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When to Hire an Independent Consultant

You've come to terms with the fact that there are some key skill sets missing at your organization and you need additional support. In the past, you've often struggled to determine when it made the most sense to hire a full-time employee versus a consulting firm versus an independent consultant. And you're not alone. 

Many businesses today are choosing between these options to manage new initiatives or overcome specific challenges. While some organizations jump to the conclusion that they need a full-time resource, others are quick to hire a consulting firm, which can come with a hefty price tag and longer timelines. 

Before going in either of these directions, consider the following scenarios where an independent consultant is likely best for your business:

  1. Project-specific situations where you have a clearly defined problem to solve and don’t have the right skill set or experience in-house 
  2. Instances where you need someone hyper-focused on the project or initiative, ready to hit the ground running, with less concern about future sales
  3. The final solution needs to be owned and delivered by your organization, but a consultant with specialized expertise can make sure it crosses the finish line

In this post, we’ll cover each of these specific scenarios and why an independent consultant is likely the right fit. 

[downloadable-content title="10 Tips to Get the Most out of Your Independent Consultant"]

1. Hire an Independent Consultant When There is a Clearly Defined Project

If the work you need to be done is role-based and ongoing, then hire a permanent resource. For example, if the challenge you’re facing comes up often and needs regular management, you probably want an internal function to address it. 

On the other hand, a traditional consulting firm is helpful when the problem you’re facing calls for large-scale problem-solving capabilities. Sometimes a hurdle requires access to proprietary knowledge, or assistance is needed during significant transitions. For example, when layoffs are being proposed, that recommendation is going to carry more weight coming from a brand like McKinsey. 

If a particular skill set is required for a defined amount of time to support business decisions, then you should seriously consider an independent consultant. Good examples are project managers to lead new implementations or a change management expert to guide cultural shifts. 

Before you hire a consultant, make sure you've answered these key questions to ensure that there is alignment around the project goals and objectives. 

  • What is the problem?
  • What is the outcome we are looking for?
  • What are the timelines?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What are the constraints?
  • Why can’t you do it yourself?

2. Hire an Independent Consultant When Speed and Focus are Critical

It’s a very real part of doing business with traditional consulting firms that they also need to balance their projects, structure, and business development goals with yours. For example, many large firms are known to “land and expand”, which means they are seeking opportunities to work with other departments in your company and make new connections to win new contracts. These kinds of relationships are great, except when you need someone to come in quickly and focus exclusively on your project goals. 

When it comes to full-time employees, hiring a permanent resource can be a long process. It requires a lot of effort to recruit the right person, and even more time for them to move over from their previous job, integrate into the organization, and begin to add value. 

Hiring permanent team members can be efficient over the long term, but it’s not a good short-term play if your issues are time-sensitive. If you have immediate needs, your best bet is to look for an independent consultant. They can often make themselves available quickly and won’t take very much time to get up to speed. 

Small to midsize companies, in particular, need experts to get in and get moving. There’s less time to onboard and make accommodations for cultural fit. Hiring an independent consultant is the smartest route when you need someone ready to dig in and won’t require much hand-holding to create forward motion. 

Independent consultants also tend to come with a combination of consulting and real-world experience. That means they know how to navigate most environments in order to get things done. They understand that you have a problem to solve, and their goal is to solve it as quickly as possible. They’re unlikely to overstay their welcome and will add value fast. 

3. Hire an Independent Consultant When a Deliverable Solution is Desired

It’s important to remember that the right solution is not always perfect on paper, but it does always solve the problem. That requires engagement and buy-in from all key stakeholders in your organization. 

A key advantage of working with independent consultants is that many have worked both in-house and in consulting roles and are experienced in achieving these buy-ins. They can help you to engage with the right people at the right time—while also bringing in new ideas, analysis of evidence, and fresh perspectives

To give you more context: consider that in traditional consulting firms, the senior team who manages the client relationship is typically composed of functional specialists, but the team on the ground who delivers the work may not be. Internal stakeholders can quickly lose confidence in less-experienced or junior consultants. Furthermore, keep in mind that large firms are likely to have a long list of clients, and one project failure is less likely to be damaging to them. 

On the other hand, with permanent employees, the focus on big initiatives tends to shift over time. Many clients say that when it comes to large-scale projects, after a year or two, lots of work has been done, but the scope has expanded and objectives may have shifted from a clear initial brief. Even with the right resources and best intentions in place, priorities change and the real goal is never really achieved. 

Independent consultants trade on their reputation. That means it’s in their best interest to have clients who are highly satisfied with their work and the final deliverable. They want to produce a lasting solution and support specific goals as efficiently and strategically as possible. 

Trust is Key When Hiring a Consultant 

If you consider hiring an independent consultant, the element that’s most important to your collaboration is trust. According to Gallup research: 

“Trust is the linchpin of a partnership. With trust, both people can concentrate on their separate responsibilities, confident the other person will come through. In a good collaboration, 87% of partners agree or strongly agree that they trust each other.  In a poor partnership, 50% strongly disagree.” 

To achieve that trust when selecting an independent consultant, meet the people who will actually be doing the work (not just senior project leaders) and find out the following: 

  • Are their motivations for doing the project aligned with yours?
  • Are their measures of success aligned with yours?
  • Are they genuinely excited to be working with you, and are you excited to be working with them?

Additionally, it’s essential to recognize your own role in achieving a successful project. If you work closely with the consultant and give them your time, access, and support as required, they will repay you with a great outcome that you can implement successfully.