Is the Person I’m talking to a Real Consultant?

"He shoots, he scores..."

There is a popular TV show on at the moment called Take Me Out. About 25 women stand in a line. Each has a buzzer in front of them. Male contestants are introduced 1 by 1 and go through a number of ‘tests’. As the show progresses, some of the women ‘take themselves out’ of the running for a date by turning off their light. Clients choosing consultants can do something very similar i.e. set up a number of tests for consultants to overcome – albeit you might want to eliminate the ‘buzzer’.

Changed World: Over the past 25 years the consulting world has changed beyond recognition. Back then we didn’t have access to spreadsheets and all calculations were completed by hand. Our first laptops were ‘luggables’, so heavy we almost needed a handtruck to get through airports. And it took an entire day to design & print an 8-10 slide presentation, a job that now takes about 60 minutes.

But while technology has speeded up the game, by far the biggest change has been the number of people who’ve entered the business. No one is unemployed any more; everyone is consulting. Some people, particularly those with good ‘front-of-house’ skills, find themselves out of work and re-brand, using consultant as a flag of convenience. If it walks like a consultant and talks like a consultant… oops! It’s still not always a consultant who can deliver (referred to in New York with typical brashness as a ‘resultant’).

Bait & Switch: In the larger consulting houses, a common occurrence is to send in a General to sell the job and a Sergeants to complete it. While they may argue that the senior person will supervise the project, don’t be fooled. There is often a huge difference in capacity. This is the only time when gray hair offers an advantage. In complex change projects you need (and are paying for) high-level expertise – not someone breezing in and out as other commitments permit. Just because some junior consultant has access to a saw, doesn’t make them a carpenter. But that particular issue has been around since God was a boy. The newer problem is people posing as consultants who don’t actually understand the role, have no mentor and don’t possess the competence to work alongside clients in a developmental way. And, it becomes obvious. A contact in Galway that recently hired such a consultant made the observation: “That’s when the rubber meets the sky”.

Real Consultant? The following checklist, slightly tongue in cheek, may help you to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Q: Do they have a website and how good is this? Can they be serious if they do not have an on-line presence?
Q: What defined expertise do they have? (Coaching, 6 Sigma, Disputes Resolution, Psychometrics). How was this acquired? Are they simply qualified or have they actually practiced this stuff?
Q: Do they have ‘products’? If the tag-line line is ‘everything we do is customized for you’ – how do you know that they can deliver anything?
Q: What is their annual revenue income? If they can’t generate a decent salary each year, how come they’re advising you?
Q: Do they have a PA or some administrative backup? If not, are you paying a consulting rate for secretarial work?
Q: Have they worked for blue chip clients? Who and what exactly was the project?
Q: Have you spoken to those clients and got solid feedback? What were the measurable outcomes? Have they an ability to intellectualize, operationalize, both?
Q: When consulting projects go wrong (and some % of consulting always go south) how do they respond? How did they handle past projects that were less than successful? What are they learning about their practice?
Q: What leverage do they have in terms of external connections which they could they use on your behalf?

Good Talkers: All successful consultants have to be good at marketing. Whether they like it or not, it’s part of the business. So this is not a rant against selling per se. Nor is it an effort to close the market to new entrants. People moving into the space are often worth a shot if they are genuinely trying to build new skills. This group will often go the extra mile to understand client needs and over-deliver against expectations.

The real ‘trick’ when choosing someone to work with is to separate consultants who can actually deliver from ‘pseudo-consultants’ who are simply threading water in-between jobs to give themselves a better interview story. Do you really want to put a major project in the hands of someone who is scouring the advertising pages of the Sunday papers? A bit unsympathetic to someone who is unemployed? Perhaps. But the answer to their dilemma will not be found in posing as a consultant – unless they are making a serious effort to learn the business. Consulting is a full contact sport. If you are going to jump in, give it 100% by really learning the game and offering something unique.

Paul Mooney


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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