By Kris Putnam-Walkerly
In the June issue of Connections, I talked about the pros and cons of inheriting a consultant. This week I want to continue that thread by explaining how to identify red flags, what to do about them, and how to say goodbye if needed.
While I’m all for optimistically entering a new relationship with an inherited consultant, there are a few indicators that this may not be the relationship for you. For example:
- You’ve been on the job for a while, but the consultant has never contacted you. They knew they were under contract but didn’t reach out. Why? Were they hoping to get paid for doing nothing?
- You don’t enjoy talking to or spending time with the consultant. Things just don’t “click” or there’s no real relationship developing. Again, this may not be anyone’s fault, just a matter of fact.
- You are avoiding the consultant. Be honest with yourself about why you are reluctant to engage. Is there something wrong with the personal or the professional aspects of the consultant? Is it something you can or want to address?
- You don’t feel comfortable having this consultant represent you or your foundation to peers. This may just be a feeling in your gut, but perhaps the consultant is too salesy, too academic, or too casual to feel like the right fit.
- The consultant isn’t delivering. Perhaps he or she is missing deadlines, offering poor quality or doesn’t understand what you need.
- The consultant has a very strong personal relationship with someone else in the organization, and you suspect that is why he was hired (not because of the quality of his work). See the point above. If the consultant isn’t delivering or the relationship isn’t your own, it may be time to say goodbye.
- You’ve checked around and other funders have had mixed or negative experiences. Chances are the consultant is either a strong fit for some clients and not for others or just isn’t all that good. If the former, which kind of client are you? If the latter, well …
- You have that funny feeling. Even if the consultant is “good on paper,” you need to trust your instincts. If your gut says, “No way,” then you should probably say, “No thanks.”
WHAT TO DO
Just because you inherit a consultant doesn’t mean you have to rush into a decision about whether or not to continue the relationship. Give it time and take the following steps.
- First, assume the consultant is fabulous and see if you can make the relationship work. You might have hit the jackpot. Take that attitude and explore the relationship. Don’t assume this won’t work out but be cautious.
- Review their proposal and contract so that you understand the terms, deliverables, timeline, and the termination clause.
- Ask the consultant to bring you up to speed — how were they hired, what have they done so far — and to tell you more about their consulting experience, results they have delivered for other clients, etc.
- Spend time with the consultant in different settings — interact in your office, go out to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, listen to them speak, see how they interact at a philanthropy event, etc.
- Try to build your own unique relationship from the ground up, rather than trying to stuff yourself or the consultant into the roles established by your predecessor.
- Be crystal clear about your expectations. What kinds of skills do you want the consultant to bring to the relationship? Which of their skills do you need them to step up or dial back? What’s your work style? How often would you like them to check in and how?
- Ask the consultant to do something immediate and specific for you with a clear deadline — such as producing a summary of work to date or facilitating a meeting — to test their capacity to deliver and the quality of their work.
- Learn about the relationship of this consultant to your colleagues. Is she the best friend of your board chair? Had she worked with your predecessor for a decade? Put your potential new relationship into the larger context to better understand how it might move forward.
- Do your own due diligence. Call the consultant’s past clients and review past work products. Find out if other members of your foundation staff have worked with the consultant and what their experience was. See if the consultant is a member of any certifying organization or professional groups, such as the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers.
WHEN AND HOW TO LET GO
Just because a consultant has been hired — and potentially paid for in advance — doesn’t mean you need to keep working with them. You are far better off ending the consultant relationship early, even at a financial loss, then continuing on and hoping for the best.
To continue working with a consultant you don’t like or isn’t delivering will only cause extensive stress. It can also potentially cause you a lot of time and money, especially if you have to clean up after the consultant or hire someone else to fix what they’ve done wrong. Allowing the wrong consultant to stay on can also cause damage to your project if they aren’t delivering for your partners or are representing you poorly in meetings.
Of course, keeping the wrong consultant is also unfair to the consultant. Even if he or she is a great consultant, they may not be the right fit for you or for your project. Perhaps they were hired for something else that you no longer need. Keeping them on can set everyone up for failure.
Here’s the best way to say goodbye:
- Be honest with the consultant. Let them know your concerns and give them some opportunity to prove themselves and start your relationship anew.
- If you need to terminate the relationship, explain why and be clear about how you’d like to tie up any loose ends.
- If the consultant is terrific but just not right for this particular project, see if there are alternative assignments within your foundation. Perhaps you can revise the contract so that they can assist you or your colleagues with some other needs (research, planning, facilitation, writing).
- Offer to help the consultant by providing leads or referrals to other projects where he is the right fit.
- Compensate the consultant fairly. Remember that she entered the agreement in good faith and was counting on the income. She might have turned down other projects to block out time for yours.
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR INHERITANCE
It is entirely likely that your inherited consulting relationships work out fine. Just remember that the transition to a new client can be just as unsettling for the consultant as it is for you. But if you’re both honest with one another, sincere in wanting to build a productive relationship, and clear about expectations, you’re likely to build trust faster and more completely, and create a working partnership that will serve you both well for years to come.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, the president of Putnam Consulting Group, is a recognized expert and leader in philanthropic strategy development, implementation, evaluation, and communication. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.