Choosing a consultant

Iain Robertson and David Bowman ask – what do clients really want and need?

More and more UK organisations are relying on external consultants – particularly in learning and development. As budgets get cut and internal resources diminish, the role of the external consultant has never been more important. The challenge facing organisations is threefold – who to hire, what to expect from them and how to get the best from them.

What do organisations need from a consultant?

Deliver technical capability
Clearly organisations need the consultant they hire to be technically able. In broad outline, consultants need to be able to:

  • improve business performance
  • solve problems and
  • set objectives, manage projects, deliver to deadlines and deliver results3.

Unfortunately the market is full of people who can do all of the above therefore how do you choose the first amongst equals? What are the extra skills and knowledge required for a fruitful consulting relationship? When technical capability is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful engagement how should you choose?

Manage psychological expectations

Chelliah and Davis identified that a significant part of any successful consultant-client relationship lies in the ability of the consultant to meet the non-technical element of their clients’ expectations – those unspoken, unwritten assumptions that go above and beyond the simple and transparent technical requirements4. These psychological expectations tend to fall into three broad categories which they call:

  • ego expectations,
  • superego expectations and
  • political expectations. 

Ego expectations are perhaps easiest to meet. They reflect a need to look good either in front of peers, and (more often) immediate or more indirect superiors. The best consultants recognise that at least part of their role is to help the buyer demonstrate clearly and succinctly why hiring them was such a good idea!

Superego expectations are more sophisticated and harder to recognise or identify. They are the additional things that consultants are expected to do above those expressed in the engagement letter. When these are easily identifiable (and therefore chargeable) there is no problem. Challenges can arise, however, when lines are blurred and where there is an expectation gap. When does helpful feedback to an internal co-facilitator turn into coaching – or even train the trainer?

Good consultants will know about this gap and explore it. The best will make this as small as possible.
Understanding clients’ political expectations is also a vital consultant skill. These typically require the consultant to put themselves fully into the mindset and position of their client and understand their relationships with others within the client organisation. Have they been engaged simply to make the client look good (see ego expectations) or – in a more complex way – to make them look good in comparison to others?

Clarifying the psychological expectations

Recognising the existence of these expectations is one thing – clarifying and understanding them is quite another. Most of the time we are unaware of what we are not telling our consultants, and we leave them to improvise, make assumptions or just plain guess. In some cases we even then complain about how poor their assumptions are! Whilst it does remain the prerogative of the client to have your cake and eat it, it’s often a more pleasurable experience if you have at least been clear what sort of cake you like…

So how do you identify a consultant that will not only deliver on technical capability but will also stand a good chance of meeting your psychological expectations? We are going to consider three key areas: leadership, followership and working in partnership.

As we saw above, at least part of the reason for hiring a consultant is that you believe they can do something you cannot. They need to demonstrate technical capability  and an ability to meet your psychological expectations as closely as possible. To that end you need to choose a consultant who will demonstrate true leadership skills. They are able to provide you with the answer to four key questions:

  • Why are they here – the big picture vision
  • What that means for them – what it is they need to do to deliver the vision
  • How they are doing – they ask you for and provide you with feedback on progress
  • How they can help you to raise the bar even higher – continuous improvement


In the HBR Robert Kelley explored the role of followers in organisational success5. He identified that active, critical-thinking followers – what he termed ‘effective followers’ – were crucial to the success of any enterprise. We believe that the same analysis can be applied to consultants, meaning that an effective consultant will:

  • Exercise control and independence to work without close supervision – at their level of competence. Good consultants will admit when they are outside their regular remit 
  • Openly – but constructively – challenge and disagree with you. One of the reasons for employing a consultant is that they have experience that you don’t. You need to accept that this challenge is positive and not personal
  • Show commitment to the project and the organisation, not just to you as an individual
  • Recognise that committed incompetence is still incompetence – and actively seek opportunities to remedy that. Good consultants (and good consultancies) are constantly working to improve themselves and their offering
  • Take on extra work – helping meet your superego expectations – but remain focused on doing a superb job in their core area of responsibility. After all, that is why they were hired in the first place
  • Actively seek and act upon feedback from colleagues and clients – and demonstrate to you that they have done so
  • Be willing to admit to mistakes. Good consultants ask for forgiveness, not permission, and are willing to hold their hands up if the decision turns out to be the wrong one
  • Establish themselves as credible witnesses whose judgment can be trusted and relied upon.

