Transitioning to Performance Consulting: Bringing Value to the Table

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about performance consulting. It’s not a fad. It’s not a trend. In fact, its time has come. To better understand why we, as training professionals, need to make the transition to performance consulting, let’s start with some definitions and how-to’s and then examine the business need that makes this approach non-negotiable in today’s marketplace.

Some Key Terms

The transition to performance consulting first requires an understanding of the difference between a traditional training and a performance consulting approach. The traditional training approach is a reactive response to a performance issue, and almost always involves training as the answer. In fact, most of us have experienced receiving a call from a manager (who often has no background in training) telling us what training class to deliver.

In contrast, a performance consulting approach involves a proactive response to a performance discrepancy. It involves identifying undesired performance and its root cause and then partnering with management to resolve the discrepancy in a manner that best supports the organization’s business objectives.

Within the realm of performance consulting there are some distinct differences between the roles of the players. A consultant is a person who has influence with an individual or group of individuals. The consultant has no direct power or authority. The minute you start to make a decision, give a directive, implement a process, etc, you have crossed the line over to that of a manager-type role.

A client or stakeholder is the receiver of the advice – the person who makes the decisions and provides support and resources, including funding and availability of participants, for the implementation of the proposed solution to the performance problem

The Process of Performance Consulting

The process of performance consulting contains eight steps and involves a highly forged partnership between the consultant and the client. Utilizing these steps helps you transform a reactive situation into a proactive partnership. Below is a summary of the steps outlined in Jean Barbazette’s book, Manage the Training Function for Bottom Line Results!

1. Contact

Assess the initial contact for assistance by asking yourself these three questions:

  • Who contacted you?
  • What did this person ask for?
  • How formal or informal is this request?

2. Explore

Begin to look at the issue by asking questions informally. Validate the assumptions made by your contact. Identify whether this is a training problem or not. Determine whether this contact is the true "client" and decision-maker or only a messenger. At this point you are not diving too deep – no need for assessments yet – that’s Step 4.

3. Contract

Gain agreement with the client on the outcome vs. an activity and agree on next steps, including when you will present your plan.

4. Diagnose

This is where you pull out all the stops and dive deep! Conduct a needs assessment using a performance analysis methodology and other assessment tools as appropriate. This is the time to validate hypotheses made during the Exploration step.

5. Plan

Develop a performance improvement plan that contains these elements:

  • Define the performance issue(s) and how it is related to a business need
  • Reaffirm the outcome, results or objective of the plan
  • Clearly state the performance deficiency and its causes
  • Identity (or develop through a benchmarking process) performance standards
  • Identify the target population involved in the intervention
  • Establish criteria for four levels of evaluation
  • Describe the intervention
  • Estimate the cost of the plan
  • Build a partnership with management
  • Create a schedule for the intervention
  • Present the plan to the client. If the outcome, results or objectives
  • originally agreed to in step 3 need to be renegotiated based on the
  • diagnosis or assessment step, present a rationale for a modified outcome.
  • Present supporting information that justifies each recommendation.

6. Act

Carry out the intervention according to the agreed schedule. This can include a variety of activities which may or may not include training:

  • establishing or clarifying a policy
  • set up a process or procedure
  • create a job aid
  • distribute information in a written or brief presentation
  • conduct a demonstration
  • conduct a training program
  • individual action plans

7. Evaluate

Evaluate the success of the intervention using Donald Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation. Make sure in this process to go back to step 3 and identify the extent to which the business results that drove this project have been achieved.

8. Integrate

Put the client on his/her own with tools and skills that will enable them to perform to the desired standard. If you have been very directive in the role you selected for the intervention, you will need to do this slowly. The objective is to leave the client with a systemic way to maintain the new environment/skills.

A Bit of History

Now that we know how the process works, let’s examine a brief history of the training function over the last decades and why the transition to performance consulting is a necessary strategic move for our organizations.


Training’s recession hit in the late 1990s. If you were around during this time, you probably noticed a cut or two in your budget, then in your headcount and then, if you were one of the less fortunate, to your entire department.

