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  • Writer's pictureDarren Coffey, AICP

Lessons from (and for) a Consultant

As a local government professional who has served in the public sector as a public employee for over 18 years, the transition to a private consultant working for local officials has been interesting. As a Planning Director, I would hire consultants to perform tasks or projects that I either did not have time for or, more often, that I did not have the expertise on my staff to perform. I would rely on the consultant for their expertise and insight. I would provide basic direction and QA/QC on the project (after all, it was still my responsibility), but otherwise I was glad for the assistance.

It is a unique situation to be the bearer of "bad news" as opposed to the recipient of it. The term "don't shoot the messenger" has a whole new meaning now. Trying to bridge the gap between a client's expectations (no matter how naive or unrealistic) is a real challenge at times. Presumably they hired you to assist them with a process or project, but when the process turns out to be cumbersome and much more involved than anticipated, as the messenger you have to decide what your role will be. As the messenger, you can quote the regs and play the role of grantor (not recommended), or you can advise of the challenges that lie ahead and provide suggested solutions to those items. Sometimes, I have discovered, an intended project simply is not a good fit for a funding source, or a group, or a community. I'm not hired though to bring that diagnosis. I'm hired to get it done. So, framing becomes imperative. I have to frame challenges and issues in such a way that there are a number of possible solutions for the client to choose from. In this way, they are active contributors to redefining the project in a positive way that moves it forward, albeit in a new direction. If its "their idea" then its a good idea.

As a consultant, this is a new experience for me - and a valuable one. I was just getting used to being considered ''the expert" and I was adjusting to that somewhat uncomfortably. This new experience is a cautionary tale not to get too big for your britches as a consultant. You may have the right answers, but if they don't match expectations then you might also lose your client! Bringing them along for the ride in new and positive ways is essential to maintaining a good, collaborative relationship.

It's amazing how much one can learn from errors and missteps, as well as victories. I'm just glad that I have surrounded myself with amazing, patient and professional colleagues to help guide me along this new and exciting path. I am a better consultant for it.

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