Seven common mistakes when choosing an advisor – and how to improve your decision making

You want to introduce change but don’t have the resources to deliver the day job as well as transformation.

The solution often lies in interims, contractors and consultants (we’ll call them ‘advisors’). But what common mistakes could you be making when choosing them?

1. Limiting the selection pool
We all like a bit of familiarity and minimising risk. But selecting external advisors only because you might know them, or their organisation is a “big brand” which offers less risk is not a good idea.

Long-term client relationships are fine but on occasion, we have had to tell clients that we are not the right people to solve a particular problem. Not all advisors will be so open, so don’t be afraid to seek new sources regularly.

TIP: Don’t always buy from brands, individuals or even organisations you know – try refreshing 50% of the advice you receive every two years.

2. Not joining up support
Organisations use interims, short-term contractors and consultants, but then don’t coordinate them. A team without shared goals will operate in complete disarray.

For example interims may be paid on a daily rate basis whilst consultants are often paid to deliver an outcome. The interim will be happy to work every day for as long as you want, but the consultant will seek to minimise their time and deliver the outcome quickly. Mixing the two will lead to problems so make sure someone is responsible for coordination.

TIP: Where possible, ensure common terms of engagement for all advisors working on a common project – think about developing a shared incentive.

3. Making the selection decision alone
Test your choice of advisors by canvassing opinion from colleagues who have worked directly or indirectly with them or know about an organisation. Social media and networking options let you do a little digging to get a wider view. You could even ask existing advisors their view (but do take into account potential personal or business prejudices). The aim is to secure advisors with unimpeachable characters and who bring solid experience, so ask around first.

TIP: Asking the opinion of others helps make better decisions and decreases the risk, but consider the individual giving the advice, not simply the organisation they work for.

4. Realising you need external support too late
Most of us aspire to be self reliant but sometimes there’s just too much to do in the time we have available. What has to be delivered, by when? Have you the internal capacity or can you create some? Is there still a gap? Do this before you start a project, not during. The longer you defer decisions to seek help, the harder the job will be.

If that sounds really obvious, you are right. But I’ve lost count how many clients have asked if I can “saddle up and get into town tomorrow”.

TIP: Be realistic and identify clear gaps early.Decide what you can do internally and don’t pay for expensive advice when you should be doing the delivery.

5. Not being clear about what you want to change
Always define the task you want an advisor to tackle. Whilst some change is clear cut (e.g. when advisors are bought in to do something specific and then finish when the task is complete) other projects are less clear (e.g.when advisors are hired to help the organisation assess its current state and suggest change). But in all cases, the clearer you are about what you want, the more likely you are to get it. For simpler projects, set out exactly what you want and when you want it. For less easily defined projects, set out your desired outcome but use milestones to measure progress and success.

TIP: Not being clear about your outcome is THE most common mistake when engaging an advisor. Ask them to summarise your needs back to you in less than 60 seconds.

6. Selecting support that does not challenge you
Selecting ‘yes-people’ is never going to deliver what you want. You want a brave (not reckless) advisor. Cherish the moments your advisor challenges your position or decision. Great advisors should present a range of options you can quickly evaluate, some of which you will like, some you will not. We often help reduce client decisions using a simple RAG-rated, 4-box matrix.

TIP: Try setting out a real life issue that has several contentious outcomes. Ask the advisor to offer a view on the one they would select without offering your own opinion.

7. Not aligning their culture with your own
Understand the culture of your own organisation and source an advisor able to work within
it. If your organisation is fairly easy-going, a consultant who’s extremely task-oriented and humourless probably won’t fit in. Advisors use different ‘styles of intervention’ so learn to spot them. Some advisors are more authoritative (prescriptive, informative or confronting) whilst others are more facilitative (cathartic, catalytic or supportive). Your job is to find someone who will fit well with your culture and who your staff can work with.

TIP: Make sure you understand your organisational culture clearly – present a couple of awkward scenarios related to that culture and use the advisor’s first reaction as a guide to your decision.

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