Updated: Feb 26, 2022
Here's my cred: I employed consultants for a variety of projects as a head of school, and five years ago, I flipped to the other side of the desk and became a consultant, focusing mostly on strategic planning, enrollment and marketing review, governance, and leadership search. From these experiences, I offer you my counsel on selecting and partnering with consultants.
Schools hire consultants for their expertise, their outsider's perspective, their capacity to do work, or some combination thereof. For instance, schools look for architect and engineering consultants to help them create campus master plans, expertise that even the largest independent schools don't have in house. Schools also engage consultants to provide research from a neutral, anthropological perspective as they set out on strategic plans. And schools outsource work to consultants, work they could do on their own if they didn't have many other things competing for their time. A portion of leadership search consulting falls into this category.
In all cases, here's what you should expect from them:
An active effort to understand your school and customize their approach to it. An early conversation with consulting firms should strike a balance between what perspectives and philosophies they bring to the matter at hand and what level of curiosity they demonstrate in coming to know your school and your current needs.
An extension of the above, in each conversation you have with your consultants, you should hear a deepening understanding of your school in their language. If, mid-project, you're still covering off on objective details, reminding them that your development office is in transition or that you dissolved your 9th grade program a year ago, call a timeout and be clear: I am discouraged with this conversation. We're spending time here discussing things that were all evident in the documents we sent you weeks ago. I can only wonder if we're getting your full attention. At our next meeting, I expect to hear a much deeper understanding of our school.
A clear description of their processes and the philosophies that underlie them. You should have an early understanding of what the project will look and feel like.
A willingness to adhere to essential standards at your school. If you have committed to standards in communicating with candidates in your hiring process, for instance, ask the consultants to adhere to them as well and to provide evidence that they're doing so. Blind copying the school point person on all organizational communications with candidates is an easy enough ask. It's your school's reputation on the line, after all.
The responsibility of owning the cadence of the process. I call this the Clem Burke Rule. Listen to any Blondie cut (old punk fan here), and you'll hear Burke assertively playing on the front edge of the beat, driving the band. In almost every circumstance, this is one element of the project that a school is outsourcing to consultants: building a calendar, and holding the busy, multi-constituent project committee(s) accountable to it. You should expect flexibility, of course, but you should never have to call the consultants to remind them of dates nor to utter the phrase, "Hey, haven't heard from you in a while; give me a ring."
Your search for a consultant should start with a one page RFP in which you briefly describe your project and what you expect to see in proposals. References should be among these requirements. NAIS has a sortable directory that will give you a start for firms to send your RFP to. Your head network can give you guidance on more firms and their experiences with them. Questions derived from each of the areas above should be part of your filtering process: What processes will you use to get to know our school and its culture? How do you hold your clients accountable to the project calendar? Can you tell us about a time when you significantly altered your process to meet a school's particular needs?