How to … become an internal consultant

Like external consulting, the role of internal consultant exposes you to a range of projects and business activities with assorted clients. Only in this instance, the ‘clients’ will be other departments and teams within the same company

What is it?

Like external consulting, the role of internal consultant exposes you to a range of projects and business activities with assorted clients. Only in this instance, the ‘clients’ will be other departments and teams within the same company. There will almost certainly be a transformational, change agent or business partner dimension to the role. But equally, you could just be an extra pair of hands when additional labour is required, a facilitator, or even a coach helping people develop their capabilities.

Why is it important?

The term ‘consultant’ often conjures up all kinds of negative connotations. But as an internal HR consultant, you have a real chance to enhance your professional standing by using your expertise to make a valuable contribution to the functioning of other departments, solving problems, and delivering enhanced performance. You’re also more satisfied, as your role will be more stimulating and challenging, and once you start to notch up successful outcomes, it could mark you out for rapid career progression.

Where do I start?

Internal consultancy requires you to take more of a project management approach to work and view the individuals you deal with as clients rather than colleagues. As you work in HR, you are already a supplier to your organisation, so it’s more a question of how you supply that service, says Vic Hartley, associate fellow at the UK Institute for Employment Studies.

“If you work with clients through their agenda, in a way that clearly defines goals, agrees ways of working and defines clear outputs, then you will be seen more as a consultant than a traditional provider,” he says.

What skills do I need?

You need to be aware of internal politics, but not allow yourself to get drawn into other people’s power games. Selling yourself is key – you need to convince people that you are an expert in key areas and can help deliver successful outcomes.

“People ‘buy’ from internal consultants first and foremost, so you’ll need to continually demonstrate credibility by questioning, listening, presenting and contracting,” says Hartley.

You need to have excellent communication skills, both oral and written, so people know what you are talking about. To make things happen, you also need to be able to connect with the right people, win commitment, and build bridges and relationships at all levels.

What about the project?

Identify the need for the project. External projects solve a problem for a client, and this should be no different for your organisation. Will it impact the bottom line, or benefit the company in some other area?

Whatever the project’s intended outcome, ensure there is a solid business case for it. Set budget and timescales and be realistic on both counts. You’ll gain no points for skimping in these areas and failing to deliver, but ensure your projections don’t overrun those of an external consultant.

Once you’ve agreed a project plan, put the people and resources in place to make it happen, and ensure the team understands the objectives as well as their individual roles. Make sure you have a project champion or sponsor at executive level who has a stake in the outcome.

What about resistance?

Accept that on most occasions you will meet with resistance, as invariably people don’t like change or feel threatened by it. Don’t take it personally. Be respectful to the feelings of others, but find a way to integrate them. Part of the challenge of being an internal or external consultant is to balance the feelings of the client with the aims of the assignment or project. And remember that if the project meets a real business need, ultimately, no-one can object to it.

For more information

High-Performance Consulting Skills: The internal consultants guide to value-added performance, by Mark Thomas, Thorogood, ISBN 1854182587

Organisational Consulting: How to be an effective internal change agent, by Alan Weiss, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0471263788

Second opinion on becoming an internal consultant

By Vic Hartley, associate fellow, Institute for Employment Studies

What are the biggest challenges?

The transition is problematic, combining both operational and consulting roles. You'll have to work harder to gain credibility - if your cost is apparently nothing, will you be valued? Unlike an external consultant, you will find it harder to draw on wider expertise, and your skill and independence may be questioned. You won't have a consulting reputation to fall back on.

Access to senior people may be more difficult in a status conscious organisation, and you won't be able to operate without status as an external consultant can. By knowing the client, you could be tempted to be less orientated towards them, especially if you think the client is wrong. Success may not be remembered, but failures will, and could damage you in the long-term.

What should you avoid doing?

Don't be easily diverted as operational needs change, and don't take on work you can't do, or you'll lose credibility. However, it's a mistake to only offer consultancy limited by your own expert mode. Don't try to be an expert when process skills will work best. Avoid reverting to a comfortable traditional role when there are organisational pressures or things are going badly. Don't take on work unless you've qualified it first. Finally, avoid letting deadlines slip.

Top tips

Demonstrate how you will work as an internal consultant by acting like one, and not by making a big fanfare announcement about being one.

Your role will be appreciated if you do it successfully, and ignored if you don't.

Make sure you're clear about your desired output, with the steps of getting there, and sign off when reaching the end.

Work to a project plan. Ensure you have sponsorship at every level - you can't have too much support or too good a network.

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine.

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