As lockdowns ease, consultants are still valuable, but use them in different ways

UCT GSB's Tim London says leaders must avoid returning to the old ways of doing business post-lockdown.

I started outlining this piece a few months ago and was going to delve into the proper balancing of external expertise (consultants) with internal expertise (existing employees). While I will get back to that piece down the line, the radical impacts of the stay-at-home orders and lockdown rules around the world made it logical to shift the focus to the more immediate needs facing organisational leaders. 

For those organisations lucky and savvy enough to survive the current economic meltdown, the upcoming loosening of government-imposed lockdowns is forcing leaders to consider how to reopen their doors in ways that are more likely to help them see out the forthcoming global depression.

While there are obviously no silver bullets to solve all of the challenges facing leaders in this environment, there are some key considerations that will apply across many different sectors and organisation types as leaders plan their next moves. In future pieces I will get into more of these, but for now I’d like to focus on a relatively slight, but impactful, change in the use of consultants. Smart leaders planning their next steps post-lockdown are going to need to fundamentally change the manner in which consultants are utilised in three key ways.

Getting back to your core, not “back to normal”

The most common urge in dealing with a crisis is to focus on “getting back to normal” or “business as usual”. The disruption and uncertainty that crises bring are inherently upsetting, and the idea of returning back to day-to-day practices we’re familiar with is comforting. The current pandemic and economic crises, however, demand that we do not return to practices from 2019, as many will simply be impracticable moving forward. So, while new practices will need to be developed (discussed in the next section), of utmost priority is focusing on the organisation’s purpose (why it exists in the first place).

While this may seem like a luxury with so many technical and practical issues to address in reopening, this crisis is a chance to deeply examine not just all of the moving pieces of your organisation, but why they exist in the first place. While consultants are often brought in to help make existing processes more efficient, a skilled consultant can actually work with you to start from scratch since the “old” economy is not the one you’ll be reopening into after lockdown. 

A good investment in consultants here would entail them working with you and your leadership team to re-evaluate your organisation’s purpose, which helps to establish the priorities for reopening. Even if why your organisation exists has remained the same, a good evaluation will clarify which previous practices need to stay or go. Given the scale of the current crisis, you may find that your organisation’s purpose has actually changed; these changes need to be reflected in new ways of working. Either way, working with a skilled consultant at this stage will not be about finding efficiencies in old practices, but about fundamentally reimagining what a “new normal” will be.

Reimagining how you do what you do

While there is little positive to celebrate in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, one small opportunity that emerges for leaders is the chance to make changes to practices that didn’t work pre-2020, but were exceedingly difficult to uproot due to habit and organisational inertia. Just in the last two months, there have been plenty of examples around the world of organisations significantly shifting their business model and/or creating previously unimaginable partnerships to better prepare themselves for the “new normal” that’s emerging. 

This does mean, however, that much of the expertise of some consultants has dissipated, as their selling point was a deep knowledge of past practices in a specific industry or practical area; as the realities we work in turn on their head in many ways, leaders of reopening organisations need to prioritise consultants who are able to rigorously interrogate emerging trends and work with leaders to translate new realities into new practices. 

A consultant’s analysis of the changing conditions (local economy, customer expectations, larger trends, etc.) can then help your team to make crucial decisions regarding what practices to keep, which to change, and which to create; what types of roles need to be reinstated or created; which people (in terms of skill sets, perspectives, and are best suited to help the organisation reopen; and what forms your organisational structures might take. 

Given the incredibly dynamic environment, leaders may find that old-fashioned approaches to determining which consultants to bring on board (many years of experience in a specific practical area, advanced degrees in a narrow discipline, extensive use of a particular methodology, etc.) may offer limited returns. If nothing else, now is the time to evaluate just what types of external talent you want to work with during and after this crisis: it may be that you need a different type of consultant now, or it may mean that the people stay the same but their remit changes.

Consultants not just as contractors, but “building contractors”

Finally, one of the common approaches in tough economic times is to hire consultants as contractors since it is easier to move on from them if they do not work out or if needs rapidly change. One serious mistake that leaders make in these circumstances is not ensuring the expertise of the contractor is utilised to build capacity within the organisation before they leave. While this is a critique of how talent is used (and not) in organisations at any time, the current crisis demands an emphasis on a new approach. 

For leaders, this means ensuring that you are proactively building into the remit of any short-term hire an expectation that they will not just “do the job”, but also build skills capacity (for other colleagues), contribute to organisational design (to help systems keep up with changing realities), and create a supportive culture (which is essential in times of high stress). While you may have the urge to just find the person with the longest track record in a technical area, neglecting these other needs can mean that the short-term fix seriously hampers longer-term sustainability.

At the end of 2019, part of my research for a hotel chain showed that they should start preparing for a decrease in international visitors, a significant change in customer expectations, and a need to be more focused on social and environmental impacts in their practices. While those seem prescient now, I had not predicted the suddenness and scale of these realities, nor that a global pandemic would be the driver of these changes. I make the point here because while there are some things that may seem familiar even in our new, post-crisis environment, leaders will need to avoid the trap of falling back into old, outdated habits in their organisations. In particular, how they leverage consultants to rethink and redesign for what’s next, rather than what’s past, will be a key determinant of success in the coming months and years.