Selecting the Right Consultant for Your Club
By Harvey Weiner & Mark Weiner
Partners of Search America®
I can teach anybody how to get what they want out of life. The problem is that I can't find anybody who can tell me what they want. - Mark Twain
Private clubs, from time-to-time, require the services of competent, specialized consultants in a variety of areas: strategic planning, facilities design and renovation, membership marketing, executive search, insurance, membership communications, governance and fundraising. An effective consultant can wear many hats as advisor, diagnostician, or to oversee specific narrowly defined responsibilities on an ad hoc basis. Some firms are one man shops, boutique specialists while others may offer a vast support system. Club leadership must decide which size fits their needs best. Besides delivering particular services a qualified consultant provides the outside, objective, third-party perspective that can prove enlightening, inspiring and challenging to the club’s board and management.
How to choose a consultant
- Determine the extent of a project and that a consultant is required
- Summarize the responsibilities and expectations of the consultant
- Describe the project in outline form and set a schedule
- Research consultants with expertise in this specialty
- Draw up a short list of prospective consultants
- Telephone-screen several prospects, paying particular attention to chemistry, communication skills, and desire to understand your situation
- Request proposals from a variety of firms
- Review and evaluate proposals and check client references
- Select your consultant and commit the project and mutual expectations to a written engagement agreement
A consultative relationship may suffer when all involved don’t share the same understanding of mutual expectations. Meet in person to make certain that all parties share the same vision of what is expected of themselves and each other. Discuss the goals, process to be followed, expectations of communication throughout the project, and the criteria by which each party will know that the project has been successfully accomplished. Identify any potential pitfalls such as conflicts of interest or time. Look for the consultant’s buy-in and passion for your vision.
Maintaining integrity of the process
Sign a mutually binding confidentiality agreement, which can be incorporated within the engagement agreement. Ensure that each director and staff representative is aware of their responsibility to be discreet.
(In any event it is a good idea to have a standing, written conflict of interest and confidentiality policy, which directors must sign upon accepting nomination to the board. Review the policy and adherence thereto, as a routine component of the board's self-evaluation).
Where do we look for good consultants?
Referrals from other clubs are the best source. If you belong to multiple clubs inquire of the leaders who they have used and to describe their experience with their consultant. Contact professional associations; peruse trade publications; search the specialty on the Web, i.e. “private club management search”; ask consultants, whom you’ve used successfully on other projects, who they know that specializes in your particular current need.
Compare the credentials, experience and track record of several firms before making your selection. Even if one consultant seems absolutely perfect for the assignment compare them to at least one other. Then, after conducting your due diligence (references, phone screening, etc) the consultant engaged will come in with a mandate rather than simply your blind trust.
Criteria to look for
A consultant should exhibit professionalism, and other characteristics which you might seek in a professional member of your staff:
- Expertise in the focus of this project
- Years of proven experience with similar projects
- Respected record of success on behalf of other club-clients
- A style that feels comfortable for your working relationship
Considering board members as paid consultants?
The expertise available from experienced, skilled board members is essential to the success of a private club and makes service on the board both fulfilling and mutually rewarding. Engaging a director as a paid consultant, however, raises significant conflict of interest issues. On the other hand, a director who volunteers to function as an unpaid specialist invariably becomes a resentful and frustrated consultant. Then, the board will ultimately lose a previously productive director. There is truth in the saying,”You get what you pay for”. Professional board members can be of immeasurable help in evaluating consultants, particularly in fields with which they have experience.
Weigh the relative importance of the consultant’s credentials with your club’s financial situation while acknowledging that the right consultant can more than pay for himself with results. Ask:
- What experience does the consultant have that indicates expertise in this specific issue?
- Does the consultant understand and share our vision for the successful completion of this project?
- Does s/he understand our objectives?
- What evidence is there that this consultant can finish the project on schedule and within budget?
- Does the consultant ask probing, focused questions?
- Does the consultant care about our club or are we just another fee?
- What do previous client-club leaders say about the consultant?
- What is included (or left out) in the proposed engagement agreement?
What should be included in the written engagement agreement?
- Scope of the project
- Details of the process to be followed (look for thoroughness)
- Documents provided
- Who will actually consult on this project (did someone sell it but others will conduct the engagement)?
- Criteria for success
- Fees, expenses and payment timetable
- Additional services available
Ingredients of a winning relationship between client and consultant
Honesty, candor, trust, mutual respect, open and frequent communication between client and consultant are essential to a productive working relationship, based upon:
- Clearly defined mutual expectations, up front
- Observance, by all parties, of the terms of the engagement agreement
- Respect for agreed-upon process
- Adherence to clearly defined communications expectations
- Regular and frequent reporting of progress
- Follow up by both parties to be sure that goals are being achieved
Harvey and Mark Weiner, two generations of thought leadership in private club management search & consulting, are partners in Search America® , Trusted Advisors Since 1974. Offices: Dallas and Boca Raton 800.977.1784 www.SearchAmericaNow.com © Search America
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