Independent Evaluator Lessons from the Hilton Lobby Bar: A Drama in Two Acts by Kathleen Sullivan

The Scene: Three people sit at the common table at the Hilton Minneapolis Hotel lobby bar. It’s Wednesday noon, a few hours before the AEA annual conference starts.

The Characters:

Humble Evaluator”: Kathleen Sullivan from Fine Gauge Strategy. Eavesdropping on Brandon’s interview for a sales position with Nigel’s firm while trying to review the AEA conference program book.

“Nigel”: Chiseled features. Expensive business-casual. Posh British accent, probably genuine.

“Brandon”: Earnest Midwesterner. Suit and tie. Sales guy at a legacy technology firm.

Act One:

Nigel employs the Jack Bauer School of Human Resources to grill Brandon on his resume.

Nigel: Why was your undergrad GPA [* more than 10 years and four jobs ago] only 3.6?

Brandon: Um . . . I drank a lot of beer freshman year?

Nigel: What turned that around?

Brandon: Um . . . I stopped drinking beer? At least, not as much beer. I went to class? More classes?

Act Two:

Twenty minutes in, despite his shaky start, Humble Evaluator thinks Brandon is holding his own.

She was wrong.

Nigel: Leaning back in his chair. I’m afraid you’re wasting my time with this meeting.

Air in Brandon’s lungs is suddenly liquid, ice. Were he a grouper, the inaudible distress would scatter his friends across the polished lobby floor.

Brandon: What should I be doing?

Nigel: We’ve been here for 20 minutes and you haven’t figured out what I’m looking for in a salesperson.

Brandon: But I’ve been answering your questions.

Nigel: Yes, because you aren’t asking any. So start asking.

* * *

Did Brandon get the nod? Or did Nigel proceed to another lobby to grill another hopeful?  

Alas, we will never know. Before the scene ended, Humble Evaluator departed the Hilton for the AEA opening plenary, mulling over Nigel’s unintentional lesson for evaluation consultants.

Hot Tip: Consultants should try quickly to focus a prospective client interview on the client’s need for services. A discussion of the client’s work and its challenges will illustrate the consultant’s skills (and highlight pertinent background) effectively, in a way that touring the consultant’s CV can’t do. If the interviewer seems intent on probing her college a cappella experience, the consultant can try, “I’m happy to discuss my background, but I can make better use of your limited time once I know more about your project and your needs.” Or the consultant can briefly summarize his professional path, and segue back to discussing the client’s work.

Hot Tip: Take it outside. This one is for commissioners of evaluations. You know what your organization permits you to discuss at the common table in the Hilton lobby bar. The consultant does not. Finding a more appropriate conversation space invites the consultant to ask deeper questions that identify whether the consultant’s skills meet your needs.

Rad Resources: The work of RAIN Group helped me approach client interviews as an information sharing opportunity. The staff of Integrated Work improved my strategic thinking about work conversations.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365@eval.org. aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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