istock_sitting_on_the_piggy_bankRecently a Board member of a credit union asked me the following question after I spoke at a conference: How long would you recommend that we use the same consultant for our strategic planning and leadership development?

As one who does strategic planning and leadership development work with credit unions, it was a tough question. Recommending long-term relationships might appear to be little more than an endorsement of job security for consultants, and a bit self-serving.

On the other hand, arguing for short-term interactions might sound like an attempt to displace their current consultant and encourage them to bring me in for their next planning session. Indeed virtually any response I provided might imply judgement of their current consultant, whom I knew nothing about, not even his/her name.

The fact is,if there was ever a question where the best answer is ‘it depends,’ this is probably it.

There are no clear rules for the length of relationship that a credit union should have with a given consultant. The key is the results they are achieving and the relevance of those results to the vision and mission of the credit union.

The interpersonal relationships are also important to consider. If the consultant is responsive, works well with the leadership team and the Board, and everyone is on the same page with regard to the direction they are headed, then a longer relationship is probably merited.

But if the consultant has been around so long that everyone knows how to work around them, or if they have become ineffective in addressing problem areas because they have become too closely aligned with people in key positions, it may be time for a change.

Beyond that, it is important that the consultant’s knowledge and understanding of industry be current. Long-standing relationships sometimes develop out of shared biases that can cripple the organization, especially if performance stops being the primary factor in selecting the people who will be brought in to help the credit union.

Those who know me well know that my personal bias is against long-term relationships that are not based on what is good for the credit union. Respecting experience is important, but it can be deadly if decisions that should be made based on what is best for the organization start to be made based on what is easiest or most convenient for everyone involved (including the consultant).

Simply put, we consultants walk a fine line. We are part of your team and work to help you to grow and respond to the changes in the marketplace, but at the same time we need to maintain some level of independence from the team so that we can ask the tough questions that need to be asked.

So here is my ‘final answer’ to this tough question:

The length of relationship between a credit union and a consultant who provides strategy and leadership support needs to be nurtured just like a relationship with a member or an employee. Over time there will be some services that can no longer be provided and others that will become more important. The relationship will grow and deepen at times, and it will necessarily diverge at others.

In the final analysis, if all parties are honest with one another, it will be obvious when it is time for a new consultant. But if they are not, the longer the relationship is maintained, the more detrimental it will become for everyone, even if they don’t realize or acknowledge it.

ACTION ADVICE: Take stock of your use of outside service providers in all areas of your credit union and ask yourself if you would hire them today if they were not already working with you. Assess the degree to which they are helping you move and think in new directions, along with their ability to help your credit union become what it is capable of becoming. If they still fit, deepen the relationship. If they don’t, take action to bring someone else in who can help you achieve the outcomes for which you are striving.