How to work with consultants

Today, we’re going to be discussing about the questions and answers about working successfully with your consultants.


Pieta Blakely 0:01
Engaging with a consultant is a complicated and sometimes expensive process. So, how do you make sure that your engagement is successful? That your organization really get good value? And, that everybody leaves with a good experience and a great product? Today, we’re going to talk about how to work successfully with your consultants.

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Pieta Blakely 0:50
Welcome to Coffee Time with Masterminds. I’m Pieta Blakely, and I’m the founder and principal of Blakely Consulting. Today, we are talking about How to Work with Consultants. I’m joined today by my colleagues, Cynthia Rojas, and Rebecca Tuttle. Good morning

Cynthia Rojas 1:06
Hi, how are you, Pieta?

Pieta Blakely 1:08
Good. Good to see you. I want to welcome all of our listeners. If you are joining us live, please let us know your name, and where you’re joining us from, in the chat. I especially want to welcome our listeners around the world, and in Australia. So, today, we’re talking about how to work with somebody like us, a big undertaking, and the first question is, how do you how do you even know that this is an appropriate project to work with a consultant on? What’s the difference between something you should do with a consultant, and something you can handle internally?

Rebecca Tuttle 1:51
That’s a great question. Usually, my first gauge is I’ll listen to them describe the project, and ask if you’ve given any thought about how they would like the project to go or look or be. What some of their anticipated outcomes are, and if they’re able to describe them in a way that I feel I can offer a compliment to that. Then, that’s probably the right fit project. If it’s a project where they say, well, we hadn’t really thought about that, or we’re not quite ready yet but hope to be, then I might advise them to come back when they are ready. Because this might be a project where they’re looking more for a staff person rather than a consultant, where a consultant doesn’t do the work of the staff person.

Pieta Blakely 2:41
All right, that is super important. I want to talk about that. I also want to like highlight and amplify something else. You said, that was really important, which was you could articulate the deliverables. You know, specific things that you want to get out of this engagement. Now, let’s talk about the other really important things, which is the difference between what a consultant can work on and what a staff person can work on, so what are some of those differences.

Rebecca Tuttle 3:10
I teach and write grants, and I’m a fund development consultant, but I am not your grant writing staff person. So, I don’t go to staff meetings, unless we’re working on the project and it’s applicable. I don’t clock in and out, like a regular employee would. There’s a lot of difference in terms of, well, you see this in the contract, is that it’s work for higher. You see, those terms work higher, and if it reads as though you are being employed in that position versus offering your expertise in consultation. There’s usually a clear delineation, but it has to be written in the contract.

Pieta Blakely 3:52
Yeah. I think that’s a really important thing, like what the consultant is only working on, that set of deliverables that the consultant has been hired for. So, they’re not available for other stuff around the office; they’re really not part of that team. That includes things like we are not going to sit on him in a meeting just in case, right.

Rebecca Tuttle 4:20
Right, and everything is usually scheduled. For example, I have weekly coaching calls with my clients. We update the project; we gather any information that we need, and also, I report back on them. The other delineation is in your contract. It will state the accountability for the consultant, and the accountability for the client. So, what they will provide to be able to allow the consultant to perform the work. Also, if this work is not provided the consultant cannot provide this work. A lot of it is spelled out in the contract. My recommendation is that, you read the contract that the consultant provides to you, thoroughly. And, if you have any questions that before you sign on with that consultant that you discuss those, and get them out of the way. Because once it’s signed that’s what both are accountable to. Projects get messy when you have to shift those deliverables, as you’re saying, in the middle of a project. Technically, it voids out that contract and you should write a new one.

Cynthia Rojas 5:25
Yeah, I have to say that there are times. So, this is different from being a consultant, but sometimes I would help an organization implement something so that they can then take it on. It’s more contract work. It’s really interesting to me because the lines get blurred sometimes. What I find with organizations is that when they have a consultant, their part of their work kind of starts to dwindle, as time goes by. I don’t know if the two of you have that experience, but Rebecca, you said, putting that in the contract is essential, and it is really important. But what happens is that organizations are dealing with day-to-day stuff. I have found that when they’re doing that, and they have someone like me on board. They tend to think that they don’t have to keep their part of the equation or they forget that this is a two-way street.

