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How to hire an independent consultant

Vikrant Duggal
Vikrant Duggal
• 7 min read

My name is Vik Duggal. I've been an independent consultant since 2017. I've taught people how to build their independent consulting practices since 2018. I live a great life.


Here's the problem

“Hiring a freelancer, contractor, consultant, or advisor is complicated.” - @vikdug

In this essay I explore why hiring an independent professional is challenging and the areas focus to effectively recruit, onboard, and collaborate with an independent consultant to achieve your desired outcome, or objective.

Michael Fulwiler, a marketing consultant in the mental health space, sees the need for this as well. He says:

Shouldn’t we as consultants make it not complicated to hire us?

There is a misconception for Founders and executives who hire independent consultants. The great independent consultants have a deep desire to improve the client condition.

My objective for you is to achieve your highest potential with the least amount of friction as possible. Unfortunately hiring someone, especially an independent professional, is hard and often doesn’t achieve the full potential for you, the client.

In this essay I plan to cover the following topics related to the challenge of hiring an independent consultant:

Contents

  • Why does this problem exist?
  • Your need and the decision tree
  • Type of independent professional to hire
  • Finding help
  • The importance of rapport
  • Good signs if a consultant does this
  • Ownership of the relationship

Why does this problem exist?

It has to do with one of two reasons being true.

  1. The client doesn't know what success looks like
  2. The independent consultant doesn’t have their methods buttoned up

While it must be to be one of the two, often times both are true. Let’s tackle these two reasons before I explain.

The client doesn’t know what success looks like

You, client (a Founder, or business owner), are looking for help to achieve a desired outcome. You need to be clear on your outcome and have the ability to communicate this vision clearly, OR you know both the outcome and can explain how to do it.

Jason Evanish, a product consultant and founder of Lighthouse, has hired consultants for a lot of things. He recommends:

Know what you actually want and need: What is the problem you need solved?

More often than not this vision is clear in your head, but when communicated to others doesn't come out as clear.

Even if you are clear on your vision, you may still end up hiring the wrong person. This is all buy guaranteed if you struggle to connect key results to objective (if you use an OKR framework), or connect tasks/action to vision.

There are times when you have the luxury of experimentation and desire and will to figure it out. Yet, there are times where you do not have the time. Either way, in my 20 years of working with large corporates and small businesses, every great manager or leader always prefers the cheat codes to a problem and love to collaborate with great thought partners.

If you don't know what success looks like your best bet is to hire an independent consultant (as opposed to a freelancer, contractor, or advisor).

As Vince Concepcion, a supply chain and logistics consultant, says:

Make your vision clear up front to the independent professional. He/she has to understand what the company's North Star is in order to be effective.
Independents can come in with their own biases and ways of working that don't align with the company.

But, what should you look for in an independent consultant? Read on.

The independent consultant doesn’t have their methods buttoned up

Most experts are great athletes. They can do the function, they can achieve the objective. It’s why the W-2 role exists. You only have to know how to run the ball. Very very few W-2 employees have codified how they work (in reality they don't think to do it; with competing priorities they don't have the time to do it).

While they may know the “how”, there is a second part that consultants must be great at: coaching. Most consultants do not have their methods buttoned up. They may not select clients well, or know how to conduct an amazing kick-off, seek for areas of opportunity for growth during the engagement, know when they can no longer provide the value the client needs.

Your desire as the client is to find an independent consultant who is a great athlete and coach. While this is a terrible role as a W-2 (you just don't see a lot of player coaches, even at the manager level), it’s the ideal role as an independent consultant.

I encourage you, the client to:

  • get clear on your objective, problems, and the oppoortunity
  • improve your communication skills (e.g. hiring someone like Robbie Crabtree can be of help)
  • get referrals to any consultants (the best ones will help you get connected to the best ones that can best help you)

I encourage consultants to:

  • help your client get clear on their objective, problems, and opportunity
  • ask powerful questions that help the client get to clarity fast
  • be honest if you can, or cannot help

The remainder of this essay is for those looking to hire consultants.

Your need and the decision tree

Before you go hiring anyone be clear on the need. Either you have a clear pain point, or a clear opportunity. You are either clearly trying to avoid something, or working toward something.

