It would be naïve to imagine any animal production operation could hire comprehensively enough to navigate all political, economic, technological and economic variables influencing agricultural markets and practices. Good business, given opportunistic times, means business beyond boundaries. Integrating consultants into your operation to translate the sea of available information into actionable execution can potentially make the difference between simply performing or exceptionally perfecting.
Headache or help
At the same time, consultants can create as much headache as they do help. Without the benefit of daily interaction with your team and the long-term experience of your priorities, problems, values and practices, even the most competent and well-meaning consultant can disrupt operational balance. Common mistakes can include introducing change into a system already challenged, imposing an artificial set of solutions or processes based on externally driven assumptions, or focusing on the agendas of individual stakeholders instead of the holistic well-being of the organization.
As you interview consultants and assess their value to your operation, consider these four pillars underlying a healthy consulting relationship.
1. Clarity avoids confusion
Before choosing a consultant, conduct an internal assessment that isolates clearly defined problems or opportunities you want to address and be as specific as possible. For example, if you have a problem with employee performance, hone in on the source. Leadership consulting focused on employee motivation is entirely different from organizational development consulting that provides missing infrastructure and direction. On a more technical note, if you find yourself struggling with risk management decisions, spend some time determining if this is due to a lack of internal clarity around decision metrics and indicators for execution, or a lack of market information and data. Consultants are only as good as your capacity to use them effectively. If you have not defined operational goals and decision-making processes driving execution strategy, even an excellent risk management team will fail to protect your operation effectively. Access to your operation should come with a set of operating instructions; otherwise, it’s too easy for a consultant to go rogue. The best consultants conduct an operational needs assessment and align needs with targeted outcomes before they charge you a penny.
2. The cost of free
Be wary of consulting because it’s free or part of a value-added vendor program.
“Free” consulting can cost your organization if it overwhelms your team with conflicting approaches to leadership, technical practices and product assessment. The “more tools are better” approach confuses rather than empowers. Seven habits, DISC and StrengthsFinder choose the best fit and deepen rather than confuse the practice with competing information.
Beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Some consultants are actually marketing their products and services, and, in the process of training, are teaching or driving assumptions that serve their purposes. A primary and appropriate goal of these types of vendor-sponsored trainings is to build loyalty relationships, but many producers find themselves making decisions based on the freebies without completely benchmarking the potential of using a more competitive product or service.
3. Nothing to lose
While money is received for services, you want to hire consultants who have a higher driving value than winning the sale. Great consultants avoid pacifying, advocating for or aligning with specific stakeholders in favor of promoting what is best for the entire operation. These consultants are willing to challenge assumptions, provide alternative perspective, initiate fierce and clarifying conversations, and, if necessary, refuse the consultancy if they feel their client’s goals are inconsistent with what they have assessed will be beneficial for the long-term sustainability of the operation and within the realm of what complies with industry practices and standards. Has your consultant passed the temptation test? When interviewing consultants, consider posing the following: Tell me about your operational values and associated practices. Tell me about situations where you worked with an operation where values and behaviors were inconsistent with your own.
4. Competitive vs. competing
My husband always says, “When you own the cow, you can give away the milk for free.”
Consultants should have enough confidence in their expertise and execution to avoid the trap of denigrating or undermining competitors, previous work or existing relationships. Beware the consultant who delivers ultimatums limiting your participation in opportunities that would benefit your operation.
The benchmark of a great consultant is a sense of selflessness when it comes to the client’s well-being. That might look like directing a client to a more cost-competitive strategy, even it means choosing to incorporate a competing product or stakeholder. It’s the “Miracle on 34th Street” Gimbels-or-Macy’s strategy. The in-house Santa, when asked about a product Gimbels did not have, redirected the customer to his competitor, Macy’s. His role in looking out for the customer first ultimately created an unprecedented customer loyalty and patronage. You want to maintain relationships with consultants who direct you toward beneficial relationships and opportunities.
Trust and integrity
Finally, great leaders value their integrity and relationships more than money. They understand that, while dollars, data and deliverables are metrics of work well done, behaviors and character can take down organizations. Consider Enron, Bernie Madoff or Wayne Pacelle.
We do not expect consultants to be perfect. In fact some of the best consultants are those who make mistakes and attempt to repair them. But, if you’re inviting someone into your business family, choose someone you would welcome as an in-law, not someone whose practices would better characterize them as a rogue out-law.