Meristem Land and Science: Driving Progress in Sustainability


2019 Banff Pork Seminar

Four ways to get more value from consultants

Date posted: January 9, 2019

Karen Kerns

Are you consultant ready?

It is a simple question that Karen Kerns says producers should ask themselves. Kerns, CEO of Kerns and Associates was speaking at the 2019 Banff Pork Seminar, Jan. 8 to 10 in Banff, Alta.

"It would be naïve to imagine that any animal production operation could hire comprehensively enough to navigate all political, economic, technological, and economic variables influencing agricultural markets and practices," says Kerns.

Good business given opportunistic times means business beyond boundaries. Integrating consultants into your operation to translate the sea of available information into actionable execution can make the difference between simply performing or exceptionally perfecting.

At the same time, consultants can create as much headache as help. Without the benefit of daily interaction with your team and a long-term experience of your priorities, problems, values, and practices, even the most competent and well-meaning consultant can disrupt operational balance. Common mistakes include introducing change into a system already challenged, imposing an artificial set of solutions or processes based on externally driven assumptions, or focusing on the agendas of individual stakeholders instead of the holistic well-being of the organization.

Four pillars

As business managers interview consultants and assess their value to your operation, they should consider these four pillars underlying a healthy consulting relationship:

Clarity avoids confusion. Conduct an internal assessment that isolates clearly defined problems or opportunities you want to address. Be as specific as possible.

A consultant is only as good as your capacity to use them effectively; if you have not defined operational goals and decision-making processes driving execution strategy, even the best risk management team will fail to protect your operation effectively. The best consultants conduct an operational needs assessment and align needs with targeted outcomes before they charge you a penny.

The cost of "Free". Do not accept consulting because it's free or part of a value-added vendor program. "Free" consulting can cost your organization if it overwhelms your team with conflicting approaches to leadership, technical practices, and product assessment. The "more tools are better" approach confuses rather than empowers.

Beware of a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Some consultants are really marketing their products and services, and, in the process of training, are teaching or driving assumptions that serve their purposes. A primary and perfectly appropriate goal of these types of vendor-sponsored trainings is to build loyalty relationships, but many producers find themselves making decisions based on the "freebies" without completely benchmarking the potential of using a more competitive product or service.

Nothing to lose. While money is received for services, you want to hire consultants who have a higher driving value than "winning the sale." Great consultants avoid pacifying, advocating for, or aligning with specific stakeholders in favor of promoting what is best for the entire operation. These consultants are willing to challenge assumptions, provide alternative perspective, have fierce and clarifying conversations and, if necessary, refuse the consultancy if they feel their client's assessments and goals are inconsistent with what they have assessed will be beneficial for the long term sustainability of the operation and within the realm of what complies with industry practices and standards.

Competitive versus competing. Consultants should have enough confidence in their expertise and execution to avoid the trap of denigrating or undermining competitors, previous work, or existing relationships. Beware the consultant that delivers ultimatums that limit your participation in opportunities that would benefit your operation.

The benchmark of a great consultant is a sense of selflessness when it comes to the client's well-being. That might look like directing a client to a more cost-competitive strategy even it means choosing to incorporate a competing product or stakeholder. You want to maintain relationships with consultants who direct you to and attract beneficial relationships and opportunities.

"Finally, great leaders value their integrity and relationships more than money," says Kerns. "We do not expect consultants to be perfect. In fact some of the best consultants are those who make mistakes and attempt to repair them. But, if you're inviting someone into your business family, choose someone you would welcome as an in-law, not someone whose reputation and practices would be better characterized as an out-law."