You never see many “consultant” costumes around Halloween time, but it turns out that hiring one can be the source of numerous company horror stories.
First of all, hiring a seasoned strategic consultant is a difficult area to navigate. For example, you might prepare by reading whitepapers to brush up on some knowledge before the hiring process. Then, if the candidate uses the same terminology that you read in the whitepapers, you might assume you two are a great match. But what if the candidate read the same whitepapers and that is the full extent of his knowledge?
It can be challenging to know whether the person in front of you is the real deal or just wearing a mask.
Hiring the right strategic consultant can be difficult because of two barriers: budget and experience.
Companies have limited money budgets for hiring. A problem arises when you focus on consultants in the mid-tier pay range but expect them to have high-tier skills. It may seem intuitive to hire someone you can afford to pay for 40 hours’ work a week. On the other hand, devoting the same sum to a top-notch fractional consultant for just 10 hours a week, and allocating the remainder for an entry-level support, would be more productive.
There can also be a gap in experience. Many hiring professionals mistakenly believe that marketing is easy. As a consequence, they fail to ask potential strategic consultants the right questions to find out whether they can actually do the complex work.
One of the common mistakes I have seen is a team not knowing what it’s looking for. When this happens, the team is persuaded by consultants who cannot do anything to help.
First, there is the smooth talker. I have seen companies hire people who know no more about marketing than they do but who can chat using high-level jargon to make themselves appear knowledgeable. When it comes to practical problems in the company, though, they fall short.
Next comes the delegator. Some consultants appear to have all the answers at their fingertips, but what they actually have is strong employees working under them. At best, they are good managers, but they lack a solid understanding of what it will take to win for you.
You do not have to fall victim to poor hiring decisions; you just need to prepare your team to see past all the smoke and mirrors to make a clear decision.
Here are four strategies to help track down and secure the right strategic consultant:
You are not hiring in a vacuum. Remember your professional connections who can help with making a great hiring decision. First, talk to other business owners, CEOs, and investors to see whether they recommend specific consultants who have been on their radars.
Second, once you have interviewed potential consultants, ask for their client referrals. Give these previous clients a call, and ask open questions about the consultant’s work style and his or her strengths and weaknesses. This will ensure that you match the right skill set to your needs.
When you meet a potential consultant on your own, you are more vulnerable to the effects of smooth-talking. You might hit it off with a candidate but fail to properly investigate his or her background and ideas.
Instead, assemble a group to assist you with the vetting process. Gather people you trust from different areas of expertise. Do not forget to compensate them for their time — it will be worth it when you have a trusted consultant on board.
Anyone can recite a great presentation or résumé, but to find an experienced consultant for your business, you need to dig into the “what” of the candidate’s CV and discover the “how” that makes him special. Ask how he solved “X” problem for “Y” company — then follow up by asking how his skills will help you.
Dig into the candidate’s thought process to see whether he understands what he did and why it worked. Do not be afraid to get specific.
If you do not have clear, measurable goals laid out, you are not ready to hire a consultant. Goals help you assess the situation at hand and whether the work put in is successful.
Ideally, your goal-setting will be collaborative. You and your team will be able to approximate your aims for the project and then work with the consultant to figure out what is feasible. If you do not mutually agree on a set of aims, it is difficult to hold the consultant accountable.
Once you have clear goals and know they are achievable, you can measure your progress and then push those goals. This is when a relationship with a consultant becomes exciting: when he or she helps you grow beyond your initial expectations.
Strategic consultants do not have to be so scary after all. Do not let a lack of experience in interviewing marketing positions or a tight budget hold you back from properly vetting future hires. It is inevitable in any business to hit some pain points, but with the right mindset and tools, hiring a consultant does not have to be a horror story — it can be a success story.
Christine Alemany is the founder, CEO, and chief growth advisor at Trailblaze Growth Advisors. She has a passion for helping early- to mid-stage companies grow and scale. Christine has more than 17 years of experience reinvigorating brands, building demand generation programs, and launching products for startups and Fortune 500 companies. In addition to her work at TBGA, she advises startups through Columbia Business School's Entrepreneurial Sounding Board and is a teaching fellow at the NASDAQ Entrepreneurial Center.