Caveat Emptor

by Jane Mason January 2010

For all of those prospective buyers of high end strategy consulting out there:  beware. 

The difference between a “contractor” and  “consultant” has become utterly clear to me over the past few months, and no more so than in the past few days.  Let m e start by saying there are good and bad contractors and good and bad consultants.  Let me continue by saying that a contactor is someone you hire to get into the rabbit hole with the orga nisation and a consultant is someone you hire to keep an impartial distance.  This is a fundamental gulf, one that all clients should know about, and one that consultants and contractors a like should be able to articulate.

Contractors do what their client (whom me must think of as their boss) wants.  They are corporate animals, spare arms and legs when the organisation does not have any to spare, and they have the same skills that the client could find in a full time hire.  The reasons to hire contractors are:  a)  when you cannot have full time headcount on your books or b) when you know you only need a body for a short amount of time to do a particular thing. 

Consultants, on the other hand, are people you hire to maintain an impartial distance from the organisation, who can hold up a mirror to the leaders of the organisation, and who seeks t o do what is right for the organisation – as opposed to necessarily doing what they are told to do.  A consultant may be hired by a particular person (usually the head of strategy or marketing or the CEO) but a consultant works for the organisation and is best deployed when the leaders of the organisation are aligned as regards what they want to do and how they want t o achieve it.  If an executive team is not aligned, good consultants cannot do their jobs and this is  BECAUSE they work for the organisation and not for a single person.  The obvious exce ption to this rule is when consultants are hired by the CEO and part of the mandate is to get the executive team aligned.  And even this will only work when the CEO is extremely strong and extremely secure in his or her position. 

Clients pay consultants for their ability to keep their eyes on the big picture – to think across the organisation- and specifically to NOT get into the rabbit hole.  Consultants have a particular skill set – the consultant skill set and, in the best case scenario, they can combine this skill set with industry knowledge.  Consultants’ trade craft is dev eloped over years of working for consulting firms and embraces skills such as critical thinking, analystical problem solving, active facilitation, influencing and coaching.  Consultants ar e hired to help executives and executive teams make data-driven decisions and progress from their current position, creating value for shareholders.  Consultants keep a distance and that i s what clients pay for.  If you want consultants to get involved in the emotional and political ebbs and flows of your organisation, hire contractors and pay less for them.  Better yet, in vest in your FTEs.

If, as a client, you are prepared to take a look in the mirror, to make decisions that may be difficult, to resolve conflicts that might have been around for years, and to be challenged to be a better leader in a better organisation – look around for good consultants (not always with the big firms), be prepared to pay for them, to listen to them, and to manage them properly so they do not start running your organisation by proxy or outstay their welcome.  If you want anything else, or if you are not the CEO and want to get something done that you kn ow will be unpopular with your colleagues, look for a contractor with deep knowledge in the skill set you need and who is motivated by doing what they are told to do.  There is a huge diff erence and the choice is yours. 

I hope I have managed to clarify the nature of that choice.