I’m often asked the difference between three kinds of external helpers that a business or individual might need — coach, consultant, and contractor. Just as often, I’m not asked how to make good use of these important helpers — even though I often hear from my colleagues how many clients don’t know how to work well with and get real value from these often highly paid individuals or firms.  Since I can and do function in all of these three roles, I need to maintain constant clarity about the kind of assignment I’m working under.

Here how I distinguish these three “C’s”:

  • As a coach, I help my clients find their own clarity, their own strength, their own resourcefulness.  Rarely will I offer advice, or take on a task that they could and should be doing.  I think of myself holding a flexible mirror in front of them, helping them see themselves in a new way.

I had one client who was great at maintaining accountability, budget controls, a good work environment, and other such aspects of the present situation.  But he told me that he had trouble planning, visioning, and otherwise getting beyond his organization’s present situation.  I gave him no advice, but simply asked him to imagine that his organization was going to hire a director of planning and visioning, and to bring me a job description for that role.  I also asked for an initial work plan.  What he brought back to his next coaching session was stellar.  Clearly, and despite his negative self-appraisal, he had quite a command of how to envision and plan possible futures for his group. The real challenge, it turned out, was figuring out which of his tasks he could and should give away, and which tasks might not be needed at all.

  • As a consultant, I do offer advice — extending the client’s knowledge and vision.  I might be called upon to review a client’s action plan, facilitate a meeting, interview stakeholders, map out possible strategies.  I will make recommendations to the client, that make include some surprises.

One consulting client hired me to review some technology work that was very poorly done, in the expectation that I could serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit against the technology provider.  Indeed, the work was seriously deficient, and I could easily have provided a legally correct statement of that assessment.  But my advice to the client was to step aside from the potentially consuming legal process, and to use all their resources to get enough of the technology working that they could get back to their core business.  This was not the advice they expected or wanted, but they took it and it served them well.

  • As a contractor, I take on tasks that my client might have handled themselves, but for whatever reason choose to out-source to another.  My role is not to offer advice, and not to catalyze their growth, but simply to perform the tasks they have assigned.

One software company used to regularly contract with me to teach their training classes.  I followed their course outline, used their other training materials. and represented myself to the students as somebody working on my client’s behalf.

After teaching a number of these classes, I expected that I might then be hired as a consultant to design improvements to the classes, drawing on my in depth experience delivering the material to a wide range of students.  However, that never happened.

When hiring a coach, an individual or organizations needs clarity about what change outcomes are desired.  A speech coach might help somebody speak clearly and forcefully before large groups, where that person might already have had a great mastery of the material but only felt comfortable sharing in small informal settings. But that same coach would probably not be helpful when the challenge is to develop an inspirational message that requires a new definition of the organization’s mission.  Bringing in a coach will generally increase the workload for the individual or group, as the coach will prescribe exercises and activities that engage  the whole team but require real effort.  Prior to hiring the coach, there needs to be a commitment to the learning process.

I’d offer similar comments about hiring a consultant — the need to have a well defined problem (or, perhaps, an agenda that starts with defining the problem), the commitment to staffing the consultant with access to the right information, insight, data, and experience, and the need to work with the consultant throughout the process.

A contractor needs an even more detailed job description, but, in return, should require less staff time for support, supervision, evaluation, and collaboration.

I’d strongly suggest that before hiring any of these helpers, the organization develop the evaluation tools to assess the success of the engagement.  Knowing how evaluation will take place means really knowing what’s expected and what’s important.

Coach, consultant, and contractor — They are all important helpers.  But know what kind of help you need, what you expect to receive, and what commitment you have towards reaching that end.

Any consultant wanting to hone his or her skills should read this recent article by Bernard Ross and Sudeshna Mukherjee in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Here are the ten points they list:  (For a detailed explanation, read the article!)

Following this list, I’ve added eight more that I believe are at least as important.

* Have self-confidence and be as adept at delivering bad news as good.

* Have a good understanding of the business and of themselves.

* Have transferable skills.

* Have the ability to simplify and explain a problem.

* Have more than one solution to a problem.

* Be a good listener.

* Be a team player.

* Be able to market.

* Gain client trust.

* Remember who’s the star.

And while I agree strongly with all of these, there are more traits that I believe are equally important:

* Be comfortable telling the truth.  Clients may just want to hear positive words, expressions of praise.  A great consultant is willing to say what needs to be said.

* Be tactful and affirming.  Truthtelling doesn’t need to be negative and abrasive.  A great consultant can phrase criticism as helpful suggestions, and can lead the client toward constructive action.

* Know how to ask great questions.  Great consultants ask great questions.  It’s through such questions that we learn what’s really going on, what the client thinks is going on, and what different groups within the client organization think is going on.

* Be willing to play together.  You can learn only so much sitting at the conference table.  Spending some quality time with the client outside of the office environment is important as well.  A great consultant can engage the client in different venues, and, by so doing, learn much ore about motivations, hopes, fears, etc.

* Have lots of integrity.  Confidences need to be respected.  Promises need to be kept.  A great consultant only makes promises that he or she can and will keep.

* Admit mistakes.  Great consultants aren’t always right.  What’s important is that they take responsibility for the advice they offer, and are willing to acknowledge when it proves to be “off” in any way.

* Love simplicity.  Even when Business and organization problems seem quite complex, some simple models will help clients understand.  A great consultant and report and prescribe in very simple terms, but will still be ready to address the added complexity that may be part of a full understanding.

* Enjoy the work.  Great consultants have fun.  Working with clients can be like playing in a sandbox, and helping clients solve their own problems can be like building those sand castles most of used used to create as children.  Clients will catch on — that it’s fund to learn, to develop new understanding, to think up new possible solutions, to test ideas, and to work together in a collaborative environment.

On choosing a consultant

January 4, 2011

In an on-line discussion about guidelines for choosing a consultant, I suggested the following:

  • Start with a statement of your problem, that is as specific as possible. But be clear that you’re stating the problem, and not your sense of what a solution might be.
  • See how it feels to talk with your prospective consultant about that problem. Do their questions make you think, broaden your concept of how a solution might be found?
  • Don’t attempt to get a free solution from those discussions. Actually with a good consultant, you will learn something in each encounter, but the goal is to test the working relationship and not to move towards solutions.
  • Be very clear about fees, retainers, confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements, ownership of new intellectual property, etc. If you and your consultant have trouble with these, that’s a red flag.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for references, and to speak with them.
  • The consultant must have the body of knowledge you require, feel like a comfortable partner, communicate his or her professionalism, and acknowledge your role in the consulting process.
  • Agree on evaluation criteria at the start of the engagement. (e.g. “So, at the end of phase one, we’ll look forward to having a feature list for the product we’ll be building, and a detailed definition of the market segment to whom it will be directed.”)
  • Enter into the consulting agreement only if you respect, trust, and look forward to working with this consultant.
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