What To Do When You’ve Inherited a Consultant

You’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, how to identify red flags, and what to do about them.

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. Much to my chagrin, the program director had had no 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, 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, offended or wary that a new individual contact within a client foundation may come in with a different agenda. 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 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.

What To Do

Just because you inherit a consultant doesn’t mean you have to rush into a decision about whether or not to continue the relationship. Give it time, and take the following steps.

  • First, assume the consultant is fabulous and see if you can make the relationship work. You might have hit the jackpot. Take that attitude and explore the relationship. Don’t assume this won’t work out, but be cautious.
  • Review their proposal and contract, so that you understand the terms, deliverables, timeline, and the termination clause. 
  • Ask the consultant to bring you up to speed – how were they hired, what have they done so far – and to tell you more about their consulting experience, results they have delivered for other clients, etc.
  • Spend time with the consultant in different settings – work, go out to a restaurant for lunch or dinner, listen to them speak, see how they interact at a philanthropy event, etc. 
  • Try to build your own unique relationship from the ground up, rather than trying to stuff yourself or the consultant into the roles established by your predecessor.
  • Be crystal clear about your expectations. What kinds of skills do you want the consultant to bring to the relationship? Which of their skills do you need them to step up or dial back? What’s your work style? How often would you like them to check in and how?
  • Ask the consultant to do something immediate and specific for you with a clear deadline — such as producing a summary of work to date, conducting online research and writing a summary, or facilitating a meeting — to test their capacity to deliver and the quality of their work. 
  • Learn about the relationship of this consultant to your colleagues. Is she the best friend of your board chair? Had she worked with your predecessor for a decade? Put your potential new relationship into the larger context to better understand how it might move forward.
  • Do your own due diligence. Call the consultant’s past clients and review past work products. Find out if other members of your foundation staff have worked with the consultant and what their experience was. See if the consultant is a member of any certifying organization or professional groups, such as the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers.

Red Flags

While I’m all for entering a new relationship with an inherited consultant optimistically, there are a few indicators that this may not be the relationship for you. For example:

  • You’ve been on the job for a while, but the consultant has never contacted you. They knew they were under contract but didn’t reach out. Why? Were they hoping to get paid for doing nothing? 
  • You don’t enjoy talking to or spending time with the consultant. Things just don’t “click,” or there’s no real relationship developing. Again, this may not be anyone’s fault, just a matter of fact.
  • You are avoiding the consultant. Be honest with yourself about why you are reluctant to engage. Is there something wrong with the personal or the professional aspects of the consultant? Is it something you can or want to address?
  • You don’t feel comfortable having this consultant represent you or your foundation to peers. This may just be a feeling in your gut, but perhaps the consultant is too salesy, too cold, or too casual to feel like the right fit.
  • The consultant isn’t delivering. Perhaps he or she is missing deadlines, offering poor quality, or doesn’t understand what you need.
  • The consultant has a very strong personal relationship with someone else in the organization, and you suspect that is why they were hired (not because of the quality of their work). See the point above. If the consultant isn’t delivering or the relationship isn’t your own, it may be time to say goodbye.
  • You’ve checked around and other funders have had mixed or negative experiences. Chances are the consultant is either a strong fit for some clients and not for others, or just isn’t all that good. If the former, which kind of client are you? If the latter, well…
  • You have that funny feeling. Even if the consultant is “good on paper,” you need to trust your instincts. If your gut says “no way,” then you should probably say “no thanks.”

When and How to Let Go

Just because a consultant has been hired – and potentially paid for in advance – doesn’t mean you need to keep working with them. You are far better off ending the consultant relationship early, even at a financial loss, then continuing on and hoping for the best.

To continue working with a consultant you don’t like or isn’t delivering will only cause extensive stress. It can also potentially cause you a lot of time and money, especially if you have to clean up after the consultant or hire someone else to fix what they’ve done wrong. Allowing the wrong consultant to stay on can also cause damage to your project if they aren’t delivering for your partners or are representing you poorly in meetings.

Of course, keeping the wrong consultant is also unfair to the consultant. Even if he or she is a great consultant, they may not be the right fit for you or for your project. Perhaps they were hired for something else that you no longer need. Keeping them on can set everyone up for failure.

Here’s the best way to say goodbye:

  • Be honest with the consultant. Let them know your concerns and give them some opportunity to prove themselves and start your relationship anew.
  • If you need to terminate the relationship, explain why and be clear about how you’d like to tie up any loose ends.
  • If the consultant is terrific, but just not right for this particular project, see if there are alternative assignments within your foundation. Perhaps you can revise the contract so that they can assist you or your colleagues with some other needs (research, planning, facilitation, writing).
  • Offer to help the consultant by providing leads or referrals to other projects where he is the right fit.
  • Compensate the consultant fairly. Remember that she entered the agreement in good faith and was counting on the income. She might have turned down other projects to block out time for yours.

Making the Most of Your Inheritance

It is entirely likely that your inherited consulting relationships work out fine. Just remember that the transition to a new client can be just as unsettling for the consultant as it is for you. But if you’re both honest with one another, sincere in wanting to build a productive relationship, and clear about expectations, you’re likely to build trust faster and more completely, and create a working partnership that will serve you both well for years to come.


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