Craig Dearden-Phillips: Adventurers, ditherers and micro-managers

Charities that hire outside advisers tend to fall into three types, says our columnist - but the adventurers predominate

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

It's coming up to a year since I set up my consultancy, Stepping Out, and I'm glad to say we've worked with about 25 clients - many in the third sector.

So what have we learned about how the sector uses external advisers?

Broadly, clients come in one of three types: Adventurers, Micro-Managers and Ditherers.

The Adventurers have a clear idea of what they want from you, yet are open to advice. They have a sensible, faff-free process for hiring you that respects everyone's time. They know you bring something new and welcome you into their world.

Crucially, the Adventurers roll their sleeves up too, learning from you as they go, rather than seeing you just as a hired hand. And should the project change, you can have a sensible conversation without them getting in a tizz. Trust rules.

At the other end of the scale are the Micro-Managers. Ostensibly, they want help, but their fixed ideas make them impregnable to advice. When searching for a consultant, they set up such a drawn-out process that many of the better ones walk away.

If they go on to choose you from the 50 consultants they have met, you're then handed a shopping list of stuff to report back on every week. If you can't comply, the relationship starts creaking. Raise this with them and they get very shirty. You seldom make any real money because they're always on the phone to you about something. In truth, the Micro-Managers get little value from external support: they may as well do it themselves and save the money.

But the trickiest group by far is the Ditherers. They seek outside help because they are lost in their jobs, fearful of the future and haven't done any new thinking for a decade. Which is fine, but their organisations are often in such a bad state that, as an adviser, it's impossible to know where to start. But you do start - and then halfway through (and this always happens) they shift the goalposts and you're back to square one.

Ditherers also tend to be easily distracted by day-to-day fire-fighting - and these days, especially, a general sense of despair as the abyss beckons. As a consultant, you end up in a bubble, struggling to gain any traction in the organisation. The assignment ends in a friendly enough way but with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides. The Ditherers then pick up the phone to another consultant and the whole dance starts again.

OK, these are caricatures and I am happy to report that nearly all of our clients are firm Adventurers. But we come across Micro-Managers and Ditherers in the third sector all the time - more than in the public sector, I have to say. Fortunately, one becomes more skilled at spotting them. Only Adventurers really benefit from external consultancy.

Before they splash out, then, I would invite readers of Third Sector to reflect on whether they are, in truth, an Adventurer, Micro-Manager or a Ditherer. You might save yourself a lot of money - and your advisers a lot of heartache.

Contact Craig at www.stepping-out.biz

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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