Inherited Consultants: Blessing or Burden?

Businesswomen working together at desk in the officeYou’ve landed your new job. Your vision is big, and so is your to-do list. You’ve got to deliver, and quick. Luckily for you, they’ve already hired a consultant to help you.

Right? Maybe not.

A good consultant is a trusted advisor with the experience and expertise to help you accomplish your goals. In many cases, they can help you unpack your real needs, understand your true objectives, and work with you to determine and the best solutions. The person your predecessor hired might or might not fit the bill. Let me tell you a story about this scenario going well and then share examples of what can go wrong.

A few years ago, the Cleveland Foundation hired me to help their new program director design and launch what would become their largest grantmaking initiative in 93 years. The program director had had little input into my selection, but was simply told, “Meet your new consultant!” The program director didn’t feel like she had a choice in the matter, being so new to the organization, so I made it clear that I wanted to work together with her, in a way that supported her best. We took it one step at a time, focusing first on developing a relationship. We talked about our lives. I gave her the inside scoop on my favorite restaurants. She gave me parenting tips for the three children I was about to gain through marriage.

The outcome? We developed a fabulous working relationship and I helped her obtain board approval for the initiative. Later that year I invited her and her husband to my wedding. They had a blast. Six years later I noticed she still had my family Christmas photo card up in her office – in July. She has since hired my firm 9 times for additional projects.

We were lucky. We clicked, personally and professionally. We were able to develop a genuine relationship based on trust. My firm over-delivered, and so did she.

Sadly, it doesn’t always go so well.

Sometimes, an inherited consultant can be territorial, wary that a new individual contact within a client foundation may come in with a different agenda, or simply the wrong fit for you. Some are simply reluctant to change. Others may genuinely miss the loss of a great relationship with a predecessor. But whatever the reason, both consultant and client need try to make it work. Here are some of the road blocks that can keep that from happening:

  • No relationship. As I explained above, successful engagements are rooted in strong relationships. These take time to build, and they require a comfortable give-and-take of both personal and professional information.
  • No trust. Lack of trust is a deal-breaker. Both consultant and client need to feel that the other is working honestly with them and will defend their mutual decisions if needed.
  • Consultant doesn’t bring the expertise you need. While your predecessor may have leaned heavily on a consultant for content knowledge but not for communications savvy, for example, your needs may be quite the opposite.
  • Consultant doesn’t deliver. Your predecessor and the consultant may have fallen into a comfortable routine in which expectations were gradually lowered. As a result, the product your consultant delivers may seem sub-par.
  • Your vision is different from your predecessor. The consultant you inherit may be highly capable, but pursuing an agenda that was established before your arrival (or even one you’ve been expressly hired to change).
  • Consultant is great, but not for you or this project. Sometimes it just doesn’t “click” and it’s no one’s fault.

Inheriting a consultant can be the beginning of a wonderful relationship that provides depth and richness to both parties. Or, it can be a huge stumbling block. Bottom line? Enter an inherited relationship with an open mind and open eyes.

Next week, I’ll explain how to identify red flags and what to do about them. In the meantime, be honest, direct and flexible – and see where the path can lead.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a philanthropy expert and author of the forthcoming book, Confident Giving. Learn more about her consulting and advising services for grantmakers, visit her website or read a case study.

What our clients have to say:

“We wanted to create a niche leadership recognition program, and we approached Kris because of her deep knowledge of California, nonprofits, and how foundations were thinking about this body of work. She was instrumental in defining and developing a unique focus for our program. As a result, we created a high-profile program, the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award, that really focuses on key issues facing our state.”

~Lande Ajose, Former Senior Program Officer, The James Irvine Foundation

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