Going into a conversation with anyone you are looking to hire without a clear idea of what you need is only poor form if you don’t plan to be honest about what’s going on. How can someone help if they don’t know what's going on?

Note: From time to time I’m on a call (as an independent consultant) where someone will say, “I think I’m early”, they won’t answer questions, or they’ll say my favorite line, “there’s no problem.” I keep those calls to no more than 15 minutes. Let’s just save everyone some time.

Some questions for you, as the client, to think about:

If I could wave a magic wand what would I ideally accomplish?

  • What’s keeping me up at night?
  • What metrics am I tracking? Where do I want to see improvement?
  • Where am I looking to free up my time? What goals do I have for someone who would take this over for me?
  • What do I wish were already working by now, but isn’t?

Armed with your need, the decision tree becomes very simple for you

  1. Do you have a problem? (If yes, proceed)
  2. Do you want to solve this problem on your own, or do you want help? (If you want help, proceed)
  3. Do you want the help of the consultant you’re talking to, or someone else?

Jason Evanish says:

When interviewing solve for what the consultant’s super power is and make sure that’s a good power to apply to solving your problem.

Type of professional to hire

While the independent professional triangle framework can be of help here, there are four options that you have:

  • Advisor
  • Independent Consultant
  • Contractor
  • Freelancer

If you are clear on the problem, the strategy, and are looking for executional help then go contractor or freelancer. Ideally these two groups will represent people that have specific skills, can take clear direction, and deliver on the specific task or project you want complete.

If you are need of wisdom and connections hire an advisor.

If you’re clear or unclear on the outcome, but want the cheat codes to getting there faster, hire an independent consultant.

However, if you are in any way vague on communicating your vision, or could be wrong about the task, or project connecting to your objective then you will not get what you desire (and will likely end up blaming the individual your hire for the poor outcome).

Let me explain by analogy. You (client) want to build a house. You hire an architect (contractor) to design your house. You tell them exactly how the design should be. They complete the design and the house is built. You move in and are unhappy with it. Why? Because you directed the architect with the exact “things you thought were right”, but didn’t consider your outcome, or end result.

Finding help

When looking for an independent consultant where do you start? Start the same place the best consultants start to look for business: your network.

Armed with your outcome, put your ask out and get connected to the best people.

The importance of rapport

We’ll talk about what you should look for in an independent consultant, but liking who you hire is absolutely important. Trust, likability, and how you’ll collaborate matter a lot.

Let your intuition be your guide on this one.

Good signs if a consultant does this

Observe how the consultant engages with you.

Do they make scheduling easy? Are they prepared for the initial calls? Do they show up to your first call able to match your energy? Are they honest about where they can help and can’t?

I tell my clients there are two ways of doing things: the easy way, or the hard way. Being open and honest is the easy way.

But, I realize that is not always possible, for a number of reasons.

Here are some questions I love to see consultants ask:

  • What is the condition you wish to improve?
  • What would you ideally like to accomplish?
  • If you achieve your outcome how will this better serve your customer?
  • If you achieve your outcome how will this better serve you (and your team)?
  • What’s keeping you up at night?
  • What key metrics do you track?

For your part, as the clientw, be sure there is equal time for you to ask questions of them.

This may be more important than anything I’ll write on this topic: you want a consultant who makes it easy for you to not proceed. As a buyer, you don’t want to be sold. So don’t be.

Let’s turn our attention to the engagement and investment.

I have only been a fan of a long engagement when benefits both the independent consultant and the client. I recommend an engagement where you agree to a phase one, with an option to proceed to subsequent phases. I always suggest a way for both parties to easily exit the partnership.

I suggest you agree on a retainer structure with the consultant.

My structure has been retainer plus equity since 2018.

Ownership of the relationship

The majority of projects that haven’t worked out in my experience tend to be either hiring a jack of all trades when you needed a specialist, or hiring someone who isn’t THE BEST at the thing you need most.

Whichever way you go the best scenario is where both parties take ownership of the relationship. I realize, however, as the client, you have competing prioritize so test to see if the independent consultant can take ownership and control.

After all the best independent consultants improve the condition of the client.

If you found this essay helpful please pass it along to someone you think it could serve.

Consulting