Consultants: Understanding their Assets and Limitations

Consultants are often thought of as magicians who can make problems disappear and fix almost any situation. In the face of tough situations involving boards of directors or organizational challenges, the first step is identifying the most appropriate suitable and best consultant. The consultant is usually approached at these times because there is a sense of crisis and the professional and volunteer leaders are not sure how to resolve these immediate challenges.

Many times, there is a big difference between the reason the leadership reaches out to a consultant and the real problem confronting the organization. Another way of conceiving of these two aspects is to refer to the first as the presenting problem and the latter as the identified problem. True, sometimes they are the same, however, in most instances the initial challenge presented to the consultant is often vastly different from the issues and challenges ultimately identified by the consultant.

For example, I was once approached because a key employee in an organization was considering resigning to seek other employment. The CEO of the nonprofit called me because she did not want to lose a person she considered to be a valuable employee who contributed a great deal to the organization. The staff member did not find his title and his responsibilities professionally satisfying although he identified strongly with the purposes and programs of the organization.

The CEO’s dilemma was how to hold on to the employee without arbitrarily changing titles and upsetting the staff in the organization. After meeting with both the CEO and the staff member it was apparent that a job description defining the person’s responsibilities had never been developed. This meant the employee lacked clarity about his position. The balance of the staff in the organization knew the CEO thought a great deal about the person’s knowledge and skills but it was not clear to everyone how he fit into the framework of the staff structure.

When this was presented to the Director she quickly understood the cause of the staff member’s dissatisfaction. In response, I presented the CEO with various potential solutions that would make it possible for the staff member to continue working in the organization without upsetting the organizational culture or while maintaining balance and harmony within the organization. However, in all of the scenarios there could be no avoiding adjusting the job descriptions and responsibilities of other members of the staff, as well.

I was able to refine the presenting problem articulated by the CEO and I identified the real challenges she faced. Once this was accomplished I was able to respond by presenting possible courses of action, however, it was not my role, as a consultant, to tell the CEO what she should ultimately do. My role was to provide options and to map out the implications of each one. It was then up to the CEO to exercise her responsibility to decide the best course of action for the organization. As much as I thought I knew what might be best, I was not the CEO and could not definitively decide what would work for the employee and the rest of the staff.

That is the limitation of the consultant’s role, which involves diagnosing the problem and suggesting possible solutions, but not actually making and implementing the final decisions. As much as the consultant may know and understand a specific organization and the challenges they are facing, it is not appropriate for him or her to assume responsibility for the decision making. Even when a client says, “What would you do in my situation?” it is important to hold back and refrain from telling them unequivocally what to do.

If I had crossed the line and offered a specific course of action in this particular case I would have been over-stepping my boundaries and providing the CEO with an excuse if the proposed course of action was not successful. I might have wanted to see a resolution to the problem that satisfied the CEO and the staff member and simultaneously not disrupt the structure of the organization. However, the CEO had to own this decision and not feel she was implementing someone else’s solution.

In this situation if I had moved from providing suggestions to dictating solutions it would not have strengthened the CEO’s position. By understanding the limitations of my role I actually aided the CEO in responding to the challenges she was facing while empowering her to make a decision that would both provide a solution and demonstrate her leadership abilities.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.