Is Your HR Consultant Telling You What You Want to Hear?

Is Your HR Consultant Telling You What You Want to Hear?

By Audra August, Principal, Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions & Larry Ross, Partner, Amrop Knightsbridge Executive Search


Congratulations, HR executive. You have just finished deploying a major initiative. Working hand-in-hand with a top human capital consultant, it was delivered on time and on budget with absolutely no slips or missteps. It was flawless.

However, after some congratulatory pats on the back, doubt begins to creep in. You start to think about the things you would have done differently. However, all you can remember is your consultant greeting you with grins and nods every time you floated an idea.

Now you’re asking yourself, ‘Did my consultant just tell me what I wanted to hear?’

In the human capital space, far too many consultants have succeeded by employing a ‘path of least resistance’ strategy: no matter what the idea or strategy or decision, the consultant nods in approval. And rarely do they challenge a client.

Among many consultants, the path of least resistance is also viewed as the path to a long, lucrative engagement. That is not, however, good value for the client organization, and may ultimately prove damaging for the person who initiated the work.

Effective human capital initiatives require the consultant and client to work closely together to test preconceived notions and challenge conventional wisdom. Only through a rigorous process of assessing and questioning the progress of any major initiative can you be sure it achieves optimal results.

Although this is a fairly simple concept, it can be extremely difficult to achieve. Many organizations do not invite criticism from their consultants. In this context, the consultant becomes an enabler, encouraging their clients to go forth without fear of critical review. Many long-term engagements between organizations and human capital consultants feature a co-dependency on platitudes and a resistance to thinking critically about an engagement’s path.

How can you ensure you’re not establishing a long-term relationship with a bunch of yes-men and women? The solution requires an organization to be more demanding, both of itself and of its consultants

Selecting a consultant: the keyword is alignment. Most organizations looking for a human capital consultant will typically consider two criteria: price point and proven expertise. Few organizations look at the consulting firm’s values and culture, which could prove problematic if the consulting firm has a much different approach to human capital management. Good human capital consultants operate as trusted advisors. This relationship is very difficult to achieve if they embrace a completely foreign philosophy.

Prior to the engagement: build a foundation for feedback and dialogue. Every organization starts with high expectations when launching a human capital initiative. Whether you’re recruiting top talent or working to improve leadership capacity, it’s best to set the bar high. A good consultant will, however, work with your organization to ensure that expectations are realistic.

The consultant can only be successful in this endeavor if the organization itself is open to adjusting their expectations. There must be a commitment from the senior-most levels of the organization to listen to and learn from that constructive commentary. Unfortunately, it is not unusual to find that HR executives charged with delivering an initiative are reluctant, even afraid, to report problems back up the chain of command. If there is no audience among senior leadership for constructive dialogue, then even the best consultants will be unable to provide full value during their engagement.

During the engagement: embrace change, don’t fear it. If the relationship between organization and consultant has started well – with a full, objective review of project expectations – the foundation should have been laid for a constructive, ongoing exchange. Good consultants are constantly testing strategies and approaches to ensure the initiative is achieving its goals. If the context changes or issue arise, a true and trusted advisor should have the courage to start the tough conversations.

Post-engagement: the long good-bye. A good consultant understands the work is not over when the project finishes. Exhaustive testing and assessment should ensure the desired goals and results were, in fact, achieved. Bad consultants fear this part of the engagement because they know that once someone starts to measure outcomes, questions about value will arise. Far too few consultants realize that the best way to build a long-term engagement is to validate that the work they performed actually achieved most of the desired goals.

A healthy client-consultant relationship is a classic two-way street where there is a commitment by both parties to be honest, challenge pre-conceived notions and at all time, focus on the best interests of the organization. For the organization, this ensures human capital initiatives achieve optimal results. For the consultant, it means creating the best chance for a rewarding, long-term relationship. These are the conditions that turn “engagements” into “true partnerships.” 

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