Hiring a Consultant

Beware the consultant with all the answers. Beware the consultant who agrees with everything you say. Look for someone who helps you explore your assumptions, what you are seeking, and why.

For instance, if you want to raise more money, what will that mean? If you need a strategic plan, what will that plan result in? You may come to the initial conversation having carefully drafted a “Request for Proposal,” eager to post it online, or blast it out to ten consultants. But hold on. Would you use this approach to find a marriage counselor? How about a car mechanic? A realtor? An RFP invites a consultant to sell you.

Of course, you have a strong sense about what you need. You have filters for your search. You know a lot. If you blow this choice, there isn’t another pot of money for a do over. So, yes. There’s a lot riding on it. Precisely because of that, it helps to come to the process with big ears, and an open mind about what your investment in a consultant might mean for your organization.

A consultant is a business investment that yields short and long-term benefits — especially when you aim for those benefits intentionally. For example, any of the following:

  • A sharper story of impact to attract donors and funders;
  • A program strategy that’s easy to track and convey;
  • A strategic lens to analyze how to respond to opportunities;
  • Lower turnover; or
  • More engaged board members.

These upstream benefits solve downstream symptoms.

To do this deeper work, your relationship with your consultant must be more than transactional. You must be allies. This kind of alliance has three basic elements:

  • Connection
  • Mutuality
  • Agreement on the purpose and approach of the work

If there is not a strong connection, stop. If the CEO or Executive Director feels a strong connection with the consultant and the board does not, stop. A relationship with a consultant is fundamentally about trust, which takes time to build. If you don’t start with at least a sense of connection your chances of getting to trust are pretty low.

Connection is easy to spot. Do you feel at ease? Do your ideas flow? Can you be candid? Do you like one another? Does this person listen? No need to overthink. This is a quick yes or no.

Mutuality is not so quick. Mutuality and buy in are linked. If you see your consultant as the savior with all the answers, if she is going to do all the work while you sit back, or if you are interested in tools and tricks, but don’t want to bother your board, or change your approach, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, and setting your consultant up for failure. Save yourself the money and buy a book.

As you work out your agreement, even if you don’t know all you are getting into, as hokey as it may sound, understand you are embarking on a journey together. Along the way, mutuality means supporting one another and working through challenges as a team.

Finally, agreeing on purpose and approach is an essential part of your contracting discussion. This means agreeing on outcomes, milestones, processes. Build this into your written agreement. Surprises are inevitable. By agreeing on your approach from the outset, you can work together to adjust the plan as needed along the way.

So, you’ve hired a consultant! Because your choice is built on a foundation of shared understanding, mutuality, and connection, you created the conditions for success. Even better, you gained a long-term coach and ally. Maybe even a friend.


Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright June 2017

The Initial Consult

“We need to [insert the what] in six months.” Raise revenue? Get people aligned and working together? Grow the organization? Hire the perfect new leader? Cultivate a new partner?

Whatever “the what” is, you’ve really thought about it. You may have lost sleep over it, fought with your board over it. Your conclusions may be infused with history and culture. A lot is going on here.

On our first conversation, I am looking through the tiniest window. You say you need “X,” and in the next breath you might say, “Can you do that?”

So far, I do not believe or disbelieve anything you say. But it is not, is not, is not about all the smart stuff I know. It is about you.

So, I listen – no, not the kind of listening where you talk and I sit there like a bump on a log and repeat back what you said. No.

I ask juicy questions. Then, maybe you go quiet for a second or two, listening in before you begin to respond. Or maybe you don’t miss a beat, and you are off to the races – sharing away. Either way, when you respond, I give you my full attention.

I respond to you. If you tell me about a really tough situation, I will surely tell you that indeed you are not imagining it. It is tough. What you are experiencing is not your fault! Because it isn’t. (Hard to hear, I know. It’s so much easier when there is a clear culprit.)

