How you can maximize the benefits of working with a consultant

Don Currie, Senior Consultant with MRSB Consulting Services, provides his perspective on what you may want to consider when hiring a consultant or consulting firm to move your business or organization forward

Being a consultant is rewarding work, and in my 25 years in the industry I've worked with more clients than I dare to try counting. Through the years I've realized that there are a few areas which, if better understood, can make the client-consultant engagement more rewarding for everyone involved. Below are some broad questions you may ask as someone considering the services of a consultant, and my two cents on each. Enjoy!

 

Should you consider hiring a consultant?

This is the first question you should ask - and think about quite a bit - before inviting a consultant onto your team. Some typical scenarios where your organization may benefit from hiring a consultant include one or more of the following: 

 
  1. Your organization has a need for expertise in a specific area (e.g. marketing, operations, financial analysis or financing) and the need is time sensitive or considered to be relatively short-term (usually less than a year) with a specific start and end date.
  2. Your organization has made unsuccessful attempts at meeting its own needs in the past, or the results of previous attempts were not satisfactory.
  3. There is internal disagreement on the best way to meet a particular need. Engaging a consultant with previous experience in the area or one with strong facilitation skills can help in bringing about consensus.
  4. An objective perspective is required (e.g. to remove emotional or cultural barriers or strong biases within your organization).
  5. The work or task at hand is something that no one else either wants to do, knows how to do, has time to do, or a combination of these factors.     
  6. A funding or financing organization is requesting that a consultant be brought in to provide further information or justification for taking specific action, or to support a funding/financing request for a project.

 

You think you might need a consultant. What do you do next?

Most professional consultants will have an initial meeting with the client to discuss your opportunities, goals and challenges at no fee or commitment. Your specific opportunities or challenges might not be that well defined - this is ok! A consultant can assist you in assessing the situation. From this initial discussion the consultant will work with you to develop a terms of reference for the engagement that addresses your situation and specific needs.

The terms of reference you receive should indicate deliverables such as draft and final reports, when and to whom any presentations are to be made (when applicable), primary and or secondary research methodologies that are to be used, timelines to be adhered to and budget.  

 

You’ve engaged a consultant. How can you make sure you benefit from the engagement as effectively and efficiently as possible?

The benefit you receive by engaging with a consultant will increase with his or her understanding of your organization. Follow a few basic techniques to foster this understanding:

  1. Help the consultant to understand your product(s) or service(s), your market(s) and key stakeholders. One effective way of doing this is by providing them with existing, relevant documentation:

  • A copy of your most recent business plan
  • Strategic plans
  • Budgets
  • Policies and procedures manuals
  • Technical documentation
  • Financial statements
  • Organizational chart
  • Pricing policy
  • Distribution system
  • How your organization currently uses media and promotional materials

 

2. Give the consultant a sense of the overall nature and culture of your organization (be honest!):

  • Are employees considered to be independent or do they typically work in teams?
  • How are decisions made within the organization and by whom?
  • Are there known barriers or sensitivities?
  • How do staff generally react to change (i.e. are they typically supportive or resistant)?

3. Give the consultant a sense of the priorities within the organization today. Perhaps you want to launch a new product or service, increase sales or market share, be more efficient in particular areas or be more innovative within your sector.

 

4. Let the consultant know your preferred method (email, telephone, in-person) and frequency of communication.

Lastly, remember that open communication and a clear understanding of what you are trying to accomplish will go a long way toward meeting your specific needs and ultimately improving your organization’s overall performance. Hiring a consultant is an exciting and rewarding experience, so take pride in the fact that you've reached a point where this is a possiblilty for your organization.

 

Life as an ASCA student

Maggie Evoy and Chris Arsenault of MRSB Chartered Accountants share their stories of doing what it takes to become Chartered Accountants.

 

Maggie

On the road to becoming a Chartered Accountant there is a challenge called the ASCA. The Atlantic School of Chartered Accountancy is a post-graduate series of courses that lead to a CA designation. If you make it through ASCA successfully, this leads to an even bigger challenge…a major exam called the UFE, which marks the final step between you and your future career.

The night before my introduction to the ASCA program and Module 1 six months ago, I was extremely excited. It was that night-before-the-first-day-of-school feeling, which always gives me those butterflies of anticipation. This was no different. I slept a total of 15 minutes that night.

