Consultants can be angels, not demons

Paid advisors don’t deserve their bad reputation.

Some things never go out of fashion. It’s long been popular in corporate America to bash paid advisors for borrowing your watch to tell you the time. The stereotype is that bought-in consultants produce beautiful slide decks that lead only to inertia and inaction. Yet the prejudice is frequently baseless. There are times when hiring an outsider can foster superior results for you as a leader.

When you lack solutions for challenging problems

Amid today’s great uncertainty, it’s impossible for anyone to have experience with every potential challenge. Getting smart advice from someone who has been there before can reduce the risks of making mistakes and accelerate a resolution. If the situation is strategically critical, ‘winging it’ isn’t wise.

When you face multifaceted issues

Strategist Richard Rumelt refers to many of his clients’ problems as ‘gnarly’. They are complex and multidimensional. Resolving some of the tensions exacerbates others. They require sensemaking. In the throes of a gnarly situation, it is often hugely beneficial to discuss the options with someone you can trust.

When political and cultural matters loom large

In any organization involving humans, there are personal issues that often overwhelm logic. An astute advisor can help you anticipate these issues and come up with strategies for navigating them. As one very wise colleague of mine said when warning a client against a course of action, “If you do that, you’re going to hear the click of a trigger, and that’s the last thing you’re going to hear!”

To challenge your assumptions

Humans are terrible at testing their assumptions. Confirmation bias results in our selectively picking evidence that supports our point of view while ignoring data that contradicts it. Recency bias leads us to forget the lessons learned from past experiences. A trusted advisor can be a devil’s advocate and a sounding board.

To find the truth

The reality of becoming a senior leader is that it can be incredibly difficult to find out what is really going on – especially if the reality is uncomfortable to discuss. It’s natural – people want to please powerful leaders. As one recently appointed chief executive told me, “The new job is great! My wisdom is profound; my jokes funnier; and I think I’ve grown taller!”

The dilemma here, as noted in my book Seeing Around Corners, is that this can lead to very dangerous blind spots in which you miss the weak signals of important developments.

Someone who doesn’t depend on you for their livelihood and who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth can be invaluable. Public service announcement: the consultant who is depending on you to authorize the next assignment for their firm is unlikely to perform this vital service.

For personal support

The old saw “it’s lonely at the top” has quite a bit of truth to it. In uncertain situations, leaders need to be able to project confidence, generate enthusiasm and mobilize people. But does that mean they don’t feel scared, uncertain and lonely, themselves? Of course not.

To temporarily augment critical capabilities

In transformations and major transitions, such as mergers, you may need ‘wartime’ help that isn’t necessary under business-as-usual circumstances. In such cases, you’ll want to get through the change as systematically and quickly as possible. Often the best way to do that is to temporarily hire specialized talent.

Where do you find them?

In my experience, ironically, valuable advisors are unlikely to be soliciting you for business. I’d recommend cross-examining your network of contacts to see who might fit the bill. Sometimes your guardian angel is hidden in plain sight.

Rita Gunther McGrath is professor of management at Columbia Business School.