I have a secret to share with HR leaders: You can get more from your consultants.
Consultants may sometimes seem like they are from Mars, while you are from Venus, but there are ways for both of these planets to prosper. You both want to succeed. Knowing what people from “that other planet” want can help both of you get what you need, and make the working relationship smoother and more effective.
Read on to learn some of the tips for Human Resource leaders working with consultants. (See my caveats, below the main article, for disclaimers.)
Why are Consultants aligned with Mars?
Mars is the planet of war, battle, and directness. (I’m using a mythological metaphor here, rather than speaking literally or astrologically.) Many external consultants, whether in large or small firms, have a mindset of going out to battle with problems on behalf of their clients. They have to find their own business. They are constantly looking for the next gig. They value excellence in their solutions and in the service they provide to their clients. They also require a resilience in the face of adversity, as they are often in direct win-lose competition with others for proposed work and client projects may sometimes disappear without notice.
What do Consultants want from HR Leaders?
The key to getting the most from consultants as a leader in Human Resources (or Talent Management, or many other disciplines) is to understand what they want, and to give them as much of it as your business situation allows. If you can improve communication, reduce uncertainty, and make better use of your time and theirs, consultants will thank you. These are things consultants want from HR leaders:
- Hints about whether or not to make a serious bid. Some HR departments are forced by procurement rules to get multiple bids for anything and everything. Consultants want to know if they should really put effort into a proposal, or if you already have a preferred vendor. If your mind is already made up, don’t waste your time or theirs asking for detailed proposals. Find a way to let other consultants know that you already have a preferred vendor or partner.
- Details to accurately scope the proposal. Consultants often lose proposals because they had to guess at what you really needed, and then submitted a much more costly bid than you wanted. If the scope is clearly defined, share it in terms of hours or days of work, number of e-learning screens, or modules, or training seat time, or anything else that can offer a concrete picture of how much work is needed. This lets them create a solution and scope it with the amount of work needed. (Hint: Remember to include the number and type of review, edit, and approval cycles you will need internally at each phase of the project.) If the scope is not yet clear, then request a proposal for the first phase (usually analysis), and then have the consultant offer a proposed statement of work for each following phase once the details are determined.
- To win the business on value. Consultants want to feel that they are providing the best possible value to you. It’s a matter of professional pride. Consulting rates within a geographic market tend to be relatively close for similar services, but consultants vary greatly on how they approach the bid. Give them enough information to show you what they do best. If your internal customers want a creative new solution to win hearts and minds, emphasize the creative approach in your requirements. If keeping the project cost low is an issue, share that. If flexibility to your availability and changing timeline is important, let them know that. Your best bet is to evaluate each proposal on its total value. High-priced consultants can be extremely reliable and reduce your risk, while lower-priced consultants may take more time or expose you to hidden costs. At the same time, the reverse could be true. You won’t know until you explore how the strengths of the different consultants match your needs.
- Timely decisions. Consultants understand that you have a lot of things on your plate, and (often) a lot of internal conversations needed to get to a decision. At the same time, it helps the consultant to know what to expect. If you agree to make a decision on a proposal or project deliverables, plan ahead and stick to the agreed-upon decision date. If you need help winning approval at some stage, ask for your consultant’s advice or help. If the challenge is just a matter of stakeholder availability, do what works in your organization to grab that time on their calendars and hold them to it. Your reputation as a client depends heavily on how you handle this consultant-organization interface activity.
- To know what you really need. Whether you need just another pair of hands to get something done or a trusted advisor to guide your strategic talent decisions, your consultant wants to be the partner you need. Be as clear as you can about what kind of help you want. Do you need something to react to, or do you already have a solution concept in mind? Do you want things to come to you ready to present to the CEO, or do you like to do a bunch of informal brainstorming with the consultant? The more the consultant knows about what you need and how you like to work, the better use they can make of your time together.
- Collegial relations. Consultants want to be your partners. They have expertise. They are independent professionals—even as contractors—and not your employees. Most consultants doing this work by choice enjoy the independence and collegiality of consulting, and are willing trade off the relative security of a corporate paycheck for this kind of expert relationship. You will get more from your relationship with them if you view them as colleagues. Ask, rather than tell. Seek their opinions and advice, where appropriate. Share your own ideas. They want to be treated as expert colleagues so that they can best serve you. Make your own job easier by giving them the kind of professional relationship they are looking for.
- To make you successful. The best consultants want to make you successful. Not just for the specific project results you contracted them to do, but to help you be more successful and influential in your organization. That lets them feel that they are having a greater impact beyond just the project. They also recognize that the better positioned and credible you are to execs and employees within your firm, the more likely it is that you will be in a position to offer them repeat business, but this is an extra benefit. Let them know how they can include features in their solutions, or address specific preferences of key stakeholders, in order to help them set you up for success.
- Prompt approval and payment. Some organizations have strong financial systems that sacrifice speed for control. Recognize that consultants often need to negotiate a starting payment to begin the engagement, and then to submit invoices for monthly work completed or as deliverables are accepted. When the invoices come to you, approve them promptly and make sure that your accounts payable system is getting the consultant paid accurately and promptly. This ensures that you will continue to have the attention of the consultant on your project, and not on concerns about their cash flow.
- Repeat business and referrals. After the project is complete, good consultants want you and your stakeholders to be happy with the results and the experience of working with them. They hope that you will be willing to praise their work and keep them first in mind for any new business that you need to do. Their goal is to do work that will make this an easy thing for you. If they do, consider recommending them and using them again. If not, you can politely decline. (In that case, feedback to the consultant about what they can do better is extremely helpful to them.)
In the battle of the planets, Mars and Venus can work together. Their goals aren’t so different. A little attention to what consultants want from HR leaders can yield great benefits!
What’s Next: Part 2 of this series flips this about and looks at what Human Resource leaders want from consultants. Read the continuing series!
I have worked in a number of different roles in the HR and training industry. Having worked in both internal and external HR consulting roles, as a business unit training leader, as an instructional designer and product line manager for a global consulting firm, as a learning technology director helping to set up and run a corporate university, as a corporate manager of leadership development, and as a design director of a talent consulting firm, I have had the good fortune to see this industry from many sides. I have had a great deal of success as the person who serves as the “translator” between different functions, departments, and perspectives.
This “Battle of the Planets” series looks at how people in different roles—HR leaders, consultants, executives, trainers, instructional designers, and others—can better work with other roles. Not only does this make the process more smooth and efficient, it makes it much more enjoyable for everyone involved. A diversity of perspectives and experiences is important to success, and the more you know, the better able you are able to adapt.
Steve’s Caveat: I am writing this from my own research, experience, and conversations with colleagues. Mars, Venus, and other metaphors should not be taken as gender references. While I am writing this in an authoritative style, this is just my own perspective. Neither I nor any one other person has the single “best” or “right” answers to any of the questions posed by people working in the HR and talent field. Please share your own perspective and enrich the conversation with your thoughts, experiences, and reactions!