For consultants and consultants-to-be: BONUS POST!



And you thought the fun was over…

Whether you are thinking about venturing out on your own or have already started, this series will arm you with advice from seasoned consultants! This post features Dr. Barrington, who provides her insight on common questions consultants (or consultants-to-be) might have. Be sure to check out the first and second part of this series!


Gail Vallance Barrington is a graduate of McGill University (BA) and Carleton University (MA) and holds a Doctorate in Educational Administration from the University of Alberta (1981). She is a Credentialed Evaluator and a certified teacher. In 2014, she was made a Fellow of the Certified Management Consultants of Canada. Since starting her consulting practice in 1985 she has conducted over 130 program evaluation studies in the fields of education, health, and research. Her top-rated book, Consulting Start-up and Management: A Guide for Evaluators and Applied Researchers (SAGE, 2012) continues to be popular. In 2008 she received the Canadian Evaluation Society award for her Contribution to Evaluation in Canada and in 2016 was honoured to receive the American Evaluation Association Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Award for Evaluation Practice. She teaches courses in qualitative research and program evaluation for several universities and provides webinars and workshops on consulting skills.

Gail Barrington closeup 2016

What made you decide to become a consultant?

I began to work on program evaluation contracts while teaching as a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary in the Faculty of Education. For a while I did both. Then a term came along when, due to program reorganization, the courses I was teaching would not be offered. I had to decide what to do, wait for a year with half-time consulting or go at it full time. This was not an easy decision as I had always worked for a school, college, or university, never responsible for my own pay check. Going out on my own was very scary. I can remember sitting in my car looking across a rainy street at the office building I had selected and wondering if I could really work there. I took a big breath, got out of the car and the rest is history. My consulting business opened on November 1, 1985.

Could you share some best practices for remote consultancy?

I often work with clients at a distance. For example, I worked for many years on a national evaluation project for the federal government in Ottawa, Ontario while I lived in Calgary, Alberta. I made a point of holding quarterly meetings in person because I felt that being on site with the client was necessary to get a sense of their work, their issues, and their reaction to what we were doing. Email and Skype are fine but in, the end, it is personal chemistry and partnership which bond a project together. In that project we spent time together informally as well as during our day-long meetings. We had fun skating, sailing, and going out to restaurants. These informal activities strengthened our understanding of each other and we accomplished a remarkable amount of success as a result.

Do you suggest that consultants market themselves as a specialist or a generalist?

I think you need a specialty area and then you can branch out from there. New consultants should focus both on what they like doing best and on what they have received good feedback about. Your specialty area will expand and morph over time but having a clearly defined area of specialization as a foundation is a great way to start.

How do you measure the success of a project?

Success is not measured by the final report. It is really measured by the extent to which positive program change occurs. Evaluation is all about making a difference through informed decision making and of course our role is providing the evidence needed. The real results happen long after the report is finished, and we have gone on our way. Not often enough do we circle back to find out what happened afterwards.

Finally, what advice do you wish someone had given you as a new consultant?

Hang in there and find some good colleagues. When I started my business, I didn’t have any role models and so I had to make it up as I went along. The closest approximation I could find to the independent evaluation consultant was the independent business consultant. As a result, I became a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) so I could have some colleagues to talk to. However, research was not their interest area and so I was still struggling about how to conduct evaluation research and bill for it gracefully. Happily, I found the American Evaluation Association (AEA) Independent Consulting Topical Interest Group (IC TIG) and there at last were business people with a social justice perspective. We continue talking to this day!

Want more Dr. Barrington? Visit her website!

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