Pieta Blakely 6:39
I have learned that, a really crucial part of my job as the consultants is managing the client, and making sure that they know every week what they need to be doing, as well as, what I am doing. Project management is on the consultant, so when you have a staff person and you’ve given them responsibilities. They might have a supervisor who helps them move those processes forward. The consultant is going to do that for the project, and that means the consultant is going to manage the client, and the client, and staff with respect to that project.

Rebecca Tuttle 7:22
And there are elements of flexibility. For example, in my contracts, actually write out the dates that we will be meeting for our coaching calls, the number of calls, the topics of the call. If a client doesn’t show up, then, do we reschedule, or because life happens, especially with everything with a coven, so you have to be flexible. But if, they’re historically not showing up, and your contract is for eight weeks, and you have deliverables, but you can’t deliver because you didn’t have that time to gather the information. So, what do you do? Instead of talking about it in the moment, I look at it like a grant. If a funder awarded you funds and you said, you would serve 50 people by week, you know 11, you only served 10. You have to give those funds back, unless you have a really clear explanation. So, upfront is when you decide or discuss rather with your client as a consultant that if you don’t show up for these many appointments or without canceling or whatever you know these are the next steps. Because what you really want to avoid are surprises, because it can be damaging to your reputation, to the project itself, and nobody wants that.

Pieta Blakely 8:34
No and nobody. I always say like, there’s somebody who brought me into this organization. And they talked their boss, and their organization into making a pretty substantial investment, so their reputation is on the line, too.

Cynthia Rojas 8:52
Yeah. Pieta, you mentioned you manage clients. It’s just as important for clients to manage their consultants and really be available to them, orient them. I like to hear about organizational culture. It’s part of my kickoff meetings because one, if we have an organization that people blow off meetings, and that’s part of the culture, I need to know that. So, there are all kinds of things that I think organizations can do to actually have a really good successful relationship.

Rebecca Tuttle 9:40
You know, the other piece too is so a lot of my clients all have contract work as a consultant, but also have retainer work. So, that works a little bit differently, and that’s not part of our episode today. But the parameters aren’t so much looser, but they’re more flexible because there’s a consistency to the project. For example, if a retainer goes through the end of the year, then the expectations and deliverables might change a little. So, it really just depends on the needs of the organization; is it a right fit for that consultant and the organization to partner together, and then, what does that work look like.

Now, the other component, too, is in my work; we work a lot with grant deadlines. This also has to be spelled out because as we approach a deadline, it could be catastrophic for an organization if we don’t submit in time or something goes wrong. So, spell that out as much as you can, but there’s also a tremendous element of risk that organizations take in investing, as Pieta said, in consultants, oftentimes, when they have small budgets. So, as a consultant, we really want to reassure you all that we can do this work for you, and, if we aren’t able to just be upfront and transparent about that.

Cynthia Rojas 10:57
Yeah, I know. I get that there was a question that left my brain. It’ll come back.

Pieta Blakely 11:06
It’ll come, right back. So, let’s talk about best practices in communicating with your consultants.

Cynthia Rojas 11:14
I love this.

Pieta Blakely 11:18
Yeah. Cynthia, you’ve brought up things like helping the consultant understand your organizational culture, right. I have found that having standing check-in meetings, usually, every two weeks sometimes every one week or every month. Depending on the type of the project, where we are in the process, has been incredibly helpful. I’ve also realized some clients; they have a culture in their office of sending emails and getting immediate responses; they think it’s instant messaging. That was never my practice when I had a job and it’s absolutely not my practice now, as a consultant. I’m not sitting at my desk waiting for emails to come in, but that kind of thing has to be communicated. You’ve got to understand that you know you’re bringing together organizations that might have really different communications practices. What else works or doesn’t work.

Rebecca Tuttle 12:21
Can you speak a little more about that, Pieta, because that’s really important. Oftentimes, people will engage consultants to work on that communication, to work on that response time. What is acceptable as an internal employee, and then as a consultant?

