I have a secret to share with talent and training consultants: You can provide more to your HR clients.
(Yes, this is the flip side of the first part in this series where I wrote about how HR leaders could better understand consultants. This will seem familiar because I am just flipping the perspective!) HR people may sometimes seem like they are from Venus, while you are from Mars, 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 consultants working with Human Resource leaders. (See my caveats, below the main article, for disclaimers.)
Why are HR Leaders aligned with Venus?
Venus is the planet of love, beauty, harmony, prosperity and victory. (I’m using a mythological metaphor here, rather than speaking literally or astrologically.) A great many HR leaders want people to get along and for things to run smoothly and in harmony. At the same time, HR leaders also have important duties to the organization. When love and accord aren’t realistic outcomes, they do their best to ensure prosperity for their companies. They often become—intentionally or not—mediators between employee and management concerns; sometimes as peacemakers, sometimes as expert advisors to senior decision makers. They are often the standard bearers for compliance with employment laws, and in many cases, they urge their organizations to go beyond mere compliance in order to create truly effective work environments; promoting prosperity, again.
What do HR Leaders want from Consultants?
The key to providing the best value to Human Resource leaders is to understand the pressures they are under, what they want, and how you can give them the kind and amount of help they want. If you can improve communication, reduce uncertainty, and make better use of your time and theirs, you are more likely to be seen by your HR clients as trustworthy partners. These are things HR leaders typically want from consultants:
- Don’t cold call me. Anyone with a leadership title in an organization receives a lot of advertising and marketing from vendors. While some of the things that cross their inboxes are interesting, most HR leaders have little time to even glance at something that doesn’t relate to their current challenges. They know that they can reach out to professional colleagues, network contacts, and already trusted partners for recommendations when they have a need for something new. Having to respond to a cold call just wastes their time. Avoid this whenever possible.
- Give me a way to put you in the right box. With so many vendors offering similar services, the most frustrating thing for an HR leader to hear from a consultant is “we can do it all.” That’s not what they want, and it doesn’t even sound credible. Instead, HR leaders want to put you in an easily-remembered mental box so that they can differentiate you from all of their other options. You’re going into a box, anyway, so tell the HR leader what kind of box that should be. Tell them what you specialize in, or share your one-sentence “Call me when…” value statement. If you are able to do this, you make their jobs easier, and that can yield benefits later when they have a need for your services.
- Make it easy for me to say no gracefully. There are wide, wide differences in specific personalities and outlooks among HR leaders, but in general they tend to be more sensitive to people issues than the average executive. They don’t like to say no, or to hurt people’s feelings. Find ways to make a graceful offer that acknowledges that they may need to consult with others, modify the proposal, or decline at the current time. Presumptive closes and similar sales tactics often turn off buyers in the HR field. Truly consultative selling, where the consultant is helping the HR leader shape the solution that will work best for the unique situation, is a much better approach and more likely to succeed.
- Understand my time and multi-tasking pressures. HR leaders are pulled in dozens of directions, but their time and attention is limited. It will take time for proposals, decisions, reviews and approvals, and sign-offs to be done. This can take more time than consultants might think, because the HR leader has to wait, prod, poke, and get back to the topic as it makes its way through the organization’s decision making machinery. Consultants who demonstrate patience, persistence, and support for the client are more valuable in the eyes of the clients. Help the HR leader work the process by periodically and gently asking if there is anything you can do to address questions or help things along. Don’t push.
- Help me be more influential. The elephant in the room that HR itself is wrestling with is that Human Resources does not have the power, influence, and status that functions like Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, or even IT do. Most business owners and senior executives still regard employees as a necessary cost of doing business, rather than a driver of growth, and the HR field is still trying to figure out how to really have “a place at the table.” While strategic-thinking, business-savvy HR leaders are growing in numbers and influence, most HR groups appreciate consultants who can help them show how HR makes a difference to the business. If you can offer them support that they can take to business leaders, you can more clearly show the value you add.
- Give me material I can pass on to decision makers directly. As the functional experts, HR leaders may or may not understand all of the jargon and detail you do as a specialist consultant. However, they certainly understand more of it than business leaders in other functions. Whenever possible, give them material—proposals, solution documents, etc.—that provide enough detail for them to evaluate your suggestion AND which contain plain-language, business-relevant summaries that they can pass along to other stakeholders. The more they can send your material on directly without having to parse or edit it, the easier and more efficient you make the process of “socializing” your work. That gets decisions back to you faster, and helps the HR leader stay in an influential position of advisor to the internal stakeholders.
- Accept it when I say I am not ready to move. Budgets change, priorities shift with quarterly results, internal or external news may whet or dampen appetites for different projects, and staffing or change readiness may limit the number of things an organization can absorb. The HR leader is caught in the middle of this dynamic environment and may need to postpone a project. As the consultant, take this gracefully. If appropriate, offer to scale back or stretch out the project. Sometimes, even a smaller project represents more work and mindshare than the client can commit to. Hold on it, stay in touch, and be ready to help when (and if) the organization is ready to tackle it again.
- Underpromise, overdeliver. Even for HR leaders who love a swirl of ideas and possibilities, risk is something to be avoided. They need consultants to deliver on the outcomes, timetables, and cost schedules they have agreed to. “No surprises” is a common mantra among many senior HR leaders. Keep your clients informed of anything—positive or negative—that might affect what, when, or how you will deliver, or the cost or resource implications. Make it easy for them and for their stakeholders to implement and use your solution. Overdeliver by including the little touches that you know from experience will make the solution easier for the client team. This increases your perceived value and the HR leader’s desire to work with you again.
- Take care of the details for me. As the consultant, you are the expert on the topic. When possible, take care of the details so your HR client doesn’t have to. This includes knowing when to give them something to react to, versus engaging them in an open-sky brainstorming session, or scheduling and hosting meetings for them, when appropriate. There is often a balance to be struck here, where the consultant’s work needs to be seen as helping, instead of running the show. Talk with your HR client about how you can best help them make their stakeholders succeed, and then follow through on the details they would be happy to have you handle.
In the battle of the planets, Venus and Mars can work together. Their goals aren’t so different. A little attention to what HR leaders want from consultants can yield great benefits!
What’s Next: Part 3 of this series looks at what executives want from talent and training 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!