Care needed in hiring consultants

Joel J. Orosz
Joel J. Orosz

Joel J. Orosz

Times are tough. Dollars are scarce. Hiring is impossible.

Work, however, still must be done.

Contracting with consultants, therefore, sounds like the answer.  You buy expertise without hiring people; the work is done offsite; and best of all, you avoid interminable search processes.

Pretty sweet, no?

Well, actually, no.

Take it from someone who has learned the hard way: These shortcuts, unless handled very thoughtfully, can lead straight to failure.

All consultants are self-identified, and a snazzy website can confer an aura of expertise upon even the loosest shingle on the shed.

Though your colleague’s best friend’s college roommate’s first cousin swears a certain consultant can cure cancer, do what arms control negotiators do:  Trust, but verify before your buy.

An offsite consultant doesn’t need you to provide an office, or technology, or benefits.

But trouble hangs around such arrangements like Ralph Nader hanging around a presidential election.

Is your offsite consultant tirelessly toiling on your behalf, or is he frantically flogging his own fantasy football team?

Though it’s not easy to do at a distance, manage consultants’ work assignments as if they were employees.

Consultants always imply that past performance predicts future results.

Just because someone kicked butt for the Kick Boxing Association, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she can break a leg for the Break Dancing Studio.

Though it’s tempting to hope that one triumph will lead inevitably to another, you should interview consultant candidates just as thoroughly as you would interview candidates for permanent positions.

All of the shortcuts that make it so enticing to engage consultants — their expertise, their offsite toiling, their ease of contracting — are actually propositions that are as shaky as a Hollywood marriage.

You might get lucky, but more often, when you buy a consultant’s credentials without checking, your purchase is worthless: When you trust consultants to work without supervision, your get trust trounced; when you engage without interviewing, you contract with people who put the “bum” into “bumble.”

Believe me, skepticism about expertise, active management of contracts, and deliberate due diligence before engagement can head off a world of hurt.

Shortcuts, however seductive to overworked managers, can lead directly to wasted opportunities and squandered resources.

Do you have to be this careful about engaging every prospective consultant?

No — just for those you really want to be effective.

Joel J. Orosz is Distinguished Professor of Philanthropic Studies at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership
at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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