The CEO’s Guide to Hiring Consultants

Here’s what you need to know about shopping for consulting advice.

Avoiding surprises. Before any meeting where sensitive ideas might be discussed, avoid potential friction by getting the consultants to brief participants ahead of time. Assemblng the team carefully. Typically, the consulting company will send a team to work with a group of in-house executives and managers on site. The client company’s team members should be selected with care and, to the extent possible, team members should be dedicated to the engagement work and encouraged to believe that helping the consultants will be career enhancing.

Pushing for “capability building.” CEOs should push consultants to teach managers and employees the skills they will need to keep the new process or strategy going. After the consultants have gone, there is still work to be done. CEOs can help ensure that the company gets the most out of its investment by being visible champions of change.

In addition to communicating to the troops the importance of the change, CEOs and other top leaders should demonstrate—through budgeting, promotions and other actions—that the new way of operating is for real. —By Carl P. Hensley

Soon after taking the reins at ABM Industries in January 2015, Scott Salmirs began planning its transformation. Founded in the early 1900s, ABM had grown from a humble San Francisco window-washing company into a $5 billion global behemoth providing janitorial, parking, HVAC, maintenance and related services in 20 countries. However, its far-flung operations were in need of streamlining to become responsive to client needs and more advantageous for investors.



As Salmirs told analysts in September of 2015: “We know that to compete effectively and continue creating value for our shareholders, the ABM of the future must be fundamentally different from the ABM that exists today.” Like many chiefs at the precipice of a corporate reorganization, Salmirs was aware of the enormity of the task—and that the requirements of transformation exceeded internal resources.

The Search & Selection
“We like to believe we are experts when it comes to providing facilities services,” Salmirs says. “That does not necessarily mean we are expert in strategy.” To bridge the gap, he solicited consulting firm referrals from CEOs in his network and chose four to open a dialogue with.

Josh Feinberg, managing director at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), got one of those calls. “Scott talked about how he believed that the core business was very strong and that now was the time to leverage that strength,” Feinberg recounts. “He wanted a strategy that would unlock the company’s full potential…and he talked about how important it was to galvanize” ABM’s 118,000 employees. Feinberg says Salmirs’ focus on gaining internal buy-in reflected BCG’s philosophy: Identify and empower employees at various levels—not just the upper echelons—to lead the change.

During a series of calls, Salmirs narrowed the field to two contenders and conducted face-to-face meetings where the finalists introduced the employees who would handle the work on site. Consultant flexibility—a willingness to stray from pre-determined solutions and consider situational alternatives—was a must, says Salmir, who ultimately saw BCG as least likely to provide “we-always-do-it-this-way” responses. BCG “seemed flexible rather than prescriptive.”

Next came a series of conversations in which Salmirs’ team met the number crunchers and analysts with whom they would share a workspace and mission. As he probed BCG to see how they would approach and manage the engagement, and who from BCG would be doing the heavy lifting on site, Feinberg and David Webb, a BCG managing director, evaluated him as well, focusing on the depth of his commitment to overhaul ABM. “Client commitment” is a concern that arises frequently among consultants. The phrase encompasses the collected resources—dedicated employees, funding, physical facilities—the CEO is prepared to dedicate to the overall project.

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