Pieta Blakely 12:28
Personally, as an internal employee, I also thought it was a better practice in terms of productivity to try and batch respond to emails, like I’m not super disciplined about it. But I don’t have an alert on my screen, distracting me every time I receive an email. I just can’t get my work done that way with clients. What I’m really realizing is what I have to do is spill that out in their onboarding package to understand that it might be 24 to 48 hours before I respond to them. Because sometimes, I’m on site with different clients.

Sometimes, it’s a writing day, and all my devices are put away. You know, things like that. So, you shouldn’t panic if you’re not hearing back in a couple of hours. That’s another reason why it’s so great to have those check-in meetings. Ideally, the need for urgent communication should be reduced if we all know what we’re working on this week.

Rebecca Tuttle 13:44
That’s great. Thank you.

Cynthia Rojas 13:47
Yeah. I have the same methodology and then, I host a kickoff meeting, and I have a list of things that I asked the clients. One, is, what are your organizational cultures that I should be aware of. Two, how do decisions get made in your organization that’s important. One thing that I’ve learned the hard way is, who is the buyer. I’ll tell you when this becomes an issue. When you do strategic planning and so you have the board highly invested in that work. But you have the ED, and the staff that run the organization, and then there’s a conflict. Well, who exactly is the buyer here? It has come up. So, that’s been a little tricky, and a learning experience.

Also, when I do some project management, I have a liaison, a staff person I speak to all the time, but major decisions need to be made. Now, I have to figure out who’s the buyer, who’s the ultimate decision maker. Liaisons and decision makers could be two different people, so these are the learnings that I’m getting along the way. Hopefully, the work you know makes it easier. But one thing that I’m hearing is that we tend, the three of us, tend to submit reports about our progress. I would love a report from the client about their progress. I’ve never required one. I think I should change that practice.

Pieta Blakely 15:40
That’s actually a great idea. You know, I have a sprint report that I use when I meet with my clients, and I could just ask them to write in their progress, in a certain section of the sprint report, before we meet. That report is a Google Doc that we used during the meeting so we could both contribute to.

Cynthia Rojas 16:03
Yeah, I like that idea.

Rebecca Tuttle 16:05
That’s a great idea.

Cynthia Rojas 16:18
Rebecca, you’re writing notes.

Rebecca Tuttle 16:11
I take notes, most shows. Yeah, I get more time today because I’m not doing comments.

Cynthia Rojas 16:20
I love it.

Pieta Blakely 16:23
You know, here’s another thing that has come up for me in working with clients. It’s like, how do you know when you’re done, or, how do you communicate. This is it, and I’m leaving. Ideally, the deliverables and the end date on the contract happen exactly like we anticipated. But sometimes, I’ve actually completed deliverables early, and sometimes, contracts have to get extended. So, the end date can be a little bit muddy. One of the things that I have found really helpful is continuously reminding the client and making sure we’re on the same page about what the deliverables are, right.

Cynthia Rojas 17:11
Yes, that’s so important.

Pieta Blakely 17:13
Right, and bringing them up, and saying okay, so that one is done, and now we’re moving on to this one. They sort of understand; they can see their progress. What else is helpful?

Rebecca Tuttle 17:26
You know, what I run into a lot is, well Rebecca. I know we were working on this grant, but we found this other one too. There is a significant difference in the type of grant you apply for. For example, a federal contract or a state grant contract is a different contract for me, than a private foundation grant application. So, I always am very upfront about, well, these are the application types. And if you change the application type or, find additional grants then, we have to consider that.

Now, that being said, if we have identified a private foundation funder, and then we decided not to apply. Obviously, we want to replace that with another, but I guess, what I’m getting at in all of it, is communication. Not catching your clients by surprise and being very firm about here are the expectations that I can deliver on the accountability. And what happens in a what-if scenario if you build that rapport in the conversation or communication up with your clients. Like,

for example, Cynthia, you were talking about who’s the buyer and decision maker, then, depending on the relationship, you should be able to work through those pretty easily. But I think, when we wait on those conversations or we’re uncomfortable about talking about changes, that’s when you get that push back and then, the project I find is just a struggle from there.

