Finding the Right Hired Gun: A Conversation with Elaine Biech
CIOs, CTOs, and other technology executives are often saddled with problems that their staff hasn’t demonstrated an ability to solve, either due to a lack of knowledge, resources, or drive. These problems usually have a direct and measurable effect on the business value being delivered by the technology group, and certainly can cause angst amongst the rest of the business leadership. Lack of forthcoming solutions can limit the business’ bottom line, and it can even have a negative impact the careers of the technology leaders. What they are often lacking is a change agent that has the clout, the knowledge, and the wherewithal to “get it done.” Hiring a technology consultant may be the solution.
I think back to when I managed a stable of consultants in the Milwaukee market. One of my sales people brought me in to talk one of his customers, a Midwest-based department store chain that had gotten off to a very late start in Y2K mitigation. They explained that they wanted to bring in a consultant for a couple of months to get them moving—they really had no time to waste. After gaining an understanding of their technology stack and predicament, I told him that I had an ideal candidate that I would have to fly in from a different part of the country. He asked the rate, and when I told him, he nearly stopped breathing—the rate was four-to-five times the rate he was accustomed to paying for contractors. My sales person had some unkind words for me in the parking lot later, but I’ll tell you how it turned out at the end of this blog post.
“My sales person had some unkind words for me in the parking lot…”
I recently interviewed Elaine Biech, the author of a series of excellent books about consulting. Her experience isn’t limited to writing; she is president and managing principal of Ebb associates, an organizational development firm with dozens of clients in the association, government, and manufacturing verticals. Her perspective on the value a consultant can bring is robust, so I interviewed her to better understand some of the questions a CTO might have when leveraging a consultant for the first time.
1. How does an organization determine when it’s time to bring in external help?
Consultants have both knowledge and skills, and that is why you hire them; they bring valuable options, through the form of advice, based on their experience with other clients, as well as expertise gained from working on other projects similar to yours.
Most organizations hire consultants. Know why you are hiring a consultant, because if you do so for the right reason it can be a very wise decision. How can consultants be a good investment?
- Consultants have the experience, expertise, and time that employees may not.
- Consultants provide flexibility. They can be brought in for short-term projects.
- Consultants offer a fresh, objective point of view.
- Consultants are more efficient for three reasons:
- They bring experience with similar problems with them.
- They have the luxury to focus solely on the assigned project or problem.
- They do not need to deal with the organization’s internal politics or attend meetings.
- Consultants may be proof of honest endeavor. When other parties are involved, a consultant may serve as a sign that an organization is trying to correct an existing problem, such as a compliance issue.
- Consultants have both the position and the ability to be change agents. They can move the organization out of established technologies and workflows, and help the organization change to achieve business requirements.
2. Do you have any tips for finding consultants?
The best consultants—the very best—are found by word of mouth. I suggest that you contact several people you know who may have faced the same situation that you are dealing with now. Ask them if they can recommend a good consultant. Where do you find these people? Your local association meetings and conferences. Even after you receive recommendations, you will still want to check the consultant’s references with other clients.
Don’t get caught up in the idea that you have to be talking to someone from the same industry. You don’t. If someone is adept at setting up a help desk in a manufacturing company, they will be good at setting up a help desk in an association. Call your friends.
3. Should you look outside your local area for a consultant?
- How large is the city where you are located? A larger city is likely to have a larger selection of consultants with the skills you need. Is confidentiality an issue with your project? Then it will depend on who, from where, and who else they work for. Yep, you will make them sign a confidentiality agreement; you can’t be too safe.
- How accepting will your people be of external consultants? There is the “100 mile rule” that automatically gives consultants from farther away more respect than those who live locally.
- Will the consultant have to fly to you for an exploratory meeting? If so, it is customary to offer to pay for their air fare. Don’t make it uncomfortable and wait for them to ask. Just tell them up front you are paying their air fare—I’d limit it to one or two trips, unless you have a million dollar project.
4. What’s in an effective request for proposals (RFP) for a consulting project?
The most important job you have as the client is to clearly define the statement of work (SOW). You have to know what you need before a consultant can respond. Test your SOW out by having others in your company and outside of your company read it and tell you what they think you are looking for. You could be asking a consultant to come in at different places of the problem. For example, if you are the client you might ask the consultant to do the following things.
- Identify the Problem. You may know something is wrong in general (support for a legacy system has a sunset date, communication is poor, turnover is high, and profits are questionable), but you need someone to identify the problem. You will probably need the consultant to gather data, interview people, study the bigger picture, recognize interfaces, and benchmark other organizations.
- Identify the Cause. You may know what the problem is (IT is overburdened, time from concept to market is too long, or defects are high), but you need someone to identify the root cause of the problem. The consultant needs to understand the basics of problem solving, how to uncover the root cause, how to communicate with process owners, and how to challenge the status quo. The consultant needs to have a heavy dose of expertise in the area.
- Identify the Solution. You may know there is a problem and have identified the cause (your IT staff is entrenched in your current, dated technology set), but you need a consultant to identify a solution, or set of solutions. The consultant will probably need to research outside initiatives in the same or other industries; may need to locate other resources; or to coordinate and facilitate open discussion.
