Consulting Skills for HR/OD Professionals

During the past week someone asked me if I would come and teach an internal consulting skills course to her team. Simultaneously I had to submit an article for publication. (I am a regular columnist to the Chinese publication HR Value). What better synergy than spending time working on a consulting skills proposal, an article on consulting skills and then a blog piece on the same topic?

From a writer's perspective this is actually three totally different pieces of work as the audience is different, and thus the style, tone and content have to be different. Nevertheless the basic ideas are the same so there is marginal time saving in sticking to one topic. In fact this could be a good idea anyway. I came across a blogger who only ever writes about simplicity and earns his keep by consulting on simplicity. So the question I ask myself is "is singular focus better than scattergun?" But that is not to answer here.

Before looking specifically at consulting skills and the reasons for developing them let's answer the question "what is consulting?" Briefly, it is a method of exploring with a client an issue, problem, or question that he or she has, and then working with the client to develop a method of addressing the situation and together implementing the agreed solution. It is a relationship of collaboration and partnership and not one of command and control.

For HR professionals their 'client' is usually a line manager or operational business person. Traditionally an HR professional supplies technical expertise related to all aspects of the employee lifecycle. This includes recruitment and selection, training, career development, performance management, reward and recognition, succession planning, and employee law. In doing this transactional work HR staff are usually:

a. Firefighting in this arena. For example, many companies have very high employee turnover sometimes an average of 30% a year. Keeping the pipeline of new employees flowing to ensure business continuity in this situation is a challenging HR matter.
b. Being reactive to issues and problems as they arise. This usually results in HR staff deploying a 'solutions' based approach which may get the desired result but does not allow for other, perhaps better, results.

An alternative approach to the fire-fighting or reactive one is the consulting approach. Taking a consulting approach is more likely to result in the right solution to the issue. So how would an HR professional with consulting skills handle the line manager's request for a new performance evaluation process?

Take this example. A line manager emails his HR business partner saying "I want a new performance evaluation process. This one doesn't work." The HR business partner goes to see the line manager who says that his staff are not as productive as he wants them to be. He says that he wants the new process to include more levels of performance, higher rewards for high productivity, and penalties for low productivity. But the HR business partner does not go ahead and design a new process. Instead she asks a series of open questions, in four categories, to find out more about the situation.

Category 1: To get the background and context to this presenting problem. In this case the presenting problem is low productivity. So the HR consultant could ask questions like:

• What do you think contributes to low productivity? What stands in the way of getting to high productivity?
• How long has low productivity been an issue?
• What would a highly productive employing be doing?
• How do you recognize and measure productivity?

Category 2: To surface and challenge assumptions. In this category the HR professional asks questions like:

• What beliefs/values shaped your assumptions about the causes of low productivity?
• What assumptions contributed to the situation of low productivity arising in the first place?
• What do you assume encourages high productivity?

Category 3: To explore and imagine other possibilities. Here the HR professional might ask the line manager what are other ways of tackling low productivity beyond changing the performance evaluation process.

• What alternative ways can you think of that would encourage high productivity beyond a new performance evaluation system?
• What makes you think a new performance evaluation system will solve the problem of low productivity?

Category 4: To reflect on what's been discussed and to decide what to do as the next step. Sample questions here include:

• What aspects of this situation require the most careful attention?
• Having decided something is wrong/happening, what is the best response?
• Of the possible actions which are most reasonable? Why are the others not as reasonable?

These sorts of open questions may well lead to an effective solution to low productivity that does not require a new performance evaluation process. Think of all the possible reasons for low productivity and you'll understand why it is important not to agree immediately to one possible solution but instead to find out more and to thoughtfully challenge in order to get to a better solution.

Coming to a good understanding of the current situation is the first step in the consulting process. Subsequent steps are action planning, implementation, and reviewing. To work through the four steps with your client requires two sets of skills (additional to the technical HR skills):

• An operational skill set required to take the company forward as it develops its market reach, scope, and scale. This includes the skills of project management, facilitation, and evaluation.
• A personal skill set that includes critical thinking and questioning, probing and challenging assumptions (the HR practitioner's own and their clients'), influencing and negotiating, developing and presenting options, demonstrating business savvy, emotional intelligence, and taking accountability for acting.

Equipped with consulting skills and being confident in the consulting approach enables HR professionals to act as a proactive advisors providing critical input into the strategic initiatives of the organization and to become increasingly involved in the implementation of strategies. And this is what HR professionals should be doing – becoming strategic partners in the business – especially as many of the transactional and traditional areas of HR work can be outsourced.

If you want to develop in your HR career build up your consulting skills capability. There are several ways of doing this. You can:

• Take a consulting skills short course
• Train to be a Certified Management Consultant (see the UK's Chartered Management Institute qualification route
• Read books on the topic – two good ones are High-Performance Consulting Skills: The Internal Consultant's Guide to Value-Added Performance by Mark Thomas, and Flawless Consulting by Peter Block
• Join the Institute of Management Consultants which has global affiliates and a consultants competency framework that is worth looking at.
• Develop some of the competencies and skills that contribute to a consultant's toolkit – facilitation and project management are two of these.

Changing your focus from HR 'doer' to HR 'thinker' takes courage and skills development but it does open up opportunities for betterment to you and your organization.