It is normal for a business, non-profit or ministry to need a consultant from time to time. However, there is often a built in bias against "another" consultant based on prior (less than satisfying) experiences. In addition, there may be staff who resist bringing in an outsider due to their own insecurities and fear of change. Often they will say, "We have our own staff who can figure this out." The truth is that their staff might be able to help another organization figure it out but we are often blind to issues within our own organization.
Finally, the right consultant can say things that if articulated by staff could create conflict within the organization. However, as a neutral outsider who has not have a "dog in the fight" the consultant can ask questions, press into issues and even suggest alternatives that would not be heard from someone on the inside. In addition, a consultant can comment on staff members who may no longer fit the role that they are in.
The challenge of course is to find the "right" consultant who will help the organization address the gaps that may be keeping it from reaching its full potential. They have the ability to understand the moving parts (like the Rubik cube) and get the right pieces in place for a solution. I believe that the marks of the best consultant are as follows:
1. They have a successful track record to helping organizations understand the issues they are facing and to articulate those issues with simplicity and clarity. The way to find that out of course is to talk to other organizations they have worked with. Good consultants don't complicate issues that may already be complicated but are able to synthesize and simplify issues that need to be addressed. Remember that the core issues may not be the ones that convinced you an outside consultant was necessary as presenting issues are not always the real issues but rather manifestations of something more fundamental.
2. They have the ability to be independent in their thinking. This is especially important as staff will frequently lobby consultants to take their position or their solution. The best consultants gather data from as many individuals as they can, examine the issues and while empathizing with those they talk to keep an open mind until they are able to identify the real issues and make recommendations to the organization.
In one situation where I was asked to deal with a difficult conflictual situation within a congregation, one of the elders asked a prior client if I could be objective. Then answer was, "Oh, he will be objective but you might not like his objectivity." The elder was willing to trust me based on prior work I had done and while I did not deliver the solution he would have wanted he told me some time later that he would have made the same recommendations if he were in my shoes.
A good consultant is willing to speak truth to those in leadership with diplomacy but full candor. This requires not only objectivity but courage as some may not like the candor.
3. They don't come in assuming that the presenting issues are the real or core issues that need to be addressed. Frequently, presenting issues merely mask deeper and more important issues with staff, leaders, organizational structures or strategy. The best consultants don't assume that what is presented on the front end will be the core issues they address but wait to understand how the interconnected parts fit together.
4. They will walk with the organization to solve the problems they identify. It is one thing to say "Here are your problems." It is another to say "Here are your problems and these are my suggestions for resolving them." The best consultants say, "Here are your problems from my perspective (with the data to back up their observations), these are the solutions I would recommend and I am here to help you implement those solutions."
The ability to help an organization implement solutions is critical because often the "outside voice" of one who has no role in the organization is necessary to resolve the issues and help the organization move on. This is a coaching, truth telling and diplomatic role (especially when it is necessary to make some personnel changes) that give those in authority the data and insight they need in order to walk through the necessary change process. Even seasoned leaders often need coaching in the change process.
5. They have healthy Emotional Intelligence. Why is this so important? It is because resolving issues always involves some kind of change and change impacts people and people must be persuaded that a certain course of action is in their best interest. This is often the toughest part for a consultant. I have always maintained that understanding the issues is about 10% of the challenge while the other 90% is helping to manage the change process because people are involved at every point. All of that takes good relational and emotional intelligence to understand others and help persuade them that making these changes will allow them be more successful as an organization.
All of these marks can be ascertained by dialogue with a potential consultant as well as talking to those they have served in the past. This is a unique skill set that sets the best consultants apart from the rest.