What to Look For in a Consultant

Here are some things to look for if you genuinely want value from a consultant, all of which you can test in a meeting or single reference.

First is personal credibility. I don’t necessarily mean brand here, which in a way is lent credibility. I mean the credibility of the person or people actually doing the work. To appreciate the importance of this distinction, you just need to look forward in time and ask: “What credibility will that person have in front of the Board or the bank or the MD or my colleagues when they start asking difficult questions?” Of course there are times when a brand does add credence, but I’d argue that what really counts is the quality of the individual making those recommendations, and consequently the recommendations themselves.

Second is subject matter expertise. By this I mean genuine expertise in the particular issue you are facing, be that business case development, due diligence, market entry, benchmarking, whatever. I specifically don’t mean industry expertise, which in my experience contributes either marginally or even negatively in a consultant’s value to a company.

At the risk of unpopularity, using industry expertise as a way of choosing a consultant is, in my view, misconceived. It is an easy way of screening for a buyer, and an easy way of selling for a consultant. Consultancies understand this dynamic and have industry experts at senior level only, in order to help the sales situation. They talk the language, have the examples, etc. But the people that do the work and generate the insights come from a pool of generalists and subject matter experts.

We hear all the time that clients are amazed how quickly we get to understand their industries. But they’re giving us way too much credit and over-estimating the difficulty of understanding a sector sufficiently well to apply our subject matter expertise. In contrast, subject matter expertise is the thing that takes years to develop. To illustrate, we have performed dozens of due diligences of technology companies, and we use exactly the same skills to due diligence leisure companies. Each one, in whatever sector, takes only three weeks, and we have never had any problems in sectors we have never worked in before. But we would have no idea where to start re-engineering a business process, a subject in which we have no expertise, one of the exact same tech companies we just diligenced. And we couldn’t even dream of knowing how to sell a client’s products.

A third thing to look for in a consultant is his willingness and ability to challenge you, your views and your assumptions. It is easy for an adviser to back down, particularly someone who’s junior, impressionable, easily intimidated or otherwise anxious to please. I’m embarrassed for my profession that 90% of consultants I’ve met fit into one of those categories, people responsible for the tedious cliché of the consultant taking your watch to tell you the time.

The Greeks had a concept of a noble friend, who would tell you the truth, even if it wasn’t what you wanted to hear. A good consultant is a noble friend for hire.

A fourth thing to look for is absolute attention to your particular concern. The consultant will be so focused on your particular issue that you won’t be able to see any approach or methodology he employs. Every conversation will all be about your situation and helping you improve your own condition.

There are some good precedents for these characteristics in an adviser. William Wilberforce, in my opinion one of the greatest men who ever lived, had for an adviser the great John Newton (pictured above), composer of Amazing Grace. Alexander the Great had Aristotle. Washington had Lafayette. I guess they didn’t do too badly.

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