Years ago, I took over command of a company that was in rocky shape. And on my first day in this new role, I found something interesting in the top drawer of my new desk: reports. Three detailed, extensive reports from experts who had been contracted to assess areas of improvement for the business.
My predecessor had been forced to bring in these experts by his superiors, and then he chose to stuff those reports in the drawer, close it, pay the bill, and call it a day. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t astonished that his desk was now my desk.
That was my first glimpse into a fairly standard practice in the business world: the timeless pursuit of contracting experts to give new insights. And whether it’s a consultant or a subject matter expert or anyone else, it’s important in these situations to think of the reason that you brought someone in to look at the situation and give their assessment.
Maybe your boss said that you needed to contract a consultant, or maybe you’re a go-getter and really wanted fresh eyes on the situation. Or, if we’re being honest, maybe you just wanted to pay someone to tell you that you’re doing everything right and that nothing else needs to be done.
Judging by where my predecessor left his reports, it seems safe to say that his motivations were a combination of pressure from above and wanting someone to tell him he was doing a great job. The motivation doesn’t matter much unless you are willing to actually listen to what they say.
That’s why I decided to read over the reports and call the author of the one I that intrigued me the most. It had been awhile since they’d come in to audit the place, so I asked them to come back in to see what, if anything, had changed since their last visit.
Gentle reader, you will be shocked to know that not one single thing had changed since they gave my predecessor that 40-page report. Eager to make positive changes, but less eager to read a novella at work, I asked the consultant to boil down for me what I really needed to know out of that 40 pages of information. And after some back and forth, we ground that down to 15 clear-cut, actionable items.
When I took those 15 items to my team, we talked about why they didn’t want to do certain items, which ones they’d already tried in the past, etc. So we went through to see which items would do the most for our organization, then ranked them that way. Then we ranked them by what they’d cost us to implement.
We started doing that on a weekly basis, and every week we’d discuss how each item was advancing. And after a few months, sure, some of the ideas hadn’t worked out, but on the whole those 15 items made a big difference on our operation: our revenues were up, and our margins along with them.
We didn’t end up executing all 15 items, let alone all 40 pages, but the items we did accomplish made large, sweeping changes for the better throughout our organization. And while that was the beginning of my love affair with the outside expert, it was far from my only encounter.
In fact, I exist on both sides of this relationship now that I’m contracted as a managing consultant for businesses and also bring people in to share their insights on my own organizations. From living through both sides of this experience, I can safely say: I get it.
It’s not always fun to have someone come in and tell you what you’re doing wrong. It’s easy to get your hackles up and say that you know what you’re doing. But none of us know what we’re doing 100% of the time; for the best of us, the 51% of what we do that we understand is enough to carry us through the 49% that we’re just guessing on.
My advice is not to blindly trust anyone claiming to be an expert. Vet them, check their history, do whatever it takes for you to find someone whose advice you can trust in. I recommend finding someone who doesn’t just tell you what you need to do—anyone can tell a business “you need to sell more” or “you need better advertising.” Go with someone who will tell you how to get there, not just where to go.
But once you have someone that you’re confident can help you, you have to listen to them. Don’t just shove the reports in a drawer, or you may quickly find someone else sitting at your desk.