Not that long ago, when we walked into the Lands Department of a new client, the director came up to us and shook our hands. “Congratulations,” he said, “you’ve now visited us more than the last consultants ever did.” Yikes. Not all consultant-client relationships need to look the same. But when you’re looking for help knocking down your to-do list or furthering a goal that requires very specific expertise, choosing the right consultant can be the difference between moving your project forward…or not. Here’s the inside scoop on how to choose the consultants that best fit your needs, and how to train them to deliver what you want.*
Question: Are you missing opportunities?
Do you even need a consultant? According to our clients, they hire outside help from companies like us for two main reasons: for specific expertise (do you really need a full-time fluvial geomorphologist on staff?), and to fill capacity gaps. If you have 101 things on your to-do list, extra hands make light work. If you need to solve problems where you need information, advice, skills, expertise, strategies, and techniques that you don’t have in house, consultants can be very effective supports.
When you drill down to the main reason to hire consultants, it comes down to missed opportunities. If you have a stack of unopened requests for consultation, or a feeling of dread that things are moving faster than your ability to respond, it may be time to look for a consultant’s help.
Different consultants bring different ideas, specialities and skillsets to the table, and some may be a better fit for your needs than others. The last thing you need is to work with people who don’t really get it, or you. You need someone who understands your needs and can help you reach ambitious goals. So, how do you choose the best partner for you?
How to pick the best consultant for you
Main take-home point: A consultant’s goals should be your goals. Find someone who will bring you opportunities, resources, make suggestions and introductions. The consultant should focus on your success, not theirs. The right consultant can help you to further your prosperity and well-being, and advance your stewardship and jurisdiction over lands and waters. They can help you protect or enhance important community values, such as traditions, culture, relationships, lands and waters, and safety.
The key to working well with a consultant is to find someone who you trust, and with whom you can build a long-term relationship. Before you start looking, take the time to make sure you have a clear understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. And use your network! Ask neighbouring Indigenous nations for recommendations, and ask for references. Find someone who wants to spend time in your community and who is interested in developing a deeper and broader understanding of your needs, goals, challenges and your successes.
If you are releasing an RFP (request for proposal), consider having a subject specialist review it before its released if there are topic areas that require any specific knowledge you don't possess in house.
Do a test run. With a long-term relationship in mind, start with a small project to see how they do. Check out how they communicate, the quality of their work and ability to meet the project deliverables. And see if you enjoy working with them! Best indication you have found the right consultant: you are glad when you see their number come up on your phone.
Training Step 1: Get clear on what you expect
Once you’ve chosen your consultant, let them know what’s expected up front. In the signed contract, be sure to include
- clear deliverables,
- what’s in the project scope and what is out,
- a process for scope change, and
- a process for invoicing.
Protect your information and intellectual property: be clear in the contract about OCAP: ownership, control, access, and possession of information for the project. At the project outset, arrange for the consultant to sign a confidentiality agreement that outlines how they will safeguard your information. If community engagement and communications are important to your project, make sure the need and scope are clear. The scope of the consultation activities can vary drastically, and often the outcomes that you can achieve by thinking outside the box are worth the investment.
Is building capacity a priority?
If you’d like to build capacity within your staff or community, be sure to include the outcomes you’re looking for in the RFP stage. If it’s important to you, make sure it’s in your contract. Some examples of capacity building are job shadowing, training, employment and hands on participation in project activities. Ask for tools and information you can take forward and use later. One of the benefits of developing a long-term relationship with a consultant is the opportunity for the consultant to be there for you in a training or advisory role should you need it in the future.
Training Step 2: Help them understand what matters to you
Consultants need to understand your unique history, your community, and your priorities. The more we understand, the better we can tailor our proposals, deliverables, and our efforts. We’d like to know what’s important to you, what you want to protect and enhance, how your governance and decision-making works, and your vision and goals for the future. You can help by introducing consultants to your members. Take us on a tour, create opportunities for us to have direct conversations with Elders and land users, youth and with your leadership. Help us get to know you and understand what you care about. Where possible, share background information (under a confidentiality agreement).
Training Step 3: Plan for clear communication
Everyone has different ways they like to be communicated with and that works for them. Set up a process for communication with your consultant in the beginning of the project. For instance, set up a meeting schedule, share contact numbers, and other ways to reach you. Consultants will have ongoing questions and will need guidance to keep them on track. Good communication keeps up project momentum.
Training Step 4: Hold your consultant accountable!
Be sure to give your consultant feedback during and after a project. Talk about the work they did with your team. How did they do? What could they do differently? What worked well? Remember, success breeds success. Build on what you’ve done, make sure your deliverables support new opportunities.
Lastly, getting the most value from your consultant is a two-way street. It requires effort on both sides to find the right fit, understand your community, have a clear path forward, practice good communication and feedback, and to build capacity. Happy training!
*Adapted from a presentation Jeremy Shute delivered at the Ontario Aboriginal Lands Association conference in September 2019. The Ontario Aboriginal Lands Association conference theme was ‘Steps to Community Success’ and the goal was to facilitate a readiness conversation among First Nations lands, environment, and economic development staff. The conference presentations showcased best practices, and useful planning or communications tools to move projects forward in a sustainable and environmentally conscious manner.