The Key to Getting the Most from your Leadership Consultant

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If you’re an experienced leader in an organization, I bet you have at least one story about engaging an external consultant and not getting exactly what you’d hoped for. In all likelihood, the consultant didn’t think the engagement was a perfect experience either. What’s more is that there are too few situations whereby the client and consultant have real conversations about what they wish had happened differently. Did you know reviewing the successes, failures, and processes of completed projects is one of the least under-utilized leadership and management tactics?


The world of leadership consulting is no different. It could probably be argued that the world of leadership consulting is even more challenging because the outcomes, by their very nature, are not easily evaluated. How do you decide what an effective deliverable is? You got the workshop that you paid for, but did you get the workshop that you wanted? On the consultant’s end, there are three key mistakes that are the common culprits that negatively impact the quality of service, and they are as follows: 


  • Entering into short notice contracts (also known as “SOS Distress Calls”) with clients they have not worked with previously;
  • Over-commitment (taking on more clients than they have capacity for); and
  • Agreeing to a significant commitment outside their area of expertise and therefore underestimating the amount of time needed to prepare.


As the client, you have no control over these things. These first two challenges come down to the integrity of the consultant in terms of their willingness to turn down the work. The third one can be managed, but it’s still the consultant’s responsibility to make effective projections and set appropriate expectations with the client (more experienced consultants have this problem less often). On the other hand, there are also three realities that position you and a consultant to have the best relationship possible. 


Reality 1:

  • Find and build a relationship with a leadership consultant before you need one and for a long term engagement. Essentially, you want a consultant that you can work with for more than retreats and special events. This kind of relationship demands a front-end investment of time to find the right match. When you choose a consultant in a rush, it’s a stressful experience for everyone. You’re stressed out because you don’t know the person and you’re unsure if they really understand your needs. Your team is likely to feel unsafe. And the consultant is also stressed because they don’t know you and probably aren’t 100% certain that you two are on the same page.
  • Think through your ideal relationship with a consultant and talk through your vision of success. Together, you can talk about what it takes for that specific consultant to help you get there. In most cases, there is no specific way to get there. You have to look for what resonates with you about that consultant and their approach alongside your time and resource constraints. 
  • Think of your relationship with the consultant as a partners/resource for you and your team. You get a reprieve from being responsible for planning for all of the leadership development needs of your team on top of your regular work and the entire team gets a facilitator who will help shepherd you all through difficult conversations and hold you accountable. 
  • Be frank around money. You want a balance between expertise, the frequency of engagement, and not being terrified of opening files entitled “invoice”. If you can articulate your goals and needs, you can find a win-win. 
  • If the prospective consultant won’t have 2 – 3 free exploratory conversations with you, think about what that tells you.


Reality 2: 

  • Choose someone you respect and trust because you are going to have to “go first” in terms of disclosing your motive for seeking a consultant, your goals for the relationship, and the dynamics of both your team and the organization. 
  • Talk explicitly about confidentiality in terms of the organization’s brand. This conversation should address non-disclosure agreements and even whether you’re willing to give letters of recommendation and references. 
  • Create rapport-building opportunities for your staff members to spend time with the consultant because they need to build a relationship with the person too. Confidentiality must be addressed here as well: employees need to know what to expect and feel safe if they are going to fully engage.


Reality 3: 

  • Accept that engaging a leadership consultant means more work relative to communication, conflict, and calibration.
    • Communication 
      • Ask about the methods and tools the consultant will use to glean information from your team. Discuss how they will control the flow of information so that you’ll have greater confidence in how well they understand your confidentiality concerns and because it will help participating staff members feel safer by setting expectations.
      • After every team engagement, leaders should require a debrief because it gives the leader an opportunity to process what took place. It also gives the consultant an opportunity to provide feedback and to affirm that the process is proceeding in the manner that you want.
    • Conflict
      • The consultant’s role is to hold up a mirror, to ask tough questions, and to  point out inconsistencies and counter-productive practices and behaviors. Final decisions always belong to you. 
      • Work to adopt a positive perspective on conflict. The more integrated the consultant becomes with your team, the safer people will feel, which will give rise to airing conflict. YOU WANT THAT! The opportunity to hear team members’ real perspectives is a tremendous gift to you, the other members of the team, and the overall organizational. Research tells us that employees usually know when a project is going to be over budget or not meet scheduling deadlines, but that they say nothing because the organization’s culture makes them concerned that they will experience varying forms of backlash. 
    • Calibration
      • Every engagement should end with a conversation about what was agreed upon, next steps, and what it means to monitor progress. After a meeting has ended and the team has agreed upon next steps, the leader should not entertain new suggestions on those items UNLESS the information is absolutely critical and/or  was unknown at the time of the engagement. The leader’s refusal to undo what the team has committed teaches resistant individuals that they must be team players and come to the game, if they want to be heard. It also reinforces the perception of the leaders’ commitment total team alignment.


Working with a leadership consultant should not be a burdensome experience. If you don’t view the relationship as one of trust and that adds all around value, figure out why. Sometimes, it is the consultant; sometimes, it’s you. Whatever you do, don’t spend the money until you do the front-end work. 

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