Why this downward spiral of events? Often it was because we were operating as order takers. Managers contacted us and then told us what training they needed – and we delivered. We said we were being supportive, providing good internal customer service. We said we were contributing to the organization’s goals. But in reality, we were doing those managers AND the organization a great disservice.

Here’s why: we are the keepers of performance within the organization.

This is a very important concept to keep in mind.

How many managers do you know that get promoted because of their ability to manage people? Not many, right? People often get promoted to manager because of how well they did a task, not for how well they manage, coach and develop their people.

So, once promoted, (hopefully) we take our managers through a management development process. We train them on things like the performance appraisal process, how to effectively interview, hire and orient new employees, coaching, effective communication, leadership and so on. We help them develop all the skills that will help them manage the performance of their team. We probably even hold yearly refresher sessions at the beginning of the year to remind them how to write performance objectives with their employees and then another one closer to performance review time to remind them how to hold an effective performance review meeting.

This was our role and we did it well….until we received “the call” for training. Why did we STOP consulting about performance when managers called us and told us what training class to hold for their employees? Why did we leave it up to them to solve performance problems? Why did we transition, at this point in time, to order takers?

Why? Because we failed to see this “order” for a training class as yet another “teaching moment” in the full spectrum of managing performance. Instead of seizing the opportunity to further educate our managers (and the organization) about how to get to the root cause of the performance problem, we simply put our heads in the sand and delivered the training. No wonder our training departments were cut – we stopped providing value to the organization. The minute we validated their ability to “solve” a performance problem by always providing training, we diluted our role within the organization as strategic partners. And hence the demise of the training department. Training departments were the first to be cut during the downsizing movement of the late ’90s.

Eventually, organizations realized that folks still had to be trained and so along came a new breed of trainers: the manager! It’s a natural progression, right? They were the ones calling and telling us what type of training to hold and we held it, so the next step was for them to do the training because we all know it’s not that hard…! Well, we all know how that turned out. We have produced an army of subject matter experts out there who think they know how to train and do so through ‘death by PowerPoint’ and mind-numbing webinars. Truth is, they know very little about adult learning and instructional design, let alone how to solve performance problems within the organization.

Thankfully, training departments are back! They have new names like Learning and Development or Knowledge Management and some even call themselves Performance Consultants. The name is not important – the function is. And the ones out there that are thriving are functioning as strategic partners to the organization – they have made the transition to performance consulting.

As true performance consultants, they know that when they “get the call” they need to start to ask questions. They recognize that the initial “resistance” they feel when asking these questions is really a lack of knowledge from the other party. They know how to begin to educate the client/stakeholder to further their understanding of performance and how to improve it. They realize the impact they have on the organization and their responsibility as a strategic partner. They truly are the keepers of the performance within the organization.

The Importance of Transitioning to Performance Consulting

Now that “our recession” has caught up with the rest of the business world, our due diligence to act as performance consultants is more important than ever.

I’m sure you’ve noticed budgets are thin in your organization. We are all operating at the bare bones level. Now more than ever, we cannot afford excess in any form – especially an activity like needless training.

The good news, the financial marketeers will tell you, is that because we are so thin, a “right move” will impact the bottom line faster. Everyone’s job right now is to find those right moves so that we can put growth back into the equation and generate revenue as quickly as possible.

Our “right move” is to be a performance consultant. Our challenge is to recognize and act on these opportunities as soon as they happen. We are the only ones that will know it when we see it, and we don’t need to ask for permission to move ahead.

The more we partner with management and plug into the business, the more we will have access to these opportunities. Relationship building is key here. We need to partner with management, educate them and work together to solve performance issues in order to generate revenue as quickly as possible. In doing so we will continue to get “invited to the table” because of our expertise and the value we bring and gain our “market share” back – all necessary for our survival.

So, the next time you “get the call” step into Performance Consulting mode. It’s your responsibility to the organization!

Maria Chilcote & Melissa Smith

The Training Clinic