Monday, April 21, 2008

So You Need A Consultant

Consultants are like a bit like members of the opposite sex, you can’t live with ‘em and you can’t live without ‘em, at least so it seems. As important as they are to our business lives there is a dark side to engaging with consultants, especially those you do not already have familiarity with and trust in. Possibly the biggest gripe is that some are excellent “bait and switch” artists. Their proposal and client management teams are sophisticated, smooth, and excellent at their jobs, which is to sell you services. But they aren’t going to be the ones actually doing the work. When you get the call telling you that a new Account Manager is being assigned, or see inexperienced faces working on your project, then you may have reason to be concerned. But, not all consultant experiences are like that, and most of the responsibility for a successful consultant relationship lies with guess who? You guessed it, you hold the key. The question is, how do you avoid falling into a trap like the one described above?

Lock in the team. When interviewing consulting firms require that they bring all proposed team members to the meetings. The initial one or two meetings will be focused on top level marketing and you should expect to see only senior representatives on the other side of the table. But when you take the conversation to the next level you should be insisting that the “in the trenches” people be present and that they be the prime contributors to the meeting. That way you can judge their strength of personality, how their style aligns with yours, and their depth of knowledge. Make it clear to the marketing team that this front line engagement during the proposal and evaluation process is mandatory. Once you have accepted the team members include a contractual commitment that they remain on your project with any changes to the team being at your sole discretion.

Check references thoroughly. Naturally you are only going to be given references that are expected to provide positive responses. Again, the burden is on you to drill for the information you really need. Script the most important questions and use them as a staring point. Ask probing and open ended questions. Ask about the same issue from different perspectives. I like to get as much as I can from the contact person I’ve been referred to, then ask to speak with a person one or two levels down who has direct experience with the consultant. This allows me to get multiple points of feedback from the same engagement. And, lower level staff are more likely to have worked with the people really doing the work. This tactic helps especially when the consultant’s senior team has developed a very collegial relationship with the senior client.

Conduct a thorough analysis. As with all projects defining requirements is the very first step. Doing so allows you to structure interviews and reference checks so that you get the most valuable information from them. Weighting, scoring, and ranking prospective consultants on each success criteria will give you a good breakdown for thoughtful comparison. Two key recommendations in this phase are to 1) include multiple people from the customer side in the interviews, and 2) be careful to protect your objectivity. You will find that different people have different responses to the personalities being presented, and some will pick up on nuances that others are not attuned to. By letting involved staff participate in this information gathering and analysis portion of the selection process you also begin to build acceptance throughout the team. Secondly, be aware of the great seduction of getting too close to one consultant too soon. Maintain your objectivity throughout and politely sidestep offers of perks during the pre-selection phase. While there is likely no quid pro quo in accepting them, doing so sends a very dangerous signal. Many organizations have hard rules against even small gratuities for exactly this reason. It is better to err on the side of caution and be squeaky clean than to be clean but have to explain how.

Align communication needs and styles. A big part of the personal interview process is understanding how you and the consultant will communicate. Make sure communication styles are aligned and if not, agree on protocols that will meet the needs of both. Just like hiring a new employee, you will want to know if they prefer communicating (both giving and receiving) concepts or detail. If the communication styles of partners at each level are not aligned, then craft processes and agreements that will overcome the mis-matches.

Formalize performance expectations. Put performance measures and deliverables in hard form in the contract and stipulate rewards and penalties as appropriate. Don’t trust a handshake agreement with someone who may not be there a month from now. Decide what is important to you and lock it in. Consultants will expect you to require a portion of their fee be at risk should they miss key deliverables. Make sure you do and that these expectations are crystal clear.

Check your SOX. In today’s environment “compliance” has a whole new meaning. Start by making sure that the consultant’s business is in compliance and then make sure that your own processes and decision path are fully vetted and clean. Craft exit clauses in the event of a significant compliance issue (either direct or indirect) that may hamper the consultant’s ability to perform services or make partnership with them difficult to support in the marketplace.

The fact is that we depend a lot upon consultants, and most of them are good at what they do. Your responsibility is to make certain that you get what you need from them in the manner and time you need it, and to assure that the relationship remains balanced. Doing so will create a win-win for you and the consultant.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Leading In Tough Times – The Tactical Side

Last week I talked about the traits leaders need to exhibit during tough economic times. This week the subject is tactical – what can you actually do to hold and improve your position? Here are a few obvious but still important tactics for your consideration.

Strengthen key relationships. Focus on those that are most important and most secure. Work on them to make sure they stay that way against temptations to switch to a lower cost alternative. Provide value proactively to demonstrate you are looking out for their best interests as well as your own. And remember, your customers expect you to know and understand their business. Do you?

Focus on your brand. Sharpen your message and sell it internally and externally. Use the moment to remind everyone of who and what you really are, how you add value and protect their interests. Renew attention to vision and mission statements and use them to focus all strategies and activities. Define your ‘true north” and do not deviate from it.

