HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
As a head of school, I am increasingly dependent on short-term consultants for one of the following reasons: they are more affordable than permanent staff; funders often agree to the short-term hiring of an expert but will not fund a permanent hire; the board of directors believes that this is the best possible course of action. As a result, I am working with consultants in the areas of curriculum development, servicing special needs students, and technology.
I value the expertise that consultants bring to the table, but how do I maximize the benefits to the school? How can I convey the particular culture and context of our school that may preclude certain approaches without sounding defensive? How can I overcome the resistance of staff to what they perceive as “outsiders taking over”? How do I sustain the changes or improvements once the consultants have left?
While it may be little consolation, many nonprofit organizations, including schools, are increasingly engaging outside consultants. They are hired because they have very specific expertise, and knowledge and experience stemming from diverse sources. In short, they know their subjects both deeply and broadly. Most often, these consultants are engaged to make recommendations in one precise area; sometimes they are brought in to help resolve a fundamental difference in opinion among varied lay and professional leaders; moving a very special project forward is another reason to call in an outside expert. And while many of us often repeat the adage, “A consultant is someone who lives 50 miles away,” the truth is that there is a great deal of benefit to be derived from consultants, as you point out in your question. So how can you, as the head of school, make it work well?
Choose your consultant wisely. While it is often tempting to hire a close friend or the board chair’s colleague, do careful research on the specific areas of expertise and the professional objectivity of the consultant you plan to hire. Someone with a program to sell or some other agenda may come in with a bias that will not, in the end, be helpful to you. And while you are always looking for the most cost-effective ways to achieve your goals, hiring someone only because he or she offers the lowest fee is not a good idea.
Be very specific about what you need. Consultants do their best work when they know precisely the desired outcome, the timeline, and the stakeholders with whom they will work. You define the task at hand, not the consultant.
Make sure the consultant understands your school in advance. Be sure that you explain clearly your school’s mission, culture and ways of operating. Introduce the permanent staff members, outline the organizational structure, and be clear about any constraints such as teacher unions, community expectations, board directives, etc. It’s not enough to understand the problem, project or issue s/he has come to help with. The consultant must know your school.
Build a personal relationship. Get to know your consultants and let them get to know you on a personal level. It becomes much easier to disagree or to build consensus when there is a solid personal relationship in place.
Introduce the consultant openly and freely. When someone seems to be hiding in the background or operating in a secretive manner, suspicions mount. Don’t give your staff time to be suspicious. Introduce your consultants, explain why they are there, encourage them to speak to a large cross-section of staff members, and encourage staff to offer their views to the consultant. Almost everyone, I think, prefers being inside the process rather than outside wondering what is going to happen.
Be involved in all aspects of the consultant’s work. A consultant works best in partnership with the permanent staff. Develop plans together; share information; discuss strategies; come to agreement on implementation. While the outsider is the expert in a specific area, you are the expert in your school. Not everything that works well elsewhere will work for you. Do not hesitate to offer objective, concrete reasons why some suggestions or recommendations will not be helpful in your school (but be sure that is really so, and not a result of trepidation on your part).
Trust your consultants. They know that your institution is not perfect; none is. They know that their expertise is needed—why else are they there? You owe them an honest explanation of what the challenges are, understanding that they are confidantes who will use this information only to help in determining your best course of action. Don’t hide the ugly truths they need to know.
Demand a complete report. Your consultant’s work is not done until you have developed together not only recommendations for future action, but a specific timeline, implementation plan, projected budget figures and personnel needed. You need the vision, but you also need the pragmatics and you must be able to move forward with the task at hand after the consultant has gone.
Attend to future planning. Determine what you need to add to your next year’s budget, or what staff you may need to engage, or what kind of re-organization is needed. Working with your board, seek ways to gather the needed resources to act upon the consultant’s report. The walls of many institutions can be covered with reports containing solid recommendations that never saw the light of day because follow-up and follow-through are costly and time-consuming.
Limit the number of consultants that you work with at any one time. With the many, many responsibilities that heads already have, and with the numerous budgetary constraints they face, it is important not to take on too much at any given time. Prioritize your needs and determine with complete realism what can be accomplished, and paid for, each year.¿
Cooki Levy is the director of RAVSAK’s Head of School Professional Excellence Project (PEP). Previously, she served as the longtime head of the Akiva School in Westmount, Quebec. Dear Cooki accepts questions from all school stakeholders. To submit a question, write to email@example.com, with “Dear Cooki” in the subject line.
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