While on vacation in the Outer Banks I noticed that the small remote villages south of Nags Head have a tremendous amount of infrastructure - roads, water towers, houses, commercial property, etc. – given their small populations. I wondered who from these villages built all this stuff. The villages don’t have the resources or expertise locally to design and create everything, so people and companies from outside of the villages must have been brought in.

Many organizations – whether they are villages or businesses – are faced with this scenario. When projects come along that requires skills, education, or manpower beyond what the business can provide then additional human resources can be brought in to assist. This is the basis of consulting. Consultants provide the extra brainpower and manpower needed.

Many businesses resist hiring consultants and instead try to solve the problems themselves. When a project is outside of a business’s mission and capabilities, trying to do it in-house means attempting to grow the experience needed. Without having that capability to begin with, trying to grow it can be expensive and time consuming. Also, without knowing any better, going it alone will likely result in heading off in the wrong direction from the get-go, leading to future course corrections that are expensive and time consuming. Even if successful, the business may suffer without the benefits of the project for months or years while trying to create the new capabilities needed.

For projects that require skills beyond those of the business, or if a task is performed so infrequently that no one has retained the skills needed, hiring a consultant can often make a lot of financial and business sense. It’s true that consultants are more expensive than your average employee, but there are many reasons for that. Consultants are experts in their field, with past experience on multiple projects similar to yours. Over time they’ve acquired best practices across many industries and functions, and can introduce new skills and knowledge obtained from other clients and industries.

With the skill sets needed, a consultant can hit the ground running. And their fresh perspective to your business will provide a catalyst for change. Since they are new to your business and projects, good consultants will ask many questions and challenge status quos that may have been set long ago by your staff for less than meritorious reasons. Corporate culture and internal politics often result in businesses making less than ideal decisions. This is rarely a factor for consultants because they’ve been brought in by senior management and are laser focused on the assigned task with a prescribed desired outcome. Consultants have the freedom to analyze multiple options and recommend the best solution in a neutral way so that the recommendation can be based solely on its merits.

What should you look for in a consultant?

Certainly a consultant needs the skill set required to address the problem. If you need a network installed then hire an IT consultant. For a software project, hire a software consultant. For a water tower, hire a civil engineering firm with the necessary experience. You also want a consultant with excellent managerial and leadership skills. After all, they will be not only the technical experts that will design and implement solutions to your problems, but will likely be influencing decisions made by your business going forward.

If you only need a couple of hours or days of help then maybe a freelancer (a person working on the side, in addition to their day job) may be in order. They’re economical and there’s little commitment on your part. But beware, freelancers may not be available during working hours and will likely focus only on the technical aspects of the project leaving the managerial and leadership aspects to someone else (like you). For larger or more important projects, consider hiring a consulting company. There are likely many in the region that have the skills needed, or if necessary, hire from outside the region. Besides the skill set and ability to lead, make sure individual consultant’s personalities are compatible with your organization, yet are strong enough to be objective in the face of political pressure.

There are times for consultants and there are times when you don’t need them. As senior management of your business, it’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons of each option. Just be sure that you’re aware of all the real and opportunity costs of going it alone versus hiring a consultant.