Choosing and Using the Right Consultant

Aug 11, 2016

By Chuck Evans
Senior Partner

Consulting with private schools can sometimes feel like a boom or bust venture. That’s one of the reasons that so few firms actually stay in business for more than a couple of years. It is a simple thing to hang out a shingle promoting a successful school career and offering your services as an advisor. It is another thing altogether to be trusted by schools, year in and year out, to help them mature and grow.

In June, BetterSchools, LLC celebrated its fifth anniversary serving schools, coinciding with my tenth year of consulting (from 2006 to 2011 I worked with Paideia, Inc.). We listed our most recent clients in the June Update, gratefully acknowledging how humbling it is to work with schools on the most intimate aspects of their visions and plans.

I’ve noticed over the past decade that there are several different types of school consultants, each trending toward a predictable style of service, and each with its attending business model. Understanding the varieties of shops can enable you to make better decisions about when and how your school needs our help.

The One-Person Shop
There is no shortage of retired or semi-retired independent school leaders who supplement their post-school incomes with consulting. The more successful of these (defined by steady, if not super lucrative, employment) usually have broad networks of peers who are looking for relatively inexpensive advice. The schools need a planning retreat facilitated, an up and coming administrator coached, or some other light duty service that requires a consultant with more credibility than skill.

The one-person shop might also be built around a unique service, like training faculty on learning differences or promoting a particular marketing technique. In these cases, thought leadership through a book or an insightful, research-based blog provides the case for credibility. Schools with a very specific need know where to go to get help, and precisely guided training can reap solid dividends.

There are also consultants in this category who make themselves available as interim heads of school. Interim leadership is a time intensive service that can bring tremendous value to a school in a leadership transition. Skilled interims know how to cut through the clutter of a school’s operation, identify near-term growth opportunities, and leave the school stronger for the permanent leadership to come.

The Metrics-Based Shop
A handful of larger consulting firms have built their reputations and business on statistical research into independent school operations, especially in the areas of financial sustainability and personnel development. What these groups provide better than anyone else is a sense of how schools within certain categories compare to one another. For benchmarking obsessed boards and heads, the research and metrics that form the backdrop of the advice they get can be reassuring.

Of course, the value of benchmarking can also be limited, if not misleading. A 20-year-old school that has been focused on program development and facilities projects can admire and aspire to the situation of a 75-year-old school with an established reputation and a multi-million dollar endowment. Using statistical comparisons alone to frame up a five-year plan, however, won’t get either school very far, so more than static research is needed.

The Loss-Leader Shop
Over the past twenty years or so, another interesting model of consulting has emerged. Recognizing that conventional consulting has a definite ceiling on the amount of revenue that can be generated (i.e., the number of hours that can be billed by consultants), they have ventured into more scalable products that schools also need. Media-based training subscriptions, insurance and other financial services, and online classrooms can potentially mean more reliable revenue streams.

In the loss-leader shop, conventional consulting and training may designed to make money for the firm, but they don’t have to. The more valuable contribution to the company’s bottom line is the consultants’ roles as paid marketers for the more lucrative, scalable services. The trend in some of these firms seems to be on short-term, episodic counsel that minimizes the consultants’ time on task with a school, while maximizing the opportunity to highlight sideline products.

The Celebrity Personality Shop
Taking their cues from other industries, especially government and higher education, some higher priced firms promote the opportunity to spend time with and to be mentored by well known educational or organizational leaders. This type of consulting fits with trends in business leadership that involve CEOs and small business owners in expensive one-on-one executive coaching relationships or leadership development cohorts.

As attractive as these arrangements might be, only a fraction of private schools can justify the investment required to develop general leadership skills in their heads or seconds in this way. It’s great work, if you can get it, but not many of us can command that kind of loyalty based on people wanting to hang out with us and drop our names at conferences!

The Repeat Business Shop
The most conventional form of sustainable consulting companies focus on long-term relationships with clients who enlist their services again and again over time. When I was interviewing with one of the larger firms over a decade ago, the executives recited a mantra several times during the day: The best business is repeat business.

The challenge for a consulting group, however, is to be able to customize and expand its range of service over the years to meet the varieties of needs schools encounter as they grow and change. Firms that successfully build a repeat business model focus on two things: 1) Exceptional service that exceeds expectations and 2) Strong relationships throughout the organization, from the board to the faculty, and even with parents and donors.

Repeat business firms are typically not preoccupied primarily with efficiency. Their pricing needs to be competitive and realistic-they are a business after all-but the sustainability of their services is driven by deep investments in school communities and a reputation for exceptional value.

Why It Matters
Clearly, the categories I’ve outlined do not capture precisely the whole range of companies serving schools. In fact, many successful groups are a combination of the above categories, depending on their size and how long they have been in business. But the categories are real, and they do significantly affect how schools are served.

We find that many school leaders don’t realize that various models of consulting exist. In a recent conversation with a school board chair about BetterSchools’ approach to strategic planning, he commented that the process I described was “completely different from” a proposal from another well-known group. Having assumed that all consulting groups pretty much do things the same way, he was surprised that two groups that circulate in many of the same school networks-and which even often give similar advice-could be so distinct.

What I have learned over a decade of doing this work is that consulting groups are not distinguished fundamentally by different combinations of personalities or past experiences. The good ones, the companies that stick around, rely on philosophies of educational community, paradigms of good business practice, and frameworks of institutional values to guide their approach.

Most independent and parochial schools, at some point, will be in a position to consider consulting. For many schools, it can feel like a luxury, and the decision to make the investment is fraught with anxiety. All the more reason to understand who your school is considering and what they stand for. It really does make a difference.