Hiring a consultant that does not meet the above criteria may result in one who:

  • Does exactly what you tell them – no more and no less. This might meet your ego expectations but will not add any value
  • Will tell you what they think you want to hear – not what you need to know
  • Spends more time navigating your internal politics than delivering value. They even develop political expectations of their own!
  • Is brilliant at finding problems in your organisation but is unwilling (or unable) to offer a solution.

Working in partnership

Win-win or no deal. It’s a liberating approach for everyone – clients and consultants alike. An effective – and genuine – partnership between client and consultant inevitably results in a better outcome for both.  Effective partnership can operate at either the individual level or organisational level – and ideally will work at both.

What should you be looking for?

To deliver on your technical capability and meet your pyschological expectations, we have identified three key elements to look for when you are searching for a consultant.

  • Do they have the leadership skills you need?
  • Are they effective followers?
  • Are they able to work in parnership with your organisation?

In the following section we have set out a number of key questions that we feel will help you to answer the above – and choose the right consultant for you. 

Leadership requirements

Do they show knowledge and expertise?
This is an opportunity to benchmark your potential consultant against their peers and the market. Are others referencing or replicating their work? Look for independent industry recognition (awards, for example) that demonstrates real capability and success rather than simply talking about it. This is about their track record and reputation – ask around your network as well as making sure to follow up on any references. Good consultants will be happy for you to do this, and will take every opportunity to demonstrate how they have made a real, measurable difference for their clients.

Do they exercise good judgment?
One way to measure this is to look at your consultant’s willingness to take the appropriate time to consider the situation rather than jumping to an immediate solution and trying to sell something ‘off-the-shelf’. Really good consultants may even talk you out of spending money on the wrong thing, safe in the knowledge that this advice will win them more respect (and business) in the long term.

Do they understand the wider context – yours and theirs?
Look for consultants who understand your business and the challenges it faces. This will ensure any intervention is relevant to your business and its needs. A good consultant will be able to talk convincingly to the business side of your organisation about the current state of the industry; the best may even be able to tell them something that they didn’t already know.
You also need a consultant who understands their own context – what is current best practice in learning and development, where are the trends and what is on the horizon. Are they driving this agenda as thought leaders or are they playing catch-up?

Followership requirements
Will they challenge you?
Part of a good consultant’s job is to disagree with their client when that is the right thing to do. Ask some challenging questions when talking to them. You may even have to be willing to play devil’s advocate and put forward a clearly flawed position or approach to see how they approach disagreeing with a potential client. Those who are willing to do so (politely and respectfully) should make the short list.

Are they good listeners?
Do you feel you are being listened to? Do they demonstrate a good understanding of the brief and are they able to summarise it succintly? Will they listen to what hasn’t been said and address your superego expectations effectively? 

Are they a team player?
Make sure they are willing and able to work with the internal resources assigned to the learning and development project. It is worth asking how they would propose building those relationships quickly and smoothly. At the same time, understand how they would seek to manage the roles and responsibilities on the project and obtain real mutual clarity early.

Partnership requirements

Can we work with them?

In the first instance, you need to be able to work effectively alongside the actual people that will be delivering for you. People buy people, not organisations – and so we need to be sure that who we talk to is who we will be working with.
It is also worth thinking about a wider ‘we’. Sometimes a consultant will not have all of the necessary skills to fulfil an entire assignment. A willingness to, and track record of, working in partnership with other learning and development organisations would be crucial especially for more complex assignments. 

Do I trust them?

This is not an easy one to quantify. This feeling of being able to trust the other party is essential to formulating a strong and productive working relationship. Remember that they will be operating under your banner and in your name – so you need to feel confident that they will be saying and doing things that you are happy with.

Are they great communicators?

This needs to serve all stakeholders – from programme participants to senior members of the leadership team. Managing the communication of any learning and development intervention is critical – ask them how they would do it and what would it look like.


This is not an easy task – there are many learning and development consultants and consultancies to choose from. The content above is based on our experience of working with a large and varied number of clients and we are convinced that following the suggestions we have made will ensure you source the very best learning and development intervention for your people and your organisation 


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