What to expect from your human resources consultant - Expertise
This is the first of a multi-part series about what to look for and expect from your human resources consultant. The range of skills among consultancy firms is quite broad. Some have a highly specific specialty. Others have a broad range of expertise. And, unfortunately, some refer to themselves and human resource consultants but deliver services that are, at best, tangentially related to traditional human resource activities.
But, this series is not intended as a critique or even an analysis of human resource consultancy firms. Rather, it will be a a discussion of the different types of contributions that consultants can make to your enterprise. In making the decision about which firm or expert to hire, you should consider not only the nature of the problem to be addressed but also the particular skills that are best suited for both the task and your company.
The choice you make in selecting a consultant often has critical and long-standing consequences. It can effect company culture, morale and productivity. Sometimes the consequences will be immediately visible. Other times, the consequences will be more subtle, lingering long after the assignment is completed. So, in making the choice be mindful of what you want your company to be like and choose consultants that have the temperament and skill-set to help move your company in that direction.
All of that being said, the first, and probably the most obvious, characteristic is expertise. Here, the first question is: what is the problem and the second is: what is the skill set I need to resolve it. I know, it seems elementary, but you would be surprised at how often neither of these questions is seriously addressed. Instead impatience and exasperation result in the directive to get somebody in here to fix this. And, you end up with a consultant that is really good at compliance but doesn’t have any skills at improving morale or a staffing expert that has no idea how to handle merging the company you just acquired into your existing company.
Of course, you can and should turn to your co-owners and key employees for input on diagnosing the problem but you can also use the consultant interview process for some help. Tell them what you believe the problem to be and why you think that is the problem. Explain the consequences of the problem that you are seeing and then ask them what they think about it. Could there be something else causing the problem? How have they dealt with similar issues in the past? How would they deal with the issues you now face?
Over the course of some interviews you will learn a little more about your problem but you will also learn about the consultants you are interviewing:
- Their ability to recognize and understand your company, its culture and the human resource problems it faces;
- Are they regimented or empathetic and which of those skills are needed here;
- Can they effectively communicate their ideas and suggestions;
- Will they work well with your employees; and,
- Do they have a true expertise in the skills you need.
Seeing these items in a list makes it all look so easy. But, in practice, it is takes skill and perception. Some of you may have those qualities innately but most of you don’t. Fear not, the more you do it the better you will get. Some of the items are personality driven. Will this consultant fit in here? Can this consultant be effective here? Other items are driven by the sales skills of the consultant. All of them will work hard to convince you that they are the one for the job. You will have to get beyond the sale. Ask for references and call them. Find out about the depth and breadth of the consultants expertise. Do some research - read their blogs and publications, ask others about their reputation.
In searching for expertise, you will, in most cases, find a number of people with the expertise you need. If that was the only criteria, you could just pull a name out of a hat. The more difficult skill to ferret out is the ability to execute. And not just the ability to execute but the ability to do it in your company, with its culture, its employees, its history and its politics. This is the critical match.
Yours may be a company that works strictly from the top down where management is by directive. Or, yours may be a company that is more of a community. Chances are, the same consultant will not be able to perform well in both companies. The skill sets are just too divergent. Once you have narrowed your search to a small group of consultants with satisfactory expertise, turn you attention to their ability to execute in your company.
Two little bumps here. First, don’t just hire the big firm because they're big and must be good at what they do. No doubt, they probably are pretty good at what they do but for your purpose they are only as good as the consultant that will be doing the work for you. A mismatch here is just as bad and probably more expensive than a mismatch with a smaller, lesser known firm. Regardless of what firm you hire, ask to meet with the consultant that will actually be doing the work, not the partner in charge or the account manager but the actual consultant doing the work.
Second, don’t fall into the credentials trap. It is a risky proposition to make your choice based upon what school the consultant graduated from or what organizations they belong to. Yes, these can all be indicators but they have nothing to do with skills and expertise. Neither a certain sheepskin nor a membership bestow ability and, unfortunately, they are not even an indicator of ability.
Finally, sometimes you will make the wrong selection. Once you recognize that it’s just not working, terminate the relationship and find someone else. It will probably be a bitter pill but better to deal with it now than suffer the consequences of an ongoing bad choice.
Also, this is directed to the small and medium sized company because those are the companies I deal with most. Much of what I have written would apply to large companies as well but the problems of large companies require resolutions of greater scale.