Be unique. Too often the response of an industry to a challenge is too homogenous. When all the players are moving in one direction at one speed then opportunities are marginalized. Evaluate yourself against your competitors and look for ways to separate yourself from the crowd. Where is it you can offer unique value, make yourself more visible, stand out against the crowd? Define yourself as a unique asset in the market – do something different, better, faster. The market will be watching.

Take care of your talent. Even in good times four out of ten employees are looking for jobs. That number increases significantly in times like this when employees are concerned about economic stability. Everyone wants a safety net close at hand. Take advantage by identifying your key talent and securing them well into the future by offering them retention incentives. It will secure them in your organization, ease their mind and therefore help ease stress in the office overall, and is likely less expensive than overcoming an employment offer and certainly less expensive than replacing them.

Use the urgency to rethink and retool processes. Now is a good time to select key processes, those that are most important to your success and offer the most opportunity for improvement. Use process redesign to build teamwork and optimism, and to simplify and lean operations. Insist that process teams prove the outcome with measurable improvements to time, cost, quality, and customer satisfaction. Keep the pace upbeat, don’t allow projects to linger. Show results, celebrate them, and move on to the next.

Get the basics right. Take advantage of the opportunity to think hard about what you (and your people) actually do. Are you doing the right things? What tasks can be shed in favor of increasing time spent on high value activities? Next, are you doing them right? Where have you become lazy or lost focus? What basics do you need to emphasize to your staff? Most staff will appreciate this return to basics and it helps send the message that times are different.

Listen to your customers. The time and cost of replacing lost customers makes retaining them a top priority, especially when price competition is heating up. Connecting with them during difficult times is critically important. I am not talking about simply having a good relationship management program. That may be a good thing to do but it will not overcome their need to gain increased value for their investment. You can provide that value and solidify the link with your customer by making their voice heard throughout your organization. Customer satisfaction surveys that are targeted to specific services, staff incentives based on customer feedback, and service response to customer concerns are all good ways to increase customer focus.

Monday, April 7, 2008

What Kind of Leader Do You Need to Be Right Now?

It is easy to lead when everything is going well. In times like that managers who are stable, conscientious, and reliable will keep the ship headed in the right direction, but probably at a slow pace. Difficult times, however, call for a different kind of leadership. The same manager who kept you on course before will run the ship aground more often than not in troubled waters. In case you haven’t noticed, these are difficult times in the Real Estate world. Year over year performance forecasts show 2008 delivering a 10%-14% decline over 2007 and project a further 7%-11% drop in 2009 before beginning to recover in 2010. GDP growth is very slow, unemployment is up, overall real estate transaction volume is expected to decline by 20%-30% or greater, depending on market segment.

So, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to lead? If leadership guides the helm then leaders are responsible for what got us here, and for what will get us out. Great leaders know how to adapt their styles to changing conditions. The conditions of the moment require leadership that rises to the occasion, is decisive, and bold.

It is always a Vision thing. Remember, the vision of your organization is its unifying theme. If it has become clouded and you don’t feel everyone has the same goals and purpose in sight, then start re-energizing the vision. Sell it over and over. Mobilize around it and test everything you do against it. Any new initiative either supports the vision or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t then it gets no discussion, period.

Model the behavior you expect of others. Employees want to see behavior that they know exemplifies the best. They want to see leaders engaged, focused, and on point. They will follow those who demonstrate intelligence, energy, and commitment to what is right. Being this visible, however, is a challenge for some leaders. They want to maintain a nonplussed fa├žade when what is really needed is boldness. Get up out of your leather seat, be visible, set the agenda, and lead!

Demand the same of staff. All of us are tempted in uncertain times to become more conservative. And, in some cases a conservative strategy is the right strategy. But strategy is one thing, performance another. Staff who are either uncertain of themselves or unwilling to take responsibility are not ones that will contribute to solutions and help create success. It is a hard thing to do, but hard times put a premium on performance. One of a leader’s key responsibilities is to provide staff with appropriate skill development tools and other opportunities, and to see that those who demonstrate increased value as a result are rewarded. Those who choose to hunker down until the storm blows over may be making themselves painfully visible in an unfortunate way.

Be accountable, always. Ownership is a wonderful thing, especially if you are proud of what you own. And you ‘own’ your accountability and its impact on the organization around you. Don’t want your staff being indecisive? Then don’t be. Don’t want your staff pointing fingers when mistakes are made? Then take responsibility for your own.

Next week I will share a few tactical opportunities that present themselves in tough business times. For now, however, spend some time looking in the mirror. Is your vision focused, are you demonstrating the kind of behavior that will generate success and demanding the same of others, and is you accountability quotient as high as it should be? Focus on first things first, we’ll get to the tactical next week.