Getting the Right Support

January 25, 2004 by
Filed under: Leadership, People 

There is no shortage of individuals and companies ready to step up and provide you advice about how to run your business. Indeed, there is likely more than ever, as many skilled people that have been downsized over the past couple of years have decided to put up their shingle – consulting is a growth industry. If you are in a management or executive position in your company, the unsolicited suggestions that someone can help you run your business may outnumber the spam you receive requesting your help to get money out of Africa or telling you how to make money on EBay. For many, the glut has created a standard response: “We don’t need any of whatever it is you are selling.”

No business is an island. Whether the company is just starting out and needs general business advice, is growing and has competency gaps to fill, or is well established and needs fresh perspectives, there are times throughout the growth and aging process where a need will arise for support of some kind. To stoically state that you can get it all done yourself may be appropriate in some instances, but usually there are areas that have room for improvement. The challenge most companies face once they recognize the potential value is how to identify and choose the right external support.

First of all, be clear about what you need – if it is specific support in a known area, the relationship you are looking for will be very different than if you are searching for the root cause of a more mysterious malaise (providing a specific treatment is very different than being able to reasonably diagnose root causes). Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to get all your ducks in a row before seeking support – it is often the fact that your ducks are out of alignment that is the problem, and there is relatively little value to be gained by visiting a doctor after the symptoms have gone (because they may not disappear).

Don’t be afraid to spend the time to perform due diligence on the potential support – they should be able to provide enthusiastic references, and show that they have a strong repeat clientele. Do they practice what they preach – if they were to suggest that you do things in a certain way or to a certain standard, do they do the same? They should be able to make you comfortable with their approach and their progress every step of the way, raise flags as soon as they see them, and be able to provide some form of guarantee of performance for their work (but recognize that overall results are usually affected by many variables that are outside their control).

Beware the consulting agency that suggests it can be all things to all clients. A strong consultancy should be willing to let you know when your issue is not part of their core competency, and be able to point you towards a reasonable solution without expecting a massive fee. They should also be willing to step away from an existing engagement when the initial expectations cannot be met in any way. If what you seek is a stated core competency of the company, there is a good chance you will get greater value because of the corporate oversight applied. If it’s not a core competency, you should be looking for individual skills and abilities that can be brought to bear on your problem, and not expect a lot of corporate leverage.

Watch the courtship phase closely, to ensure that it is your best interests that the suitor has in mind. Far too many organizations are quick to go for the kill, looking for the bucks before they even know what you are all about, and ready to tie you into a commitment like health clubs did before their practices was outlawed. In consultative relationships, the adage that we were ‘given two ears and one mouth for a reason’ is critical for the consultant – they need to take the time to really understand what your situation is. Both parties need to be clear about the need and the potential value from the relationship before you get started. Be careful at the end of the engagement as well, to ensure that the follow through is complete.

The relationship has to work for all parties, and professionalism and fairness apply both ways. Avoid attending ‘Consultant University’ by continuing to string the group along for as much free advice as possible. There needs to be some information provided to demonstrate competence, but there is a limit unless the relationship is clearly understood to be a pro-bono one. If you ask for references, follow through and check them out in a timely fashion. In all ways, treat them with the same respect you would expect.

There can always be value gained through leveraging external support, even if it is simply the external perspective that makes it so easy to root through the politics and problems to identify root causes. Selected carefully, though, the right support can provide far more significant benefits for your company. Take the time to find the right support for your needs. – JB

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