How does a nonprofit find the right consultant? (part one)
November 14th, 2007
Whenever I visit someone in his own home for the first time, I check out his bookshelves as soon as is polite. Why? Because one’s favorite books are a window into one’s soul. I find the quickest way to form an impression of someone is to discover what they have read and like to read. For many of my best friends, I can recall a moment early on in our relationship, when I recognized a title on their shelves and thought to myself, "I think we're going to get along."
In my courtship of my wife, she felt her last doubts about me vanish when I read her childhood favorite, Watership Down, and declared that I loved it too. Of course, I almost blew it when I went on to explain that I appreciated it as "an excellent example of leadership development and community formation." That didn't exactly match her childhood emotional bond to the rabbits.
I grew up loving to read. Opening the door to the Skokie Public Library and being greeted by the waft of an air conditioned breeze and the sight of undiscovered shelves remains one of my sweetest childhood memories. But I know not everyone feels the same way; perhaps for others, examining one's Shuffle lists or Tivo programming is a better indicator of compatibility in friendship.
Still, when it comes to discerning compatibility with a potential consultant, I would argue that books can serve as an especially insightful indicator. Why is this? Well, I can think of three distinctive reasons:
1. Reading books demonstrates an appreciation of the power of writing
Don't get me wrong, I recognize the power of images and the emotional appeal of music. And technology is increasingly putting the power to create images and music in the average user's hands. Nevertheless, currently very few executive directors are submitting grant proposals in a choreographed song routine and daily management doesn't happen by exchanging streaming video. Written words -- whether in emails, printed reports, or PowerPoint slides --- still determine one's daily effectiveness. And it is a truism that you simply don't become a good writer if you aren't first an avid reader.
Consultants have to be good writers. I think there is no getting around this fact. The transient nature of our presence demands this skill. By definition, we don't stick around to keep sharing our insights or achieving a desired result. Our lasting impact most often is sustained by the written words we leave behind.
This doesn't mean that we just leave behind written reports. Far from it. In fact, it is a mantra for CWR that we actually implement the advice we give and we develop organizational capacity. But even that implementation and capacity building often can't avoid taking the form of written words. It may be words on a web site we built, the new phrases your development officer now inserts in grant proposals, or the training materials all your employees now go through. But it's still words. The more durably constructed those sentences are, the stronger your organization will be.
So it seems to me that you naturally would want a reader for a consultant: someone who appreciates words that last, words that are still read even years after they were first penned.
2. The power of metaphor in books
Ironically, I most look for a love of books in consultants that work in highly technical fields. We've all had that experience with experts who answer a simple question with a shower of acronyms and terms that leaves us more baffled than before, and a little cowed to boot. A technical expert who can fluently translate between technical and everyday language can be invaluable.
I was once invited to a play reading hosted by an IT expert. I of course made a bee line for his bookshelves. The first thing I noticed was his rows and rows of Shakespearean literature. Which told me right away that he probably would make a GREAT technical consultant.
Why? Shakespearean literature is densely metaphorical. The Bard was constantly explaining this and that complexity of human experience by referring to something that his audience (who were for the most part a blue-collar crowd) already understood. You can't love Shakespeare and not appreciate how effective it is to explain X by saying that it is a lot like Y.
And that's exactly what a great technical consultant must appreciate. His role is not just to fix something broken, but also to help the client understand why it was broken, what is being done, and what needs to happen in the future. And the only way most clients understand all of that is by lots of sentences that sound something like "Well, your server and your database are having a disagreement right now and the whole system is paralyzed watching the fight, so we need to introduce a mediator.... ." In fact, I confess once I was so drawn into one consultant's evocative metaphor that I momentarily forgot the underlying technical issue: "But will the server and the database ever reconcile... and what about the kids?"
3. Reading books requires dedication to the art of discovery.
You can't just veg out in front the latest history by Stephen Ambrose or multi-task reading Jane Austen while jogging or commuting to work. Reading a book means you are willing to put all else aside and devote yourself to the practice of concentrated discovery. This is why people who most like to read are naturally the most intellectually curious people. They are motivated to find out more, often about new subjects.
Those subjects don't even have to be useful ones. In fact, the "useless" books that a person reads -- not for school or work or even necessarily for a self-improvement project -- are often the ones most indicative of a native curiosity that serves as a fundamental motivation in a person. There's no professional reason for anyone to learn the rituals of Hogwarts or about a young boy growing up in Afghanistan. Other than a delight in discovering new worlds and even entering them via the portals of the printed page.
These traits are ones I look for in recruiting individuals for the Consulting Within Reach team. A good consultant is one who is in a constant mode of discovery. A good consultant exists to find out something new that the client didn't know before, and to actually accomplish something new that the client couldn't do before. Each client is a new world, each issue a new opportunity.
As a customer, you want a consultant to treat a site visit to your offices in the same spirit I ventured to the Skokie Public Library.
If you feel like you might be helped by consultants who like to read, contact us. We'll even show you our bookshelves.