3: Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships

two women sitting in front of a computer monitor working together in an open office

Coming in at Number Three in the all-time Top 10 Spark blog posts: Getting the Most Out of Your Consulting Partnerships. (And it garnered a lot of pingbacks, which is probably one of the reasons it’s so high on the list.)

The original post was written about a year into the Spark journey.

So how did I already have a perspective on effective consulting partnerships?

Well, aside from having worked with consultants in my 13 years as an association exec before launching Spark, I’d also had the opportunity to do two years of consulting (one for a big firm, one for a small firm) before launching. (That turned out to have been seriously helpful when I did launch, as then I didn’t have to try to learn how to consult AND how to run a small business at the same time. But that’s a different post.)

I think my opening question: “Hire a consultant, or…?” is still a good one. Association execs do have lots of options: hiring or training staff, outsourcing, relying on member volunteers. Consultants are, I think, mostly useful for bringing an experienced, outsider strategic perspective in situations where you don’t need access to that type of expertise all the time.

The rest of the advice in the post remains solid, too, I think.

In the past decade, I have, however, noticed some things that can really cause a consulting relationship to go sideways:

  • Lack of agreement on the problem we’re trying to solve. Getting clarity on this is a shared responsibility that requires a willingness on both sides to be open and honest about what’s really going on at the association. If the client’s staff hides unflattering information from the consultant or the consultant is afraid to tell the client what she really thinks, everyone’s going to be working at cross-purposes and there will be a LOT of misunderstandings. And then no one ends up happy.
  • Lack of buy-in from staff and/or volunteer leadership. I’m thinking of a particular project where a VP hired me and then promptly quit – his last day on staff was the day of our project kickoff meeting. That left our project without an executive-level sponsor. The project team and I worked really hard for months, and it all turned out to be for nothing, as we discovered as we were delivering our recommendations that the CEO was never in favor of the project in the first place. Not good.
  • Negative organizational culture. The committee chairs are angry with the board. The board doesn’t trust the executive director. The staff is mad at the affiliate leaders or vice versa. Different departments maliciously conceal information from each other. There’s no agreement about organizational priorities. People don’t trust each other or communicate well internally. Everyone’s attitude is on a downward spiral, and everyone’s trying to sabotage their perceived enemies. The consultant ends up rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg. Yikes.
  • Unrealistic expectations. “We’d like you to triple our membership in six months or less. And we’d like a guarantee of success. And we have a budget of about $5,000.” Again, expectation setting is a shared responsibility and should happen early in the process – like during the proposal or, at the latest, at the kickoff meeting. But if what you’re asking for sounds crazy, it probably is.

It’s important for association execs to remember that consultants don’t just want you to pay us for our expertise (although of course we do want that), we want to help you with your problems and for you to be happy with the results. We want to come up with solutions for you that you can actually implement and that work. Don’t treat us as adversaries – we’re not. Most of us have, at one point or another in our careers, been in your shoes. We empathize, but we also have perspective. Take advantage of that.

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