Cynthia Rojas 18:58
Yeah. I work with clients that have internal conflicts, as I’m sure many of us do.
I am struck by the by the way that internal conflict gets in the way, and no, that’s it, you could take it off.

Pieta Blakely 19:22
I thought you’re going to say, “and then, we solve it, and here’s the process.”

Cynthia Rojas 19:25
Sometimes, we don’t solve it because it’s not in the contract to solve your conflict.

Pieta Blakely 19:30
Exactly, all of our clients have some internal conflict, and that goes back to our initial point about, when you bring in consultants. And it is often at a growth point in your organization. You are leveling up something in your organization that you don’t have the capacity yet internally to manage it. I always say like, designing something and building something is harder than running a process that’s already been documented. Often, you’re bringing in the consultants to build something that you’re going to hand off to your staff. By definition, this is sort of an uncertain and uncomfortable time in your organization, and there’s going to be some change going on, right.

Cynthia Rojas 20:18
Yeah, two things that I think about is, one, clarity around the end product. So, I’ve been on the other side, and I used to hire a lot of consultants. In the very beginning, I wouldn’t understand that what I was getting was a plan to execute. And so, of course, having this conversation at first, I’m here thinking that the work will happen as the consultant is there. But what they’re doing is building a knowledge base, and synthesizing information, putting together best practices, and no, I have a plan. I’m like, oh my, I just spent all this money on a plan and it’s not even done.

The expectation is that, I am going to do it, so that’s has stayed in my head. And, when I work with clients, I am constantly reminding them. For instance, in strategic planning, you get a plan. I also did an evaluation plan for an organization, and I made it very clear throughout all of our communication, you are getting a plan. Implementation is an add-on so that they wouldn’t be surprised at the end of the project and say wait a minute.

Pieta Blakely 21:40
It wasn’t done. You know, those distinctions, in the way we normally work are not all that clear, right. Usually, we have an idea, and we sort of start implementing it, and then, we plan the next phase and then we implement that, and it’s just kind of all continuous. So, it really takes some thought and discipline to see the difference between paying a consultant for a plan versus paying a consultant to do a thing.

Cynthia Rojas 22:20
Yes. Another thing I think we should also be mindful about is that, you should not let a consultant walk away with this new knowledge, or with any knowledge. An organization should build the transition plan internally, so that, whatever the consultant has done gets diffused to its staff. So that, when the consultant leaves, you’re not like, oh my, how do we do that. But make sure that there are one, or two people that know what the consultant did. It can continue the work because you also don’t want to consult them there forever.

Rebecca Tuttle 23:00
Well, that’s when you cross over to, am I a consultant, or an employee? When I’m hired, oftentimes, there’s not communication internally of who did what, and where’s the grant, and how much did we get, what’s the status. And so, a lot of what I do also is sift through the information that is available to help sort out some of that detail. Because a lot of organizations that hire development consultants don’t know how to read the products. They produce because there are so many different hands in the production. Oftentimes, it’s just making sense of the web of information.

Cynthia Rojas 23:45
Did she freeze. What does that mean?

Rebecca Tuttle 23:51
Sorry. I was just going to say that, the more that I can explain and educate my clients, the more confident they feel when we transition away from the project. Now, once the project’s completed, I oftentimes phase my work. Then, they may rehire because ultimately you would like them to rehire or go on to retainer. So, there’s this nice build-up and flow of work because what we’re trying to create is a portfolio that they can draw from almost like a library. I would imagine it’d be the same in your work, as well, because they’re constantly reproducing the same information, maybe just in a different way.

Pieta Blakely 24:28
Yeah, that’s only the goal is to hand candid off.

Cynthia Rojas 24:30
I think there’s a distinction between the types of consultants. My goal is to help you build an infrastructure strong enough that you never have to call me back. In your work, it makes a lot of sense that if you were successful or that you brought tons of value to their organization, that they bring you back. So, it does differ, but dependency on me, for me, is not a good benchmark. I love to talk to organizations a year and a half later, and I have not spoken to them since. And they’re telling me all this great stuff that they’re doing as a result of our work together versus somebody who calls me over and over again.

