Beware the Ides of Consultants

Steve LudwigHiring ChallengesLeave a Comment

image of a watch face

March 15 is the ides of March. 

It’s the day in 44 BCE that Julius Cesar met an unceremonious end at the pointy part of Roman senators’ sharp daggers. Around 60 to 70 senators are thought to have been in on the plot. 

William Shakespeare made the whole thing famous, along with the quote, E tu Brute, which you are likely fondly remembering—or having a PTSD flashback—from your time in school. 

As the soothsayer tried to warn Cesar about the upcoming assassination, we share a cautionary tale about consultants, HR, and otherwise. 

We have shared our thoughts before on why startups should handle the hiring for their first salesperson. Recruiting firms can be insanely expensive and not give candidates the best feeling for your company. Doing your own hiring allows you to:

  • Save money.
  • Maintain control over their brand.
  • Increase name recognition.
  • Develop a list of potential prospects.
  • Maintain a database for future hires.

Recruiting and HR firms are just one type of professional services firm that can wind up costing you in the long run. Another is consultants.

We often turn to consultants when we don’t have the skill in-house, need a fresh perspective, don’t have time or the bandwidth for a project ourselves, need an outside third opinion, or need to do something in confidence. 

And, for large organizations, sometimes an outside consultant is needed so they can confirm a conclusion already made to make it an easier sell to the broader team. “Well, this is what the consultants said. They are smart, which is why we are paying them a bucket of cash. We should listen to them.” 

To be fair, we have worked with great consultants that have provided a lot of value. (Full disclosure: we’ve been consultants, so they can’t be that terrible, no?) But we have often seen it turn into a disaster. 

Some things to consider before hiring a consultant or consulting firm:

  • Be clear about project goals: Being very clear on the goals and scope of the project is critical. If this is a complicated project that impacts various teams, ensure you have buy-in from the right internal stakeholders. Otherwise, internal politics will kill whatever the consultants find. 
  • Be flexible: When a mechanic looks under the hood of your car, they often find additional things that need fixing that were previously ignored (not speaking from personal experience). In the same way, when you invite smart people into your company with an outsider’s perspective, they are likely going to find things that are not working that you didn’t ask them to find.  Like an engine, each part of a company impacts other parts. There needs to be some flexibility in the project to deal with things that were unknown—or deliberately ignored—until now. 
  • Cultural fit: A bunch of freshly minted American MBAs are probably smart but might not be the best crew to airdrop into your firm to help you with your project. When engaging with a firm, it’s important to meet the actual project team before the project starts. Many consulting firms start by having the senior team on the project only to hand it off to junior players a few months in. Be clear on your expectations and be firm when they try to switch team members. 
  • Communication, communication, communication: How often, from whom, to whom, and how. This should be explicitly clear before the engagement project. And there should be regular check-ins throughout the project to see if the agreed communication is working. Bad communication costs time, money, and often tempers.
  • Clarity on change orders: Who can approve changes to the scope of the project, how to track changes, and ensuring that they are communicated is critical to be understood at the beginning of a project.
  • Don’t ask what you don’t want to know: This is tricky because one group of leaders will likely want the answer while the others won’t. Be honest about what the consultant can do in light of internal politics; otherwise, it’s a huge, wasted effort. 
  • Have a plan to implement recommendations: This is related to the one above; we have been the consultant or worked in companies where a huge consulting project was undertaken, only to have the results collect dust. You must make implementation part of someone’s job or hire an outside project manager to ensure everything gets done. If not, inertia sets in, people get busy with their “real” jobs, politics take over—and not much changes. 

While this advice applies to hiring consultants in the vast majority of cases and for companies large and small (including well-funded tech startups), what about the bootstrapped tech startup?

If you’re considering, for example, hiring a contract salesperson, well, the lens may be different, but most of those considerations apply directly. Remember too that you need a Pathfinder as your first sales hire, so a contract hire should be a Pathfinder too.

Also, the person you bring into your bootstrapped startup as a contract sales hire is likely to be more senior than the role strictly demands. Someone who has earned their chops elsewhere and decided they enjoy the rough and tumble of startup life and now want to consult/contract.

Bear that in mind and ask how else they can serve you. If they’re Pathfinders they’ll be able to manage the ambiguity of multiple roles and responsibilities. How would you know they’re Pathfinders? Thanks for asking. We created The Pathfinder Company to help you identify Pathfinders.

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