Lately I have been remembering fondly an old friend who lived in Jacksonville, Florida. When I first met him he was at the end of a long and wildly successful career in the real estate and railroad businesses. He used to have breakfast every Sunday morning at the old downtown Holiday Inn. He could afford to eat anywhere but he was a man of habits and that old restaurant suited him.
One particular Sunday I joined him for breakfast and we spent a couple of enjoyable hours talking about this and that. His wide range of interests and experiences – and active intellect – made him an interesting and stimulating breakfast partner. I remember that we discussed, among other things, the proper role of a board of directors, the value of an advisory board, the nature of leadership and leadership styles, spirituality, the value of coaching and mentors as well as that of life coaching. It was a very stimulating and wide-ranging session.
Things took a turn when I asked him about the proper use and role of consultants. He paused for a long time and then said, “Oh, I’ve had my experiences with consultants. At the beginning of every engagement, I’m the one with the money and they’re the ones with the experience. If everything goes as they plan, by the end of the engagement they’ll be the ones with the money and I’ll have the experience.”
We both laughed and then he got quiet again. “Chief,” he said quietly “always remember that salesmen always sell what they have in inventory – whether you need it or not. Your job is to only buy what you need – what adds value.”
When I pressed him on the subject he added “never accept the value that a salesman puts on his goods – and all consultants are essentially salesmen. Before you pay a consultant a dime you should have agreed on the value that will be added to your interests as a result of their work. And always remember, any good salesmen would rather make a killing than a contribution.”
I’ve kept that lesson close – and I’ve been on both sides of the principal-consultant relationship. It seems to me the lesson is more useful now than then. Lots of salesmen are out there selling the latest and greatest fad – but few can make a direct connection to the bottom line of their client’s business anymore – or, it seems, care to at all.
I’ve developed a couple of rules that seem to help.
- If the consultant is selling a concept run like hell
- If a consultant seems to feel that the details of your business are less important than the ‘neat’ aspects of their product or service, make sure that they pay the tab and then run like hell
- If a consultant will not tie their compensation to your results, smile and leave discretely
- If a consultant tells you that he understands your business better than you do, offer to sell it to him so that he can have a chance to prove it – but take cash – no checks or IOUs
- If a consultant seems to be operating under the premise that he is smarter than you or that you are somehow out of step with the cutting edge of technology, signal for the waiter and have him escorted out of the restaurant.
Every principal who has needed to employ a consultant has developed their own set of rules. These are mine.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II