Baking the Cookies: Hiring Learning Consultants to be Successful

So many words have been written about dysfunctional organizations, if weighed would easily capsize…oh, say an aircraft carrier. Those who work in cubicles are often victims of enterprises that are so inefficient and in some cases borderline dysfunctional it’s stunning anything of value is created.  If you want to smell the enticing aroma of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies, then follow the directions on the box.

Take the case of a senior manager, having been apprised no one on the staff has the skills or time to fulfull a critical assignment, brings in a consultant to address the problem.  She believes the functions have been clearly defined and deliverables understood by all.  Confident one problem along the critical path is sewn up in response to the needs expressed by the requesting manager, she moves on to other matters.  And never reviews the work product again.

Except – the immediate manager modifies the assignment/methodology/direction, and/or the support promised – everything from equipment to people resources is neither available nor provided.  The consultant somehow muddles through or cannot possibly deliver neither fast nor good enough.  The immediate manager reports the consultant is failing or has failed.

Every time I complete a contractual assignment, I’ve taken some time and distance trying to synthesize what all too often seems to be a virus unique to large enterprises.  I think I’ve come upon a way of looking at these deficiencies.  As I see it, they fall into 3 general categories:

1.       Preparedness
One should be safe in assuming there has been agreement among both senior, middle management the consultant is needed, and his function, deliverables, and schedule defined and agreed upon.  Too often that’s not the case.  During the recruiting/hiring process the consultant is introduced to the task and deliverables—and agrees to the project parameters only to find the resource or equipment, access, etc. will not be forthcoming.  Later, like after a week.

Also, in too many cases, companies are not ready for the consultant, who arrives ready to work only to find IT hasn’t stripped last user’s material, a server file or location created, a name and password generated, no plans made to get a parking spot, security key card, policies and procedures never formally reviewed. The cube hadn’t been cleaned since Hannibal crossed the Alps.  I recently had my name misspelled and entered into the server, but had to begin working realizing of course if my name were to be ‘fixed’ all settings and defaults would require reconstruction.

2.       Clarity
One-step more granular than preparation in the absolute assurance everyone on the inside is truly on the same side.  That is, from the top manager to the immediate supervisor there are procedures, processes, controls, and risk management in place for not just the next hire but the many who follow.  I have yet to see – at any company – and I mean the Fortune 100/500 a document outlining the intake procedures for consultants.  Now, it may exist, which should leave even more red faces as obviously it’s regularly ignored. I believe there should always be a risk management component.  In this context, if the consultant is not delivering, a conclave should be convened where the problems and solutions are vocalized.  If difficulties persist, the consultant has to go – even if the company is at fault.  Not to be too paranoid but that’s generally an indication some internal enemy is plotting away.  Neither has the consultant time, nor the political juice to do much that won’t end in termination anyway.

3.       Behaviors
This is so commonsensical it should never have to be said.  The difficulty faced by a consultant in any capacity is akin to a well-paid indentured servant.  He has neither power nor influence to bend people even when it might be in the company’s best interest to learn of economies, efficiencies, technical issues and so on.  The consultant knows that going above the immediate supervisor to le grande frommage for any reason short of harassment is signing his own visit to the guillotine.  So the smart move by any consultant is practice muteness, silencio, and that goes for getting to chummy with anyone on the staff.  Cordial, yes.  Friendly, OK, bull sessions about the company the boss or fishing around for information staff believes you have (and you doing the same) is a big, fat, no.

So…how to make sure working with a consultant will yield great results.

Paper.  A smart recruiting firm and especially a smart organization should develop a checklist – it need not be biblical in length – but clear and focused that does the following:

1.       Describes, in broad terms, the nature of the project
2.       Describe the deliverables in detail – the more clarity here the easier to define the type of individual required for hire, his skillsets, subject matter knowledge, and experience
3.       Ensure expectations for time on task, volume of work and schedules are clarified
4.       Determine and state with clarity if there will be support by internal experts, technical or supervisory staff, especially those who know the project/program/product – and how much time they will be available
5.       Milestones for a review of progress and product
6.       A daily check by the immediate supervisor to ‘take the temperature’ of progress
7.       Procedure for escalating developing problems: Will there be coaching or remediation if the consultant is underperforming or      summary dismissal

This document should be used by the interviewer(s) as well – both parties know what expectations the company has, and can this candidate meet those requirements and agree.

Ensure all administrivia is completed:

1.       Security, parking spot, building layout, etc., is ready for the consultant
2.       Is the workspace prepared: cleaned, free of left over detritus from the former inhabitant?
3.       Is the hardware, software, files naming protocols, file saving protocols, accessible printers, available, all demonstrated on the first day to allow for a rapid ramping up
4.       What is the protocol for phone and email usage
5.       Can the consultant utilize tech support directly or through, by example, a manager
6.       The consultant should be introduced to staff working in the immediate area and his role made clear to everyone

I’m not sure I’ve hit on every point but this is a good foundation from which you will enhance the likelihood that the best consultant for the work will be contracted, the hire will be capable of meeting expectations, and an agreement of understanding between the consultant and the organization makes clear who and what responsibilities are met.  As a former mentor said, blame paper, not people.  With documentation, few problems will reach even the remediation stage; the workflow will be smooth and people assets aware of their responsibilities.  A quality, on time result follows.

Now I can eat those cookies.

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