As Interims, Using a Consultant Wisely is Hard Work

Dr. Susan Henking
Former Registry Interim President
Salem College (Winston-Salem, North Carolina)




As Interims, we enter campuses, technically, as consultants. And, as experienced leaders in higher education, we know that over recent decades, campus landscapes have expanded to include a wider array of consultant work. Yes, it has been true since the late 19th century (at least) that legislators and professional associations as wide ranging as the AAUP and NCAA have shaped campuses. And, it has been the case for a very long time that campuses have outsourced areas of work – including, on residential campuses, food service and groundskeeping.

Yet, in some ways, recent decades might be described as the age of the consultant. Today, as always, fiscal responsibility means using the consultant budget line wisely. This may be even more true now, in the era of COVID. How we do such facilitate other consultants’ work on campuses is part of our interim leadership.

Just as is true with every hire, bringing in a consultant or consulting firm can benefit from some significant prior reflection that moves beyond the basics (e.g., writing an RFP, referencing and background checks).  Spending time on questions such as those listed below can strengthen the impact campuses can derive from consultants. Helping institutions understand this is part of what we do.

  • Whose expertise matters? Consultants are often tapped because campus or Board seeks expertise they do not have, sometimes expertise only required on specific occasions. Traps to avoid in this context include: (a) believing everything the consultant says and dismissing hard won internal expertise; (b) substituting your expertise (whether anecdote or internet research) for that of the consultant; or (c) using consultants merely to confirm existing assumptions or plans. Of course, this is entangled with decisions about the usefulness of consultants who are “within industry” and know higher education and/or your particular sector of higher education versus infusing higher education with the expertise of other sectors. To be inside the box – or outside the box – requires knowing which box is under consideration and having a reasonably full understanding of that box itself. Put another way, asking whose expertise and which expertise means considering whose perspective is or might be missing that would be useful to hear.
  • Is campus hiring consultants to be extra hands? Campuses and Boards sometimes bring consultants on when understaffed and in need of help for the heavy lifting. Risks and benefits to consider include ensuring you bring in consultants who understand your staffing limitations and that you comprehend what resources the consultant will need to succeed. Asking yourself whether you have the personnel to staff the consultant is key. Sometimes, hiring the low bid that means providing extensive internal support can be costly. Likewise, reflecting on whether you temporarily need extra hands in particular areas or need those hands for the long haul is crucial.
  • Is the campus hiring for something other than expertise or extra hands? For example, are they seeking to build trust by getting an outside perspective on your work? Can buy in be accomplished through use of consultants? Alternatively, is the work episodic and not needed often so external expertise is appropriate? Or, do the consultants bring data or information to the table that is proprietary? All of these are reasons to consider consultants – and worth thinking about in detail at the outset. Asking why one is turning to a consultant means moving beyond the habit of expending the consultant line and being intentional.
  • Who do you hire? Beyond practical matters such as contract and cost as well as the purpose of the consultation, there are other questions worth considering. Two are critical:
    • Is the campus better off with consultants who already know you – or is a new perspective useful? Each has its advantages. We have all known Boards to hire firms to which trustees are connected, with significant positive – and negative – consequences. Repeated use of the same consultant can limit the time the firm needs to come up to speed – or limit the breadth of perspective they bring, turning the consultant into a quasi-insider. Ensuring a thorough (and inclusive of constituents) review of prior engagements can be critical. A consultant with terrific reviews from one party and unrecognized negative reviews from another constituency will face challenges meeting your expectations. Hence, good post mortems matter!
    • Does the consultant or the firm meet the campus’s cultural and value expectations? Here, matters of mission and diversity/equity and inclusion are critical. Both the demographic characteristics of your consultants and the ways in which consultants are deployed will be seen as an expression of your values – and the campus’s as well.
  • Is the campus (its constituent parts) a good client? Having a good sense of oneself as a client means reflecting on past engagements and learning from them. And, it means asking a whole range of questions that can help a campus be a better client. For example, does the campus regularly allow scope creep and what is the consequence of this for those engaged to work with you? Are expectations of availability and speed consonant with the recognition that you are not the consultant or the firm’s sole client? Is communication with the firm or consultant clear and consistent in terms of whose voices matter? Or, are the various constituencies – and the consultant – unclear about whose voice takes priority? Do invoices get paid on time? Put another way, when reflecting on the last consultants campus hired – whether successful together or not – was the firm’s feedback on your team and your institution as a client included? And, does your campus remember that consultants are people too?

What this all boils down to is that no one wants to hear that all-too-frequent complaint that the dollars spent on a consultant were wasted. To ensure effective use of that budget lines means we all need to do the hard work of partnership.

Strategic deployment of consultants – needs to be just that – strategic – and situated in a comprehensive understanding of the institutions’ current and future needs -both mission and financial. And, as importantly, everyone needs to know:

The end of the hired consultancy is not the end of the work.



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