When you move up the ranks as a corporate leader, you will likely manage a consulting team at some point in your career. Consultants can be valuable assets to your organization by crafting new strategies, driving transformation, or implementing digital solutions.
Yet, selecting and working with consulting firms is rarely taught, so your first consulting project could be tricky. Even worse, project design or management mistakes can be expensive, take up all your time, and have long-lasting negative consequences for the organization.
Having worked both as a management consultant and as the one hiring and leading consulting teams, I've noticed common challenges that corporate leaders face. In this article, I'll share four key lessons that will help you make your next consulting project a success.
Plus, I added a bonus tip at the end to help you avoid the number one money trap when starting a project with consultants.
1. Before you bring in consultants to make your life easier, you first need to invest time yourself
Usually, consultants are chosen for their specific skills, whether it's expertise in a digital solution, their analytical capabilities, or industry knowledge. Conversely, as a leader within your organization, you uniquely understand its specifics and nuances. The sweet spot to aim for in your project is to apply the best skills to your organization's specific challenge.
To get there, you must take the first step by providing as much information as possible to the consulting firms that you invite to pitch for your project. Share the problem, past attempts to solve it, unique company situations, and relationships with other departments or stakeholders. The more information you provide, the better-equipped consulting firms will be to tailor their solutions to your specific challenge.
2. Use the RFP phase to your advantage
The right consultancy firm and approach is selected during the RFP, or Request for Proposal, phase. My counterintuitive advice for this stage is that instead of inviting many consultancies to pitch, I suggest you limit the invitations to just a few and explicitly clarify this to them.
This approach has two main benefits. First, to reach the sweet spot we referred to earlier, you need multiple sessions to work with the consultant to refine their solution based on your organization's unique insights. The more time you can invest here, the better. With fewer consultancy firms bidding, you can spend more time per consulting firm.
Second, less competitor bidders means a higher probability for each consultancy firm to win the bid. With higher winning chances, they can invest more in the bid and bring their best talents to brainstorm with you on the winning strategy and approach.
3. Once you have selected your consulting team, use them wisely
As a corporate leader, you have many responsibilities, and the project is just one of them. But consultants are hired for a specific project and can focus fully on this single job. They move extremely fast because they define a clear scope and focus only on the tasks within that scope. Ultimately, the difference in work pace between the consultant and the corporate leader often creates bottlenecks. This leads to delays, higher costs, or worse, consultants moving in the wrong direction.
Luckily there are ways to avoid this. Successful corporate leaders carefully manage the time they allocate to a project decision. They also set clear expectations about what they need to make these decisions. Moreover, they constantly balance what consultants could pick up and only focus on the parts where they make a real impact.
Imagine you must decide on the strategic direction, while also considering wider organizational developments. In this case, consultants should interview stakeholders that you specify, list dependencies, prepare scenarios, and summarize all in an easy-to-digest document. Setting a deadline allows the corporate leader to have a few days to review the material and potentially have a few informal discussions before the decision session.
During the decision session, they should talk you through it, offer suggestions, and document the decisions. The point is that the groundwork needs to be done by the consultants so that you can focus your limited time on the strategic decisions. Although this approach may seem self-serving, it's a successful strategy to avoid becoming the bottleneck and keeping your project on track.
4. Focus relentlessly on dependencies to avoid expensive delays
Large corporations are characterized by their complexity, with numerous interrelated processes owned by different people. Dependencies are inescapable and will be part of your project. Unfortunately, these are among the most common reasons for (significant) project delays.
Examples of common dependencies from my experience include senior stakeholder approvals, data not being available or usable, or new releases of related IT solutions. More examples include the alignment with other departments or a strategic change in the organization that impacts your project direction.
Experienced corporate leaders are aware that dependencies are their responsibility. They also know dependencies are money burners and thus have an almost annoying focus on them. They demand that their project managers stay on top of upcoming team activities and ask thorough questions to really understand the team's tasks from start to finish.
The trick here is to coach all team members to first look at WHAT needs to be done, and only after a full understanding move to WHO should do it. The mindset of any consultant in your team should be that a task is completed when it is DONE, not when their part is done. While clearing dependencies could be your responsibility – flagging dependencies in time and in a way that is easy for you to digest could be expected from a successful consultant.
5. Bonus: don't blow your negotiation efforts in the first weeks
It is Monday, and after an intense contract negotiation, the consultants show up at the office reception. Have you taken the necessary steps to ensure they can be productive from day one? Did you secure access to company systems and data, scheduled stakeholder interviews, prepare a backlog for the first week(s) No? In that case, your hardly negotiated savings are burned and lost by consultants waiting for you before they can be productive.
Well, the best way to prevent this scenario is to ask during that RFP phase what the consultancy team needs from you in their first two or three weeks. Then arrange that. No time to do it yourself? Consider onboarding one of the consultants a bit earlier (either as an investment or paid, depending on contract size) and have this person arrange everything for the rest of the team before they start.
Working with consultants can be a superpower for any business. To make your next consulting project a great success, invest some time upfront and focus on quality over quantity during the RFP phase. Set clear expectations to manage your time and create the right mindset in your team to deal with dependencies. Finally, don't forget to prepare the basics so the team can hit the ground running.
If you want or have more tips or would like to discuss any of the above in more detail, please let me know!