Whether you are consulting internally or externally, with a large
not-for-profit or a small startup, in manufacturing or sales, there
are many commonalities. There are also differences in dynamics and
experiences based upon the role in which you function as a
consultant. How well you understand and adapt to these differences
could influence your effectiveness and satisfaction in that
Christina Williams is the manager of learning and organization
development at Loudoun Water in Ashburn, Virginia and will answer
questions from the internal consultant perspective. Kathryn Gaines
is president of Leading Pace, her privately owned consulting firm.
She represents the external perspective.
What are the strengths and advantages of your consulting
Christina Williams (internal consultant): Having
an intimate knowledge of the processes, people, and problems is a
significant advantage. Less time is spent trying to identify
resources and establish relationships. I can delve right into a
project without marketing my work or negotiating a contract. Better
still, I don't have to worry about clients paying their invoices!
Another advantage is working closely with senior management. They
share upcoming challenges and initiatives with me so I have plenty
of time to analyze the situation and implement any related change
management initiatives or performance solutions. I also fully
understand the implications and chain reactions of my programs.
Some external consultants make suggestions to us that aren't
feasible because of other situations within our company of which
they are unaware.
Kathryn Gaines (external consultant): The client recognizes there
is a problem before they contact you and is committed to
implementing a solution from the word "go." Of course, the flip
side is that clients can sometimes see a different problem than the
data identifies. They can also be overly committed to a particular
solution. The bottom-line advantage is that they have searched,
selected, and contracted with a consultant. They have taken
proactive steps and made an initial investment. This is an
excellent starting point for any type of committed partnership
Another advantage relates to the classic phrase, "no one is a
philosopher in his or her own land." Since I am from the outside
and bring past experience from different organizations, sectors,
and industries, much - though certainly not all - of my credibility
is established before I even walk through the door. I am often seen
as more objective. Fair or unfair, it gives me the freedom that an
internal consultant does not always have to challenge, question,
push back, or encourage something unique or risky.
What do you the like the best about your consulting
CW: I really enjoy being able to stick around
after the solutions have been implemented. It's fantastic to see a
project come to fruition, watch the company and employees reap the
benefits, and have it embraced as part of our corporate culture,
especially if it was a tough one to sell at first.
Being able to help any company, in any industry, improve
performance is not only appealing in a difficult economic time, but
it's also fascinating. In addition to my current position, I have
had the opportunity to perform this role at a small, family-owned
software company, an e-commerce sector of General Electric, and at
the second-largest paper products company in the world,
Weyerhaeuser Corporation. Currently I am working at one of the most
cutting-edge water reclamation facilities in the world - we turn
waste into drinking water. It has been remarkable to learn about
each one of these unique industries and the intricacies of the way
they do business. I get to jump across the functional silos and
participate in all aspects of the company and, best yet, apply my
knowledge to assist each department and individuals improve
performance. Honestly, it's been a great career and I couldn't have
asked to have more fascinating experiences.
KG: I enjoy the variety. I have a chance to work
in different industries and on a wide range of projects. I also
value the freedom and control. I am able to choose what types of
projects and which organizations and people I would like to work
with. For instance, if I decide that I don't want to do any more
project management work, then I have the option of declining that
work. When I worked as an internal consultant, I typically had to
do whatever types of projects my boss or organization requested me
I also have more flexibility with my schedule. For example, if I am
trying to coordinate a meeting date with a client and I have signed
up to volunteer in my son's classroom on a particular day, then I
can let the client know that I am unavailable or already booked for
that date. My days off are not limited nor do I need to seek
permission to take them. I can lead a more balanced, integrated
What are the drawbacks, dilemmas, or disadvantages that
seem particular to your consulting role?
CW: Not having the instant credibility of an
external consultant is a definite disadvantage. I joke that if I
had just walked off a plane, come into the office with a briefcase
sporting a logo from another company, and then handed someone a
bill, that my ideas would be immediately accepted. Most of my
internal clients do accept my suggestions without reservations.
They know I have been successful in the past and trust my
expertise. However, there are still a few who give me their
suggestions and unfortunately, due to reasons that are mostly
political, there are times when I have to implement those,
regardless of the ideas' merits.
KG: There are ups and downs in the flow and cycle
of business. If things slow down, then I am not earning as much.
Sometimes I miss a steady, dependable income with benefits such as
paid vacation and a 401k. I also miss having a team to work with on
a regular basis - to bounce around ideas and to collaborate with on
projects. It is not the same as partnering with colleagues and
I dislike the time and energy I need to spend managing the business
side of things. I am much more interested in the practice and doing
the work. I would rather not have to spend time on activities such
as marketing, bookkeeping, invoicing, or updating my website. I
always feel like that is time I could have spent honing my practice
or serving a client.
What advice or suggestions would you offer a consultant
considering a switch to your realm of consulting?
CW: I suggest that they ask very specific
questions during the interview process regarding the professional
autonomy of the role prior to accepting a position. Review your
personality traits and see if they match the level of independence
that role holds within the company. Some internal positions have
less autonomy than others. My level of independence has been
different in every company for which I have worked, sometimes even
changing from manger to manager within the same company.
KG: Consider the pros and cons carefully. Conduct
information-gathering interviews with those who are doing it. Some
significant factors to think about include how solid your
experience and expertise is; how well-established your network is;
how willing you are to spend time on developing and managing the
business; how talented you are at sales, negotiating, presenting
and proposing; and how much you need healthcare and other benefits
along with a steady, reliable income.
Note: A different version of this article ran in
the May 2006 issue of ASTD Links.
Christina Gibson Williams is a strategic education manager for
Loudoun Water in Ashburn, Virginia. She has been in the training
and development field for more than fifteen years, including
positions as both an internal and external consultant;
Kathryn Gaines, president of Leading Pace, has been partnering with
clients for nearly 20 years to build leadership capacity,
commitment, and competence. Gaines is a past president of the Metro
DC Chapter of ASTD and earned her PhD in leadership and change from
Antioch University; 1.301.865.2960; firstname.lastname@example.org.
2010 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.