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How to hire credible consultants

Friday November 25th, 2011

By Huw Hilditch-Roberts, Director in Charge, Institute of Consulting

In the past 18 months we have seen a cull in the number of consultants working in the public sector as a consequence of government spending cuts.

The Management Consultancies Association reported that the number of consultants in the sector fell by 15 per cent in 2010 and the picture was worse in local government, where numbers were cut by 35 per cent. In this same period, consultants were widely criticised for being ‘overpaid and over used’.

Yet, in spite of this backlash, the need for consultants in the public sector has never been more evident. An unprecedented amount of change and transformation is needed in the sector if financial budgets and efficiency targets are to be met.

Local councils and central government departments need experienced people who can put in place strategic business plans and, at the same time, lead them through the difficult challenges they currently face.

However, the knock-on effect of such pressures is that anyone responsible for hiring consultants now needs to really justify their recruitment decisions and ensure any consultant hired can not only do the job, but demonstrate true return on investment and real value for money.

However, with many more newly redundant executives on the market setting up as consultants, the market has become murky. So how do organisations go about finding top-quality, credible consultants who will deliver such value? How do they avoid making costly mistakes?

Here are my top tips for hiring the best:

1.        Plan, plan and then re-plan

The planning stage needs to be executed with military precision. Organisations need to scope out every aspect of the project and the results they expect. This should be done before any candidates are even approached. It goes without saying that if people know exactly what they are looking for in terms of the consultant’s skills and experience, they will recognise the ideal candidate when they meet.

2.        Shop around

It is a buyers’ market right now, so I would advise organisations to invite quotes, tenders and proposals from many different consultants. That way, a range of prices, ideas and approaches can be put on the table and organisations will get a real feel for the talent available and the variety of costs and approaches that exist. Adopting such an approach can also enhance an organisation’s negotiating powers.

3.        Check they are who they say they are

Organisations need to make sure they hire someone who can demonstrate a really good track record in their specialist area and can back up all claims with solid references.

4.        Check the costs

All costs need to be agreed from the start so there are no hidden surprises. Organisations need to check exactly what is being delivered for their money and if the consultancy fee includes expenses.

5.        Beware of ‘consultant speak’

If the clichés start rolling off the consultant’s tongue during the interview, then buyer beware! Overuse of words like ‘leverage’ and ‘synergies’ are clues to how they might perform in their roles. External consultants should be able to fit into the organisational culture, so it is essential they speak a similar language to the employees.

6.        Are they accredited?

Competence-based accreditation by professional bodies is a useful indicator of a consultant’s ability to deliver. In management consultancy, the Certified Management Consultant (CMC) award is the only globally-recognised ‘kite mark’ of professionalism in consulting and is awarded by the Institute of Consulting only to consultants who can demonstrate successful experience and practice in consultancy. We are launching a National Register of professional consultants and it will be a great starting point for any organisation hiring a consultant.

7.        Are they the right fit?

A key consultancy skill is the ability to build good client relationships quickly. Consultants should also be able to make a good impression on the teams. To check that this is the case, shortlisted candidates should be introduced to team members and managers to ensure their approval before any hiring decisions are made.

8.        Managing the consultant

A good consultancy project is one which is managed well. It is a good idea therefore for organisations to appoint a project manager who can be responsible for the consultant and work with them to ensure the project stays on track.

9.        Don’t let scope creep in

Organisations should also agree the boundaries and limits and an exit plan. If the project needs to be extended then it should be as part of a formal contract. This will help avoid scope creeping in.

The UK consultancy market is complex and cluttered at present. There are numerous consultants out there and many are looking for work. However, organisations can hire the best talent available if they prepare carefully and cover all the bases.

One thing is certain: the public sector is going through very challenging times and organisations needs to work with experienced, qualified consultants who are the best in class. These are the people who will deliver and demonstrate they are worth their salt.

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