- Implement the Solution. You may know there is a problem, have identified the root cause, and have determined the solution (you need to attract a new customer base, work better as a team, or improve supplier communication), but you need a consultant to implement the solution or change. The consultant is expected to make things happen. Consultants are asked to install the new, and also to get rid of the old. Consultants will help you deliver information and assist others to communicate effectively. They may supervise installations and reconfigure the work force.
Each of these examples require you to know what you are asking the consultant to do. Obviously, there is some of crossover, and if you don’t know, be honest with the consultant. I cannot begin to tell you how many poorly written SOWs I’ve read in my lifetime. Too many.
5. How can I identify a good consultant response?
In a good response to your RFP you should expect to see the following things:
- A clear understanding of your situation
- The consultant’s experience
- An approach
- A project plan and timeline
- How they will measure success
- Who (specifically) will work on your project
- The investment required (cost)
6. What are some other indications that they are, or are not, going to be able to deliver?
Two words: customer referrals. You would be a fool if you did not pick up the phone (yep, the telephone—not email or text) and talk to the references the consultant provided. Tell the other person just a bit about your project and then ask specific questions.
- What services did the consultant provide?
- When was the work completed?
- How satisfied were you with the quality of the work?
- How well were costs contained throughout the project?
- How satisfied were you with communication?
- How did the consultant handle problems that arose?
- Did you experience any problems that would discourage you from hiring this consultant again?
- Is there anything I should have asked you about, but didn’t?
Don’t hold a single negative comment against a consultant; everyone has a project that wasn’t perfect. Once you complete these discussions, finding a consultant that fits your organization’s culture is an important task. Find someone who comes with good references, understands your problem, and makes you believe you will be able to work with them and build trust throughout the relationship.
Let’s face it; you are going to spend lots of money on this consultant. They aren’t cheap. But they do provide value. They will solve your problem. Be sure to ask them if they have time available for your project. There’s no sense hiring the best if they now don’t have time for you.
“Caring—truly caring—is a powerful business advantage.”
7. How much do learning technology consultants typically charge? What is a reasonable rate in this industry?
You know, this is the most difficult question to address. You need to first consider the value these consultants will bring. You also need to determine how you are going to pay them. Is this a time and materials contract or a firm fixed price? I personally prefer a firm fixed price. I don’t have to count minutes, and you can begin to trust me immediately.
It is the client’s job to be careful of scope creep—that is, more and more tasks sneaking into the project. Some scope creep is inevitable, however, because you can’t predict everything. If you were a mind reader you would be making a lot more money someplace else! Just be aware of all those little add-ons that come up during the project. This is why communication is so critical.
8. How much should I budget for my total investment?
Consultants know that the client determines the acceptable fee ranges. Generally, for-profit companies have more in their budgets for consultants than do nonprofit organizations. Usually, the larger the company, the larger the discretionary funds available. If you are a small company, consultants know that you are able to pay less than if they were working with Coca-Cola, for example. I am most used to daily rates (and that usually means more that you typical eight-hour day), so here are the ranges I uncovered. Based on my experience, daily rates for skilled (not new, inexperienced) technology consultants break down as follows:
- Typically up to $6,000 per day for corporate projects, but the sky is the limit.
- Up to $3,000 per day for government/non-profit projects.
Note that these figures show a wide range as well as how those ranges change by type of client.
Here’s another way to figure out a fair price. Ask yourself: “If this person was on my payroll working in my company how much would I be paying her today?” $75 per hour? Multiply it by three and you have a fair price. I won’t go into all the rationale and reasons why. It works.
9. Once I’ve selected a consultant, how do I manage the consultant’s engagement?
Milestones should have been worked out before you hired this person. You should also know what success looks like for the project. You can certainly ask questions, such as:
- What could we have done to prevent X from occurring?
- How can I support you best?
- What is the best way for us to keep communication open and clear?
But you will know you have hired an excellent consultant if the consultant is asking you questions, such as:
- How does this project fit into the larger organizational picture?
- How would you define the organization’s culture and values?
- What observation opportunities exist for me to learn more about X?
- Who should we talk with in order to see all sides of the issue?
- When can I meet the other stakeholders of this process?
Keep the relationship positive.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Be completely open and candid with the consultant. A consultant can only be as good as the information she has. Explain the business goals so the consultant understands how the work ties to what’s important for the organization. Request progress reports and be available for meetings.
- Be a model client. Demonstrate goodwill by giving referrals, offering more work, and limiting demands. Be sure the consultant is paid on time.
- Demonstrate respect. Be reasonable. Plan in advance and provide adequate lead time. Respect the consultant’s time and resources.
Thank you to Elaine for her valuable insights.
“The project ends, not the relationship.”
So, back to my customer with Y2K woes: The customer did in fact move forward with bringing in my consultant—he was in a jam, and it was evident that this consultant had just the right mix of knowledge, experience, and even personality to get the job done. He was still reeling from sticker-shock, so he decided to shrink the duration from two months down to two weeks. Then I got a call after the first week.Their problems were worse than they had understood, but progress had been great, so he wanted to extend the contract to a month. By the time the work was complete, my consultant had been onsite for four months, and the customer said that it was the best money he had ever spent on an external resource.
The moral is: when you find a consultant that is the right fit for your organization and objectives, they can move the Earth for you. The key is to do careful selection work up front, define the objectives carefully, and then give the consultant the executive sponsorship they need to be successful.