HR Consultants Might Find Degree of Opportunities Through Academia

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR Aug 29, 2008
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By 2014, the need for college professors will increase by 32 percent over the number of active college professors in 2004, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many universities are already feeling the pinch as both student enrollments and faculty retirements increase. A corresponding decline in the number of individuals pursuing doctorates in many areas means that colleges are scrambling for ways to fill the gap, often turning to adjunct, or part-time, professional instructors to augment their traditional faculty. That can create opportunities for HR consultants who have the background, expertise and, in many cases, speaking and presentation ability to readily step in to provide courses on a wide range of subjects.

Teaching can increase a consultant’s profile, as well as enhance the consultant’s credibility and visibility among potential clients, says Olivia Fox Cabane, chief charisma coach for Spitfire Consulting in New York. Lectures by Cabane on using “charisma” to influence and persuade others have been presented at Harvard and Yale Universities and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition, her opinion on consultants teaching is shared by others who agree that teaching can provide benefits both personally and professionally.

Bill Stieber, president of Orchestrated Dynamics, a consulting firm in Newtown, Pa., has taught at a variety of programs for local universities including Philadelphia University, LaSalle University, Pennsylvania State University and Strayer University. Teaching has helped increase credibility and allows consultants to stay on top of their areas of expertise, he says. Occasionally, teaching has led to some business, he adds.

Multiple Benefits

Todd Dewett, an associate professor of management at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, was with Anderson Consulting and Ernst & Young. In addition to Dewett’s academic duties, he is also now an independent consultant and the author of Leadership Defined (TVA Inc., 2008). While teaching can create opportunities for HR consultants, it is important to remind consultants considering entering academia that wages are low for part-time or adjunct instructors, he said. However, the upside can be very appealing and can provide several benefits, such as:

Keeping HR consultants current, because teaching forces consultants to stay abreast of the latest trends and happenings in the field.

Improving communication skills, because in order to successfully lecture on a subject, an instructor needs to simultaneously provide details while explaining “the big picture forces.” To do that, lecturers need sharp communication skills and “in consulting, communication is everything.”

Providing a forum for testing ideas. Used correctly, the classroom is not merely an ivory tower where theory is discussed, but the classroom can be a laboratory where a consultant can explore emerging issues in the field.

Generating business leads. While the overt purpose of teaching is not to generate business, this is nonetheless a byproduct for high quality instructors and, while at a minimum, a consultant can build a network of future professional contacts.

Enhancing "brand" image, because consultants who can claim an affiliation with a university or college gain “a clear plus” in terms of their credentials. This can be particularly true in HR, where there is a well-established body of knowledge to be delivered.

Choose Well

While opportunities abound, it is important that the fit is right. HR consultants are busy and have dozens of demands on their time, so while gaining credibility is important, any activity designed to do that must be considered strategically in terms of the benefit it is likely to provide.

Lisa Nirell, a marketing and strategy consultant and principal of EnergizeGrowth, a consulting firm in Sunriver, Ore., says consultants should carefully pre-screen educational institutions to ensure the consultant’s ideas and philosophy on HR are well received. Teaching can represent opportunities for consultants, but choose a college or university wisely, she says.

In addition, consultants may want to pass on small colleges with limited budgets because once the consultancy’s brand is associated with such a school, it could be difficult to disengage from that association. “When I approached a community college, their budgets were too tight to even justify my drive to the class once a week,” Nirell says. “I chose not to associate my brand with the low-cost education provider. I’m glad I did—I later found out that they only attract small, struggling business owners looking for a quick fix and cheap workshops.”

“Your brand is at stake,” she adds.

As Nirell points out, when considering whether a teaching engagement would add value, consultants need to consider their potential client base. She suggests informally surveying past participants of the teaching institution. In gathering this information she suggests that HR consultants focus on the following key questions:

To what degree do students reflect the attributes of your ideal clients?

How often have they returned to that university or college for more workshops?

With undergraduate programs it is unlikely that students will be in the market for HR consultant services. However, when considering these opportunities, HR consultants should keep in mind that undergraduate students will soon be out in the working world—and at a variety of businesses that may very well be looking for consulting expertise in the future. In addition, opportunities to teach workshops or sessions for returning adult students puts HR consultants more immediately in front of potential clients and increases their professional networks, she says.

Where To Start

The first step for HR consultants interested in local teaching opportunities is to contact the colleges and universities in their area. “I have often contacted schools directly or have learned about opportunities over the web,” Stieber says.

HR professionals should take teaching very seriously, as the demand for instructors is likely to increase over the next several years, Dewett adds. “The production of business-related doctorates—the traditional qualification for university level teaching—is declining,” he notes. As a result, colleges of business and their main governing body, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, have been increasingly open to using professionally qualified instructors in larger numbers.

That is good news for HR consultants who have a large body of knowledge, background and expertise to contribute. The opportunity to share that expertise with young and emerging professionals can be personally gratifying as well as professionally rewarding. Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).

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