What Makes the Best Consultants Tick

And how to know they’re not a ticking time bomb

Why would a successful business owner need a consultant? Well, Sydney Crosby and David Beckham use coaches; Barack Obama and Stephen Harper use advisors; prolific author James Patterson uses editors.

We’re not all things to all people or, for that matter, to ourselves. One of the greatest Canadian thought leaders, Marshall McLuhan, wrote of the “mixed media effect,” meaning that expertise in one area was often unjustifiably thought to be transferable to other areas (which just may be why you find so many rock stars spouting political advice).

We need consultants because they:

  • Bring best practices from other organizations.
  • Aren’t swayed by internal politics or turf battles.
  • Aren’t cowed by their retirement plan or next promotion at risk.
  • Can objectively find and report evidence and conclusions.
  • Are cost effective—they enter, engage, and leave (or should).
  • Represent expertise we don’t have and don’t need to acquire.
  • Validate what we already know to provide us with assurance.
  • Will “rock the boat” if they must, even burn it to the ground.
  • Are free from cultural taboos and “not invented here” delimiters.

Avoiding industry bias

Industry bias occurs when you blindly follow your industry’s best practices because that’s what everyone else does. True innovation, on the other hand, often comes from outside your industry. For example, Southwest Airlines and their Canadian copycat, WestJet, prove that modeling their business more like an Indy car pit crew can increase employee speed, reduce time on the ground and increase flying time, where the money is made.

A fresh set of eyes can see things that you’ve become accustomed to out of habit. As we say, it’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle. What arises are broad experience and best practices from other industries; international perspectives; leveraged technology to provide service; and leveraged strengths to pursue the best opportunities and new opportunities.

Outstanding consultants can be effective at all organizational levels and see the gestalt, not just a single issue, department, or concern, which is the problem of internal and highly focused management. Thus, great consulting help sees the organization as an entity, including all of its interrelated parts and aspects.

The secrets of unearthing the gems

All entrepreneurs have worked with accountants and lawyers. Consultants, at least good ones, are different from these other professional advisors. Here are some questions to consider when hiring a consultant, based on our experience and the extensive writings of Alan Weiss, PhD, who has the strongest brand in the world among solo consultants.

  • Meet with them to see if there is a fit, personally and professionally.
  • Do they push back and challenge your assumptions and decisions in a respectful, logical manner?
  • Can they clearly articulate their value and results?
  • Can they quantify the value (your ROI) that they provide to their clients?
  • Are they focused on building a relationship as opposed to merely writing a proposal or obtaining a sale?
  • Have they “been there and done that” so they are speaking from experience?
  • Do they offer pragmatic ideas instead of philosophical concepts?
  • Are they thought leaders who have been published and referenced in the media?
  • How do they charge for their services? Is it time and materials that pay for inputs, like a plumber, where the longer they are around the more they make? Or is it based on equitable compensation for the value and results you receive, using value pricing?
  • Do they willingly provide testimonials, references, case studies and examples of how they have helped other people be more successful?
  • Are they niche experts or generalists? Narrow, niche experts who specialize in content are less valuable because they have limited perspective and fewer tools. Generalists, on the other hand, have processes that are adaptable to a variety of situations and organizations.
  • Are they trying to sell you a canned process, or are they able to customize an approach that is focused on your results instead of their methodology?
  • Do they ask tough questions that you hadn’t thought of before and make you stop and think?
  • Are they focused on getting results fast or unleashing hordes of ‘help’ to study the problem to six decimal places because that’s what their checklists tell them to do?
  • Are they highly responsive to your questions, emails and phone messages, because that behavior will be constant when you hire them?
  • Do they transfer skills and teach you and your people so you are smarter and stronger in the future?
  • Do they provide options for implementation, training, mentoring and support to enhance the overall project?
  • Do they provide options and different levels of value at different budget points?

How to make one plus one equal a thousand

How do you partner so that your investment isn’t merely protected, but exponentially increased?

First, the best problem to have is the “I’m too busy” problem as it is usually the easiest and most profitable to fix. Working with a consultant to improve your results usually doesn’t mean doing more of the same. It means stopping some things, doing less of others that aren’t working, doing more of some things that enhance value and results, and even starting new things to innovate your way to higher performance.

Here are some best practices:

  • The leadership group commits to the initiative and holds people accountable with tangible metrics that are focused on results, not just activities.
  • People are open and candid about what is and isn’t working.
  • The leadership group acts as exemplars and mentors for the process.
  • Healthy discussion based on real analysis takes place to evaluate objectives first, and alternatives second, as problem-solving is secondary to establishing the right objectives.
  • Egos are checked at the door, in order to focus on optimizing value for customers, first, and the business, second.
  • Resources including information, people, money and leadership volition exist to initiate and support improvements.
  • Multiple stakeholders including managers, employees, suppliers and customers are included in the discussions and analysis to determine both internal and external objectives.
  • Tomorrow is more important than today, and your best people are put in charge of leading for the future.
  • People at all levels are made aware how they contribute to the overall strategic initiatives.
  • There are financial and non-financial metrics that hold people accountable.
  • Implementation successes and challenges are communicated regularly.
  • Results and small wins are celebrated to recognize people and increase momentum.
  • Knowledge and skills are transferred from the consultant to your people to increase your organization’s capacity in the future.
  • There are clear responsibilities, results focused project plans, and agreed upon metrics.


Focus on results, not methodologies, and don’t be swayed by buzz words and academia. (What does going “from good to great” really mean?!) Ensure that the consultant has multiple ways to help you, is flexible, clearly demonstrates how your condition will be improved, and acts as your peer, not a “yes man” or scared subordinate.

If you are a leader (or about to become a leader) in your field, then you want to work with leaders in their field.

What are the ways that you could enhance your business results and personal wealth if you had the right support and resources of world-class consultants and coaches? Make that determination, then go find the best help you can get to become the best organization of your kind.

Copyright Phil Symchych 2010. All Rights Reserved.