Consultant woes? How to get things back on track

If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that my recent blog posts have been all about how you and your nonprofit can work effectively with consultants. If you’re new here or missed those posts, you may want to check them out here (#1), here (#2) , and here (#3) .

Today, let’s talk about what to do when things get off track with your consultant. Because let’s be honest, no consultant or consulting engagement has been, or ever will be, completely perfect.

So, when you’re starting to get frustrated with your consultant, or you feel a more subtle sense of “things could be going better here,” follow these 4 simple steps to get things back on track...

1 - Talk about it before there’s a problem

When you first start working with a consultant, I suggest you hold a 60-minute kickoff meeting to lay the groundwork for a strong client-consultant relationship. As part of that conversation, it’s important to ask each other, “Hey, how are we going to bring things up to each other if/when either one of us is feeling unsure or frustrated about how things are going?”

When I have this conversation with my clients, we often agree:

  • Straight-forward and honest communications are the way to go. If either one of us isn’t happy with how things are going, we give each other permission to raise any issues candidly and honestly. We all know these conversations aren’t comfortable or easy, and by agreeing to this open line of communications up front, you’ll feel more supported when the time comes to confront an issue. You can start the conversation by saying, “Hey, remember when we agreed up front to have honest conversations with each other? Well, I need to have one of those conversations with you now...”
  • Regular check-in conversations will keep us on track. We schedule a standing, recurring (bi-weekly or monthly) meeting where we talk about how things are going with our work relationship and with our project. The structure of this meeting will provide you with another support for raising any concerns with your consultant and talking through what needs to happen to keep or get things back on track.

If you’re already working with a consultant and didn’t have this conversation up front, don't worry! It’s never too late to redesign your relationship and agree that this is the way you'd like to work together going forward.

2 - Get clear about what you want to be different

Before you jump into a conversation with your consultant (yes, that’s the next step…), take some time to get clear about what you want to see change as a result. Ask yourself:

  • What am I not happy about? Is there a specific behavior (e.g. missed deadlines) or work product (e.g. how a meeting was facilitated) that hasn’t met my expectations?
  • What are our agreed-upon project outcomes? Where am I concerned that we may not be on track to achieve these together?
  • Looking ahead, what do I want to see change? If I imagine being 100% confident in and pleased with the work we’re doing together, what would look differently than it does now?
  • What, specifically, would I like for our consultant to do differently?

Once you’ve reflected on these questions, boil your thoughts down to 1-3 key messages that you want to convey to your consultant. First, write them down without any concern for how they’ll be perceived (don’t worry, you’ll edit the statements later). This will help you to get crystal clear about what’s true for you and what’s at the core of what you’d like to communicate. Then, rewrite the messages, so that they are delivered with the tone and intention that reflects your relationship with your consultant and the situation at hand. You may want to practice the conversation with a trusted friend, colleague, or coach, so that you can hear their feedback and burn through some of the anxiety that you may feel about having the conversation.

3 - Have the conversation

Yup, time to put on your big girl/boy pants and have the conversation with your consultant. Before doing so, reconnect to the purpose of the work you’re doing together. Remind yourself why it’s important to your nonprofit that this project be a success, and know that you’re acting in service of your clients and your mission.

During the conversation, stay focused on delivering your key messages, while also remaining open and listening to what your consultant has to say in response. Once you’ve come to an agreement on what will change going forward, make sure you schedule another conversation so that you can ...

4 - Check back in

Has your conversation resulted in the changes that you wanted to see from your consultant? At this follow-up conversation, continue to communicate openly and honestly with your consultant about your partnership and the work that he or she is doing for your nonprofit. Acknowledge and thank your consultant for the things that you’ve seen change for the better, and address any remaining issues or new concerns. If you didn’t previously set up a regular, recurring check-in meeting with your consultant, this is a good opportunity to put something on the calendar for every 2-4 weeks.

If you’re doing your part to communicate honestly and hold your consultant accountable, yet you continue to be frustrated and disappointed with his or her work, then it may be time to part ways. If you think it’s come to this point, look back at your contract terms to determine what next steps you need to take to terminate the relationship and minimize the risk to your organization.

Now, over to you!

In the comments section below, feel free to share any sticky consultant situations that you could use help navigating. I promise to respond to any of your comments with my take on the situation and next steps you might consider. Thanks for reading and sharing!


PS - In the final blog post of this series, I’ll share tips for how you can work with your consultant to create results that will be sustained long after your contract wraps up. See you then!