Think of your favorite all-time “western” movie. Did you think of Star Wars? Yes, the plot of Star Wars follows a classic western theme. The hero—a gunslinger—rides in alone from out of town (Think: Harrison Ford as “Han Solo”), and he’s compelled by a lovely woman to help rescue the townspeople from an evil force (Think: Princess Leia and her Rebel Alliance fighting against The Dark Side). Inevitably, there’s a shootout, and with the gunslinger skills of the hero, the evil influence is defeated. With chaos still lying all around from the shootout, the Hero then wants to ride back out of town the same way he rode in, alone.
Have you ever worked for a company who hired an outside consultant to fill a role that you believed you were qualified to fill? Maybe you were even so bold as to make sure that your boss knew that you wanted that promotion and were excited and eager to take on new responsibilities. But in the end, the boss hired an outside consultant—a “gunslinger from out of town.”
How and Why Are as Important as Who
There’s nothing wrong with hiring an outside consultant. In fact, I’m one myself. But “how” and “why” the company decides to hire the outside consultant is just as important to the outcome as the consultant “who” is hired.
Sometimes the motivation behind hiring an outside consultant is panic or convenience. There seems to be a desperate search to fill a supposed skills void or management confidence void. If the choice to hire an outside consultant does not come from a strategic decision-making process, then the end result may leave a wake of chaos—akin to when the gunslinger rides in, shoots up the place to solve a short-term need, then rides away to let the townspeople clean up the mess.
It’s not hard to imagine yourself as that loyal employee, performing the job you’re hired to do. Many times you’ve gone the extra mile and worked late to make sure a project was completed on time. Then, when an opportunity for a promotion to an exciting project is right in front of you, the boss hires an outside consultant and doesn’t even bother to discuss the appointment with you or anyone else on the team. You just show up one day to find that a gunslinger was summoned from out of town, and he’s sitting in the boss’ office with the door closed. This kind of “we’ve got a problem, so hire a gunslinger” scenario runs rampant in many major corporations. The boss looks down at her organizational chart and sees the names of familiar faces, and it seems like a risk to promote one of them into a role they’ve never had before. If they fail, then the boss is also seen as a failure.
Instead, it’s extremely convenient to hire an outside consultant who has a track record of competence in that one particular skill the project requires. What’s more, few companies have time to train anyone, because they need that task done quickly.
Consider the Aftermath of Hiring a Gunslinger
Too often, organizations fail to address the hurt feelings felt by the loyal employees who were passed over. These feelings may never heal, and the team begins to slip into dysfunction. Typically, after the gunslinger leaves town, there is grumbling about “why the consultant isn’t here now to do the real work.” Worse, team turnover can become a major concern. If the manager isn’t careful, the next panicked hiring decision will be: “Quick! We just lost another team member! Get me a list of a few candidates!” A strategic hiring process can carefully evaluate the long-term effect on the team. A leader who thinks strategically about hiring can see past the “familiar faces phenomenon” and knows not only the demonstrated skills and education, but also the character strengths of each member of her team.
Granted, in the short term, there will likely be a learning curve as a staff member takes on a new and unfamiliar role. But in the long term, the leader has empowered the team with hope and trust. The problem the leader may have, after taking this strategic approach, is to explain to the HR manager why so many people want to join her team.
Don’t Forget the Hometown Hero
The gunslinger story is a good one. But when the gunslinger leaves the company, the manager is left alone to face the team chaos that will likely ensue. Your company may have been better served by taking advantage of an opportunity to invest in recruiting, developing, and training an existing staff member. I call this kind of team—a team that learns they can trust their leader and comes to believe that together they’ll always win—a “surging team.” If you’ve ever been a member of a surging team, then you know why it is more effective than any one gunslinger.