Pieta Blakely 25:23
Yeah, I have clients who call me back, a few years later. So, the goal is to never call me
for that particular problem again. But sometimes, they call back, a few years later, and they’re like, that went so well. We got another amount of funding and now, we have to expand our evaluation plan, like that’s great. You know, when we get to the point where we’ve just got to level up and then get back to where your staff can run it again, right.

Cynthia Rojas 25:53
So, there’s a distinction there that’s really important. You talked about bringing in consultants when you’re in the midst of growth versus, and so that’s totally appropriate. Given the example that you gave versus creating a dependency on this person, and constantly bringing them back without you really internalizing the learning. Again, this means that I am potentially left with this knowledge, and no one at your organization.

Pieta Blakely 26:26
Then you didn’t really get a good value.

Rebecca Tuttle 26:31
I look at it like, well, this is Grants 101. You know, an intro to Grants 101.

Pieta Blakely 26:45
When someone calls you for a local grant and then, a federal grant, like, they’re leveling up.

Rebecca Tuttle 26:46
Yeah, and it makes sense, too, because organizations, I mean, unless you know something I don’t know. You don’t usually dive right into a federal grant. You have to build up that capacity, and it’s really interesting how we are each able to identify and distinguish the differences in our roles. Yeah, interesting.

Cynthia Rojas 27:07
Yeah. I wonder, maybe we do a follow-up, and we bring on a leader, or we bring on maybe two leaders, and hear their experiences working with consultants. That would be pretty interesting. All right, well almost the time.

Pieta Blakely 27:29
closing thoughts

Cynthia Rojas 27: 30
Yeah. I think, that clarity on what the product is, is really important so that you can manage your expectations. And make sure that you offer a plan to internalize the new learnings, so that it doesn’t go away with the consultants.

Pieta Blakely 27: 51
Yeah, and that’s an important thing to be able to articulate to the consultants, so, what are we going to be able to do, we’re going to hand this off to us. How about you, Rebecca.

Rebecca Tuttle 28:05
Well, you know, it is a significant investment in hiring a consultant and there may be a couple of rounds of discussions as to whether this is the right fit. So, being patient, as the consultant, and free with the information that the client needs to make that informed decision is really important. I also, though, want to push organizations to let them know that it is okay to take that risk, and the struggle that you feel right now. I think, you said it to me one time, Cynthia. “

That’s a struggle today, but it doesn’t mean it’s a struggle forever.” How did you put that when you were talking about that? You talked to me one time about, something that’s present now. That if you just bring this resolve, make this investment, then you won’t have that later. You’ll be better equipped later, so take care
and invest in a consultant and interview a couple of them.

Pieta Blakely 29:04
Yeah. I think, one thing we’ve made clear is, you’re going to talk to this person a lot and they’re going to engage with a lot of your staff. They are potentially going to train people, to run the systems that they’ve implemented, so you should like them. Now, you’re going to be in a sprint meeting with them frequently, or a coaching session, frequently. You’re going to talk to them, frankly, about your organization’s culture. You’re going to be very honest about your organization’s limitations. You’re going to manage through things that don’t go the way you expected, and remember that every single consulting project is happening for the first time ever. It’s probably not going to be perfectly smooth and you’re going to have to negotiate through that, right. So, hire somebody that you you’re going to be comfortable managing through all that with.

Cynthia Rojas 30:07
I love that. We should talk in the next episode that we have about this. We should talk about fit. When did you know it fit? Okay, well, we’re done.

Pieta Blakely 30:18
Have a great weekend, everybody.

Rebecca Tuttle 30:20
Have a great weekend.

Pieta Blakely

About Pieta Blakely

I help mission-based organizations measure their impact so that they can do what they do well. I started my nonprofit career as a teacher in workforce development and adult basic education. It was important work and I was worried that we didn’t really know if we were doing it well. In the process of trying to answer that question, I got a Masters in Education and a PhD in Social Policy, and became an evaluator.

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