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How To Tell If A Consultant Is Right For Your Company Culture

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Published:
August 21, 2020
Reading Time:
10 minutes
Lynn Hunt
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

How to tell if a consultant is right for your company culture? That sounds like a trick question. Why is that? Well, sometimes it’s your company culture that needs fixing, so finding the right consultant for the current culture might be a dismal failure. Alternatively, the consultant who is right for you might be right exactly because his or her culture is so different to yours.

Having said that, finding the best consultant for your needs is important and asking about culture fit is a legitimate question. Research is showing that when culture is aligned with strategic and operational priorities it is a source of energy and motivation. When culture is used as a lever, it is far more effective at achieving change than formal processes and programs.

So let’s start by defining company culture and how to assess it and then move on to some ideas about how to find the best consultant.

What is Company Culture?

Peter Drucker famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." You may have the best strategy in the world, but if your culture doesn't support it, you will fail. Likewise, a consultant who attempts any kind of major change without really understanding the company culture is doomed to failure.

Organizational culture is the set of knowledge, practices, norms and beliefs that make up the social and psychological environment of a business. It includes values, rules and rituals that shape the attitudes and behaviors of employees. You might call it the personality of the organization.

Culture is the pattern of behavior that determines “how things are done around here”. Decision making, rewards and promotions all reflect the culture. It influences people’s attitudes and how they behave at work. The impact is particularly evident in how people act in difficult situations, how they handle pressure and challenges, and how they treat customers, partners and each other. As Brian Chesky, Co-Founder and CEO of Airbnb has said, “The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.”

Of course, the opposite is also true. If the culture is strong but toxic, we might be assured of everybody doing the wrong thing!

Organizational culture is not static. It is particularly sensitive to the moods of leaders and is driven by their actions – not their words. A written vision and list of values is not enough. They must be demonstrated in behavior and action. People may not be able to describe accurately what the culture is, but they know what they are experiencing.

It’s important to remember that while there might be some universal values, there is no single correct culture. Your culture is driven partly by who you are and partly by what you do. You also cannot change a culture as if it were an operating system. The skill is to identify the components that provide an advantage to your company and those that act as brakes.

“The stronger the culture, the less corporate process a company needs. When the culture is strong, you can trust everyone to do the right thing.” - Brian Chesky, Co-founder and CEO, Airbnb

Assessing Company Culture

If you want to find the right consultant for your culture, it will help both of you to know what that culture is.

The traditional way of measuring is via employee surveys and questionnaires. They can be unreliable and are, at best, just a snapshot of an organization that is evolving. However, these surveys can give you a very good pulse check. This is important at the start of an intervention and should be repeated every few months to measure progress against the changes you want to bring about.

The assessment tool is really important. If you want a general overview of your organization, a generic tool can be helpful. However, if you have a particular goal in mind – for example you are wanting to introduce some changes that will make your organization more agile and innovative – then add dimensions such as risk aversion, customer focus and siloed mindsets, or develop a questionnaire specifically around them.

There are various techniques to use – the quickest and most popular now being online surveys. It is also helpful to have employees do self-assessments of required behaviors, and 360 evaluations of peers and managers.

A very interesting way of assessing culture, and particularly how employees feel about it, is to use a double questionnaire. Ask employees to select the characteristics of their organization as they perceive them now, and then present the same lists for them to select what they would prefer. The comparisons give a surprisingly clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses.

In essence, it might be true to say that assessments are the foundation upon which change is built. You have some understanding of the territory, you can clarify expectations, define what success will look like and align leaders.

Ideally, a consultant should identify the best elements of the company culture and use them to drive change. At the same time, a deliberate plan should be drawn up to ensure the development of new behaviors that will support the change you want.

Identifying the Best Consultant

This brings us back to our opening question: How do you find the right consultant for your culture?

Finding a top consultant is a bit like hiring a top employee. Someone who fits into your way of doing things will work well with people in your organization. A good consultant will adapt his or her behaviors to achieve this, knowing that those who work well together are more likely also to offer and accept opinions, feedback and constructive criticism. If employees are comfortable with the consultant, it is easier to introduce new ideas and ways of working, even if the ideas themselves cause discomfort. Conversely, a consultant who upsets everyone will be met with resistance and disruption.

find the right consultant, How To Tell If A Consultant Is Right For Your Company Culture

One of the ways to evaluate consultants is to note whether they have taken the trouble to find out what your culture is. They can do this by analyzing what you have on your website and in your corporate reports, look for social media comments, ask about culture surveys or ask probing questions. When they bid for the work, they can show some understanding of who you are. In their presentations, they can make the links between the technical or operational changes you want and the behaviors that will support them.

Likewise, you can be quite deliberate about identifying consultants’ views on and approach to culture. This means going beyond asking just about what they can do or have done in the past, to asking how they did it. It’s helpful to find out about the organizations they have worked with, where they were most effective and why. Check their CVs to identify their preferred methodologies and approaches.

Where to Find the Best Consultants

Some projects are best handled by large consulting companies, with a long track record. However, some of even the largest companies concentrate on certain sectors. So, there might be a large consulting company that is more right for you than others.

The online consulting marketplace has made the process of finding the right match so much easier. An online search will find top consultants with the right skill sets or experience base. Then you can do a more in-depth analysis for culture fit.

Some consulting platforms go an extra step and do part of the search for you. A platform such as Consultport is very well aware of the need for fit. So, they pre-screen both clients and consultants, keeping both technical skill and culture in mind. They then give you a shortlist to consider. You are thus very likely to find the right consultant for your project.

How to tell if a consultant is right for your company culture?

So maybe it wasn’t a trick question after all. Culture fit is important. That doesn’t mean that the consultant must agree with you on everything or even leave your culture unchanged.

You will know that you have found the right consultant if the relationship is challenging but comfortable and the intervention addresses your problem without disrupting the entire business and antagonizing your workforce.