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from the expert network

From the Expert Network | Best Practice #2: Set the Relationship Expectations and Boundaries, Refresh and Reinforce as needed

Five powerhouse experts and one high-achieving team from the Expert Network took time to speak with us about their “secret sauce” for a smooth project process, outcomes that everyone is excited about, and lessons they’ve learned when engagements with clients have not panned out that way. From these conversations, three overarching “best practices” themes emerged from their collective wisdom: Do the Work on the Front End, Set the Relationship Terms and Expectations, and Tending to the Dynamics of the Partnership. We divided them into three blog posts, to be released monthly in August 2019, September 2019, and October 2019.

Before dipping into their advice, learn about the contributing Experts by clicking any of the names below:

At every stage of the project, it’s important to communicate your preferred partnership structure and non-negotiables as a consultant, to listen back about how your partner views the engagement, and to have check-ins that help you stay aligned. Establishing clear boundaries and expectations is essential to stimulating a high quality experience, for both consultant and client. The following tips help you to facilitate these practices throughout the lifespan of the project. 

Establish your role as a consultant

Individuals and teams have varying philosophies on the types of partnership they set up with clients. To set and maintain a high functioning partnership, it is essential to clarify yours and communicate your expectations outright; it is crucial to ensuring a consulting relationship where your expectations and boundaries are respected. For example, Elana Feinberg makes sure that her clients understand the difference between her, as a consultant, and a temporary employee. To do this, she outlines her consistent weekly availability, as well as the amount of hours per week she has to dedicate to the project. Rex Varner’s preferred view on his engagement with clients is that “it’s not an equal relationship.” He sets up projects so that he is the one expected to deliver progress at each meeting, and so he is rarely reliant on the partner for anything that would hinder the work moving forward. However, in order to demand such high-order control, Rex clearly articulates the expectations of his work and the affiliated deliverables. He notes, 

“I am extremely well organized, share deliverables with [clients] often and early, and take full responsibility for driving the project.”

However, identifying the relational workflow structures is often dependent on the context of the project. Different organizations have different expectations, and it is essential to identify those early on in the consulting relationship. Elana relayed a cautionary tale of a consulting engagement early on in her career that she took on via a friend’s referral. She felt confident given her prior experience on similar projects; however, this organizational partner had never worked with a consultant before. They dove in without a scoping conversation, failed to set project expectations, and did not sign a contract together. Struggling to articulate what they needed, and impressing unwieldy expectations on her, the partner became impossible to deal with - but there were no documents to realign the conversation. In the end, Elana left the engagement with partial payment and a whole lot of frustration. However, Elana learned a critical lesson through this difficult situation, for each consulting project moving forward, she integrated discrete organizational steps, including the following:

  • a scoping conversation

  • clear expectations of project deliverables and time allotment

  • solid contract in place, which includes clear direction on what to do if the work extends beyond the boundaries discussed.

While each of these documents may be amended as the work evolves, having them in place allows for both the consultant and the client to have a common language and set of expectations. With these details in place, they are able to focus on the work.

Set your expectations of the partner

Before you get started on work, set some ground rules regarding operations and workflow. This tends to your own work style, your preferred apps and technology to facilitate workflow, and guidelines for collaboration.  These may include such topics as::

  • Your availability (hourly and weekly)

  • How each of you would like to be communicated with regularly or in an emergency (platform, format, frequency)

  • Preferred response time to communications

  • How often work should be reviewed and feedback given, and over what medium

  • What constitutes reasonable and unreasonable changes to the scope of work

The actual topics include should be set by the needs of the project and the circumstances of each party. It is helpful to formalize these expectations in a document, which can function as your personal “user guide,” which can be referred back to as a reminder. Creating an expectations document that reiterates these points and referring back to it at each meeting can be helpful reminders for everyone.

In addition to formalizing the operational expectations, our experts noted that they are sure to include a flexibility clause. This work is often dynamic and, Elana notes, “things are going to change.” However, creating a clear set of operational expectations creates an opportunity for revision and review, as made necessary by the dynamic nature of the work. Elana formalizes this flexibility into her contracts: The budget is always a price range, and the number of work hours is understood to be an estimate. The timelines that she develops take into account that the process may take longer than anticipated, including extra time for setbacks and revisions. However, even with this cushion, Elana advises that consultants must clearly communicate with their clients as they approach the thresholds of both hours and budgets as they relate to deliverables. With open conversations, both parties can discuss how to proceed and avoid any potential disagreements. 

Invest in face-to-face time

Each of our experts conducts a significant proportion of their work remotely; however, each acknowledged the importance of connecting with their clients face-to-face whenever possible. If possible, travel at the start of the engagement to meet your client and their team - you’ll also see how the team functions in real time, and how they react to your working style and suggestions. Plus, building rapport is easier and faster when you can look someone in the eye. 

Dr. Maya Bugg suggests that as early on as your proposed project plan, you can determine what can be accomplished online and what needs to be tackled offline. In her work as a DEI consultant, facilitating HR DEI sessions, going on tours of schools she’s working with, and going to a convening that several of the project stakeholders are attending are examples of prime opportunities for getting work done in person. For strategy projects, Rex Varner will often kick-start the project with a half day in-person meeting for white-boarding, and then plan in a few intense 3-4 hour in-person sessions throughout the project timeline. Monica and Michelle told us that “in an ideal world, we kick off the project face-to-face to determine the mission, vision, and theory of change”, and to establish the trust for later phases. This trust makes it easier to start tough conversations or to say something challenging, because they can anticipate how it will land with the client. These in-person, collaborative sessions lay an essential foundation that enables the work as it unfolds; then when communications may mostly take place remotely, you’ll have a better sense of how to communicate best.

Reinforce your lines when they matter

Client satisfaction and consultant flexibility are important, but so are knowing and holding your boundaries as complications arise. Partners can often make requests of you that are rushed, or outside of the scope of work, because they feel pressed to meet a goal, treat an emergency, or genuinely don’t realize that their ask is out of range. 

The EduDream team told us, “Client can get overzealous about timelines…there are instances where people want something above and beyond the scope… [We] find that we have to make sure we aren’t overextending ourselves on what we promised.”

Assume the best of intentions, but protect your time and boundaries. For example, you might draw a hard line at a request compromising the quality of the deliverable you provide, and in turn undermining the desired outcome. 


Thanks for reading! Check back next month for “Tending to the Dynamics of the Partnership”, and let us know what boundaries you like to define with clients, and how you’ve dealt with any boundary breaches.