It’s around now – on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany – that many Christians celebrate the wise men arriving at the nativity scene. We know them as bearers of great gifts, but they also brought advice: a message of an immediate danger and a call for urgent action.

Modernity may have eroded the mystery surrounding the Magi, but we still like to consult wise men and women in our time of need. We turn to experts when we hit a wall with our own resources, or those of our team. Sometimes we do it to check we’re on the right track, or just to discover what bright new stars might be out there.

Business consultants come laden with gifts and advice, but they tend to be expensive, so we don’t engage with them lightly. Here are some collaboration tips and ideas I think wise – and some that are otherwise (that is to say, gained from hard-won experience).

Contractor or consultant

There is a difference between a contractor and a management consultant.

Contractors are taken on for a fixed – often short – period of time to perform a task or a role, whereas consultants are brought in to influence strategic decision-making at board level.

Wise: Contractors won’t usually transfer their skills to an internal staff member voluntarily – and why would they?

Be wary of over-friendly contractors who try hard to be liked by everyone from day one, or those who are not happy to document what they do. They may be trying to make themselves indispensable.

Consultants, on the other hand, should be willing to part with their knowledge in order to train, instruct and guide your people and your processes.

Otherwise: With both types of expert, give them good, meaty projects to work on and they will love you for it, because it helps them enhance their CV for future contracts.

Industry or domain expert

I have had the pleasure of working with external domain experts (on HR, IT and corporate finance) as well as a couple of distinguished advisers from within the translation industry.

The former tended to be long-term projects at a time when STP was restructuring a key function or department. The latter were ad-hoc visits from industry friends we already knew and admired.

While the industry stalwarts were invited to come and target specific translation community issues in a workshop-like manner, experts from outside have been helpful in transforming our company in areas that are common to all businesses.

When implementing major changes in our HR, IT or finance department, we vetted external experts either through recommendations or by conducting traditional job interviews with the candidates.

Wise: Apart from selecting the most suitable consultant, you also need to create a project with a clear schedule. It should include fixed milestones and deadlines, well-defined objectives, an agreed outcome and a realistic budget.

You must set your consultant clear deliverables, or they will get dragged into other areas of the business and not deliver what you want.

Otherwise: The challenge with external consultants is that they need time to understand your business, yet you can’t afford to give them months to get up to speed.

You may get frustrated with meetings where the consultant finds out what you do, looks at your systems and records to see how you do it, and interviews your key staff to gauge their opinion on what is working and what is not. That’s before they write a report stating the starting point for their work, which is something you obviously already know.

More meetings then follow, in which the consultant studies the wider context of your business, analyses the situation, applies their prior knowledge to see what should be changed, and produces another report on their findings.

In most cases, you will learn nothing new here either. You already know the state of your business and what needs to be improved. It was you who gave them most of the information they are now presenting back to you, after all.

So far, all the money you’ve invested has gone towards bringing the consultant up to the level of knowledge that you, as the company owner, should already have. But try not to see this gulf in understanding as a negative.

By knowing less than you, the consultant is able to break straight through to the heart of the business or problem without being distracted by context or history. Sometimes a fresh face with a different perspective is all you need to make a breakthrough.

Analyst or implementer

Consultants are usually hired to analyse a situation and recommend solutions, and you should expect to be challenged at this point about how and why you have done things.

You should probably accept that without a notable investment, there won’t be a notable change. But what you should not do is thank the consultant for their report, dismiss them and let them walk away.

Wise: This is where the work should start in earnest, and where the consultant’s experience and expertise comes into its own.

Most small companies know what they are lacking – the problem is they don’t know how to go and get it. And if that’s the problem, the solution cannot be someone pointing out to them what is lacking and simply telling them to go and get it.

The real value of a consultant is in facilitating and managing the ‘go and get it’ process and seeing it through to completion. These wise men and women have witnessed how things are done well and how they are done badly at other companies, and they are an excellent source of experience in this respect.

Whether the company’s need is to acquire, implement and optimise new technology, to create a new function, department or role, or to expand into a new market or sector, the consultant usually needs to provide the strategy for the planned change, then map out the practical steps.

They must find and recommend key contacts and networks for the new solution, liaise with stakeholders, chair meetings and hold everyone’s hand while they take action. They must also make sure reporting is kept up to date, monitor the budget and finally instruct the key players how to keep the rest of the staff informed of what’s happening.

Otherwise: Small companies rarely get value for money from meeting someone charismatic at an industry conference, inviting them to assess the state of the business and asking them to suggest improvements.

At best, a fleeting visit like this may produce a positive report to boost the owner’s ego. But it is difficult to gain anything more from it because there is no accountability for the visitor to drive any permanent change.

Resource or partner

My most fruitful experience of consultants has been working with ‘fractional’ directors, also known as ‘part-time’, ‘parachute’ or ‘on-demand’ directors.

These are experienced, multi-faceted professionals who serve as part-time management experts in small or medium-sized businesses that otherwise would not need, or could not afford, a full-time executive.

Fractional directors can stay with you for as long as you need their strategic involvement, and their monthly hours can be adjusted. They usually provide a similar service simultaneously to a small handful of other companies.

Wise: As with any recruitment, to find a good match for this role, you must not compromise on your company culture. Choose a partner who fits in at least as well as your employees do.

Give them full access to the business, including an email address and a building pass. If you don’t fully trust them, why engage them in the first place?

Otherwise: Invite them along to away days and off-site visits, so that they can be part of the team and not an outsider.

I invited Paul Larner, our fractional IT director from Freeman Clarke, to my birthday party last summer, and it turned out to be a very wise decision – he took most excellent photographs.