I ask more questions, such as “What have you already tried?” You are smart. You are resourceful. You are probably calling me after a few hundred times around the block. You have learned lessons and crossed some things off your list. You know your organization best. You have unique insight that no expert has about what will work and what won’t.

As you share, here is what I listen for:

  • What do you care about?
  • What is really making your situation hard right now?
  • What is awesome about you?
  • What do you really want?
  • What might it take to create that?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to talk. I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than swapping stories, frustrations, hopes, dreams and ideas with nonprofit leaders. I share stories of organizations that have faced the exact or similar circumstances as you. I get excited about something you’re dreaming up and offer some tips. By the time we’ve gotten off the call, there is a very good chance, even if we’ve decided not to work with one another, we will be friends.

Honestly, my goal is to open up the conversation. Instead of you calling me with a solution you would like me to implement, or a problem you would like me to solve, we come together to explore what success would look like. When we wrap up, I ask you to send me an email that tells me what success would look like 6 months, 18 months and 3 years from now.

My goal is to combine our brilliance to create something that doesn’t just solve that problem, but changes how you think and work for the long term.

Intrigued? I would be delighted to talk with you.


Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright May 2017

The Listening Difference

To blather on smartly is human; to listen is humane.

When people think of hiring a consultant, they imagine paying for a smart person to get instant answers. Consultants are not cheap, so what could be wrong with that?

When I was a “baby consultant,” I thought of myself as an answer vending machine — insert quarter, out pops smart answer. My clients saw me that way too. Meetings were exhausting. I’d get questions in rapid succession. My smart answers, charts and graphs didn’t actually help anyone.

Now, fourteen years later (an adolescent consultant), I have learned that being helpful means supporting people to find their own answers.

Case in point: You and your teenager are driving to a soccer tournament 45 minutes from home when, for some reason, this normally inscrutable human starts to unload about a problem. Maybe it’s school politics, unrequited love, or a lousy teacher. Whatever it is, there you are in the catbird seat behind the wheel. Next to you – your captive (and soon to be grateful) audience awaits your wise counsel.

You begin:

Step 1: Give advice disguised as questions: “Have you gone to your teacher and told him what you’re going through?”

Step 2: Offer immediate intervention: “Are you kidding? On Monday I’m calling the school to give that teacher a piece of my mind.”

Step 3: Goad and shame: “On Monday, you are going to talk to your teacher, and if you don’t, I will!”

For some reason, the conversation stops, the squeak of the wiper blades whining rhythmically the rest of your otherwise silent car ride.

What does a surly teenager have in common with an organizational leader? Transition and uncertainty come to mind. Change is scary. It brings up anxiety. The first instinct is to make it stop! Fire people. Hire people. Wring hands and worry. Find that expert to banish that anxiety. Enter consultant.

The first thing a good consultant does is listen. She asks great questions that help slow you down to reflect, that tap your wisdom and help you step back a few inches. Questions like these:

  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What would good look like?
  • If you had that, what would that make possible?
  • Constraints aside, what might it take to create that?

As you reflect and share, a good consultant’s mind is not wandering off to “What smart thing am I going to say as soon as he stops talking.” She is paying attention, and listening for the following:

  • What are you saying and what are you really saying?
  • What does your “what’s wrong” reveal about your values?
  • What is underneath your “make this anxiety go away” questions and worries?
  • What are your strengths and how might we build on those?

Sharing your deepest worries and your big dreams with a consultant feels risky. Does she get me/us/it? Does she know stuff? Will this information stay confidential? Is she a spy?

A good consultant knows that the most important condition needed for working well together is trust. Trust that the consultant truly understands. She has walked in your shoes and not just read about your reality in a book. Her values and yours are aligned. She thinks we have a chance. She likes dogs.

Final word to the wise—beware the guru consultant who has arrived at listening Shambalah — you never arrive. Listening is a lifelong practice.

What difference has listening made in your life? Any stories you can share? Questions? Comments? I’m all ears.


Andrea John-Smith is listener in chief at Scout Finch Consulting.

Andrea helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright May 2017