for selecting a consultant?

• What are the outcomes you want to achieve from using the consultant (are these outcomes neutral across stakeholders)?

• Will the report/comments/opinion/recommendations of the consultant be available to all stakeholders?

• And, if you are a consultant, don’t be afraid to say no. We all want to please our clients, but if you are being pressured to make a certain recommendation, or you feel like you are part of a predetermined outcome, maybe a polite decline is best. You’ll obtain a better reputation and get better work by maintaining neutrality.

Some red flags are:

• Unclear, vague mandate/scope (which also leads to inaccuracies on estimating costs).

• Client determining process or insisting on a process with which you are uncomfortable.

• Client not sharing report/comments/opinion/recommendations with stakeholders.

Which brings me back to the backyard play structure. I ask Seth to come down and invite Lily to explain to him how his throwing of the beanbags made her feel. At age three, I’m not sure he “got” it, but at least she seemed to feel better. They pick up the beanbags, put them away and head for the swings together. Taking ownership of the decision and accountability for the outcome certainly felt right. No consultant required.