Ruth Doyle, Senior Consultant
A few years ago, I worked for a boss who argued that his senior managers should never need to hire any consultants or advisers from outside the organisation. He felt that his senior team should be knowledgeable enough to handle anything that the business required of them. It’s a view I found difficult to agree with at the time, but you can see why plenty of CEOs might.
I’ve been thinking about those conversations lately, now that I’ve had a chance to sit on the other side of the table. With budgets tight, and demand on digital, marketing and communications teams in membership bodies always rising (49% of US association leaders feel understaffed - Association Adviser 2016), when does it make sense to ask for help, and when is it wiser to do it yourself?
At Ashridge Communications, we thought about the types of situations that might make a membership professional think about bringing in extra help:
1. Your role is changing
You’ve been promoted to a new role and need to develop new skills, douse some flames and build a fresh strategy for your team or department. Having a fresh pair of eyes could give you the support you need and help you build a strong base for your future plans.
2. Your market is changing
You sense there is significant change in your marketplace, and you need a better handle on it. Probably the most important reason to get an objective eye on things is when you know you don’t know something – otherwise known as the Donald Rumsfeld argument! The good news is that recognising this means you’re probably already ahead of the game.
3. You need to test or prove an idea
You’ve got some ideas for a new project, but before you can gain stakeholders’ support or secure precious budget, you need to prove that it’s needed and test the likelihood of it working out. It’s sensible to build evidence before launching any major change.
4. You need to know your members better
All membership strategy starts here. Yes, you probably already do a membership survey, but how well do you really know your members? Have you got a clear handle on their experience of membership, their working life, their career journey, the barriers in their way and what they really want and expect from you? Armed with this insight, you could have the basis for a compelling member offer.
5. Something new must be delivered, but your resource is fully used
There’s a finite, discrete project (or one that needs specialist skills you don’t have to hand) that needs an immediate boost to get it off the ground, implemented or evaluated. Plugging in some extra bodies who can work quickly and in a very focused way could help you over this hump.
So, that’s when it makes sense to take on extra hands.
And - thinking back to my old boss - when is it not a good idea to bring in outside help?
6. You’re overloaded, but you’re not sure why
This is tough – it’s hard to think straight when there’s too much to do. But before calling for reinforcements, take a deep breath and unpick one part of the problem. Is your organisation trying to do too much for too many people? Could something be paused, while you buy a little time to reflect? Some time spent unpicking and capturing the cause or essence of the problem will ultimately give you much better value if or when you do engage any external help.
7. You can see the need for change, but no-one else can…yet
The “yet” is important! As the saying goes, “everyone wants progress, but no-one wants change”. Find your allies, create a case for why the current situation is not right before looking for external help. That way, any project will be more likely to be accepted and supported.
8. Your organisation already researched this and rejected it
It can be dispiriting to hear “we tried that, it didn’t work”. But before accepting that previous analysis wasn’t up to scratch, do some digging. Who commissioned it? Has their view changed since then? Has the organisation or its members changed? A different or tighter focus could become the lever for the change you want to implement.
9. You really should be doing it yourself
Ok, so there might be some truth to my old boss’s views. There are times when taking a deep breath and looking at what is possible, within your existing constraints, might be enough. At times like this, a phone call with a trusted expert (most external consultants and advisers are happy to do this), a networking group of industry peers, a conference or reading some recommended blogs might be enough to help you make that first step. And once you’ve done that, the next step might be a lot easier than you thought.
There are times when it pays to ask for help – and times when it makes sense not to. In both cases, the catalyst is usually the need to respond to change – personally, professionally, in your organisation, your market, or among your members.
Taking on external consultants or advisers can help you develop your own skills, plug in extra resource where you need it, evidence the need for change, test and build your strategy. But flying solo is sometimes the right thing to do, and there are lots of free resources out there to help you if that’s the best way for you.