How to find and keep the best consulting professionals in your procurement practice
Former Managing Director at Xoomworks and Consulting Director at SAIC, Nic Hutchins explains how to not only hire, but retain, the right consulting talent for your practice.
When looking to recruit a consultant, how can a consulting practice leader take steps to ensure they are attracting the right talent for their business?
As a practice leader, you may have an initial specification for the role, but you will still need to work hand in glove with the recruiter to fully flesh out that specification. Take advice from the recruiter; this is their specialism after all. Too often practice leaders make the mistake of just telling the recruiter what they want, which will cause unnecessary complications and waste a lot of time.
Spend as much time recruiting the recruiter as you would a candidate. Once you’ve got the right recruitment partner your probability for success is much higher, so take the time to find a recruiter that really understands your industry and the value that you deliver to your clients.
To attract the right talent, the practice leader or the managing director of the business must take a very specific and active part in the interview process. If you’re hiring a senior consultant, make sure that other people in your business are carrying out the interviews to check for essential skills: technical competence, professional skills, their ability to present etc. Once this process is over, the practice leader can carry out a final interview.
In this final interview, the practice leader isn’t there to check that the candidate has the right skills for the job; that’s already been done. There should be only one question the practice leader will ask: What questions do you have of me? You can tell an awful lot about the calibre of the candidate from the questions that they ask. A good candidate will ask about your vision for the business, and where you are taking the business over the next three to five years.
It’s important for the practice leader to recognise that in the final interview, they are in selling mode, not buying mode. The candidate has got to that stage because the recruiter has headhunted the right person and they’ve successfully passed through the interview process; you know by this point that you’ve found the right talent so you need to be able to close the deal. Be sure to articulate your vision for the business and ask the candidate how they would contribute to that vision.
Social interaction with your team members is an important element of the interview process. Arrange your interviews for either late in the morning or late in the afternoon; it can then be followed up with going out for lunch or a drink in the evening. Get the candidates to meet as many members of the consulting team as possible; you want them to meet their peer group, to see how they will interact. Getting that cultural fit is key; if you don’t get that right you’re going to have to re-hire in a short amount of time.
How would you utilise the recruitment industry to access professionals beyond your network?
For a successful search with a strong retention rate I would recommend bringing a specialist recruiter on board, and for more senior roles they should really be a headhunter on a retained basis, as they will target the best talent for the position regardless of whether that person is actively looking to move company.
If you’re looking at the cost and wondering if it’s worth hiring a specialist, consider your own business. You wouldn’t expect your clients to retain a generalist consultant to deliver the specialist work that you do, so why would you use a generalist recruiter? They won’t target the right candidates and the candidates won’t understand the role. If you are going to potentially retain a recruiter to find procurement consultants, test the recruiters first. I guarantee you that the majority of non-specialist recruiters won’t pass the first question.
Always ask the recruiter for their advice and opinion; treat them as a partner. If you treat them as a partner you’re setting yourself up for a successful process; if you treat them as a supplier then you won’t truly benefit from their expertise and you’ll set yourself up for failure.
A major concern for CEOs or practice leaders when recruiting is that they ultimately hire the wrong consultant for the role. How would you minimise this risk during the recruitment process?
You’re a consultant; you do what any decent consultant does and you build a risk mitigation plan. What are the potential failure points and what are the risks you are likely to experience in this recruitment process? You need to plan against each of those risks and know how to prevent them from happening. That to me is a guiding principle: using consulting common sense, and taking the time to be prepared.
It’s important to have a good technical assessment process; you need to be able to assess a candidate’s professional skills, their presentation skills, can they think on their feet? For more senior roles you should carry out psychometric assessments. You also need to make sure the candidates meet the team, and as I’ve previously mentioned, do it both in the workplace and socially. In the case of many of the most successful candidates I’ve recruited, once all the technical processes were completed I would meet them outside the office in a social environment. This taught me a lot about whether they would fit culturally within the business.
Once a consulting professional has been hired, what steps can a company take to retain and nurture that person?
Always remember that this person is a human being. If you’re to retain someone in the business for a long period of time, you need to make sure you’re leading them rather than managing them. Have you taken the time to really understand what makes that individual tick? Be aware of how they’re feeling about life: their working environment, their colleagues, life outside of work. You need to understand who they are if you’re to support them.
Regular follow ups, especially in the early days of hiring someone, is so important. Ensure you have development plans in place and regular review periods around goals that have been set. Regardless of how big the business is, you need a mentoring program in place, with regular meetings that feed back into personal development plans.
This is of course general housekeeping; I would go well beyond that and ensure they are integrated into the social fabric of the company. Some time ago I was working for a company where I spent a lot of time away on site, and the only time I remembered who I was working for was when I received a pay cheque at the end of the month. During that period I felt that I was so disconnected from the business that it didn’t matter who I worked for. When the project came to an end I chose to leave the business; I was not invested enough to stay.
To me retention is the most important thing for a managing director to think about. You put so much effort into hiring the right person, and if you just watch the day rate coming in without caring too much about the individual, you’re going to lose them. If they are out on site, go and visit them. It doesn’t need to be every week, you can do it every quarter or ad hoc, but you must make that contact otherwise you can’t lead them; you can’t lead from behind a desk. Make yourself available.
This comes back to the human element. Everyone fails. We all fail, all the time; hopefully we succeed more than we fail, but what matters is how you manage the individual’s energy when they do fail. You may think that the consultant is succeeding, but they might be feeling completely different; they may be losing confidence. If you don’t engage with them, talk to them, ask them questions, how will you know?
Bad leaders of a consulting practice focus on the day rate and spreadsheets; good leaders focus on the people and how to energise them. If you’re going to retain you need to lead, and don’t forget that ultimately, it’s your problem, not theirs.