Mod 1

The next day as I entered the classroom, I felt like I did on my first day of school – completely out of place. Everyone seemed so well prepared and put together. I on the other hand was feeling the opposite.

Paul Morris, founder of the ASCA program, then began to speak. I was pre-warned about what his speeches entail by a colleague, although his words still made me cringe. “You have three things in your life: work, school and social life; it is only possible to do two in one day.” What I took from this was, “Prepare to give up all your current relationships, activities and time for yourself.”

After those first three days, I left feeling somewhat defeated. Is it really going to be that much work? Am I really cut out for this? What is going to happen to my napping routine? Well, as I found out during Mod 1, the answer to my first question was YES, it is a lot of work (a lot of reading in Mod 1), but it isn’t so much work that you can’t enjoy your life, too.

I spent my summer doing the usual PEI things – beach, country concerts, BBQs, running the trails. I planned my study schedule in advance so I could do these things. Planning is key in ASCA. Stick to your study plan (or try your best to!) and make sure you leave yourself enough time to do the things you want to do. In my opinion, not getting enough time in for yourself (exercise, time with friends and family, a nap here and there) will hurt you in the ASCA program. Balance is important and can be obtained even in the hectic life of an ASCA student!

Mod 2

Mod 2 consisted of more assignment work and less reading, which I liked. The material was harder but doable. I made a mistake in Mod 2, however. I did not stick to my study plan as well as I had in Mod 1. Although I did complete all of the assignments and readings, I did not properly go over my assignments when the suggested approach was given (this is a MUST; 90% of my learning has happened by doing this). This led me to feel panic-stricken the week before writing the exam. When we travelled to Moncton for three days for the Mod 2 review followed by the exam, I was stressed out and a ball of nerves. By the time the exam rolled around I did manage to calm myself down, pull myself together and write the exam without having a meltdown – thanks to my fellow ASCA classmates!

Lessons Learned

Things I’ve learned thus far since entering the ASCA program:

  1. Time is a scarce resource; use it to the best of your ability.
  2. Talk to people who have gone or are going through the ASCA; they have great advice. These people have calmed me down at least a dozen times since I’ve started.
  3. Take as much time to review the assignment as it took to complete the assignment.
  4. Have a realistic study schedule and stick to it. I know I will not study for more than two hours after a day of work, therefore I no longer plan for that.
  5. Learn while you work – the best learning comes from actually doing. So many scenarios I have encountered at work have helped me understand school better and vice versa!
  6. BALANCE. Exercise is a must and will cure most anxiety. Enjoy work, spend time with family and friends and continue to have ‘me’ time. It is possible with proper planning.

 

 

Chris

The Beginning

After graduating from university in the spring of 2013, I was getting ready to start work with MRSB and begin the ASCA program. I thought to myself, “The program can’t be too bad”. Many people have gone through the ASCA while they worked full time and they managed to study.

Then June came and all the ASCA students got together for a three-day workshop over at St. Mary’s University to go over the program (how it works, weekly assignments, testing and expectations). Walking into the classroom that first day, it felt like the first day of school. Excitement aside, after hearing ASCA guru Paul Morris talk about the program, it made me seriously consider if I really wanted to continue with it. The biggest thing I recall him saying was the fact that in a normal day only two of three things can be done: work, study or being social. In ASCA the two are already chosen for you: work and study. Hearing this put quite a scare into some people, including me. It left me wondering, “Can I handle a full day of work then a night of studying?”

It didn’t take me long to realize that if it was a simple road to get your CA, then everyone would do it. I reminded myself that living my dream of being an accountant was what I wanted to do, and while my life may suck for two years, it will be worth it in the long run.

Mod 1

Mod 1 started off pretty rough. The way the ASCA program works is by giving you weekly assignments that consist of reading and written work. The average workload per week was about 12 to 15 hours. Some weeks it was 10 hours of reading and five hours of written work, and the next week it could be completely different. For someone who is not a fan of reading, the weeks with 7+ hours were difficult.

Another factor that played with my concentration during Mod 1 was the weather outside. It is tough to watch a PEI summer from inside a room while you are studying, and it felt like it did not rain once between the beginning of Mod 1 in June to its end in August.

The Mod 1 test was broken into two parts that were equally weighted: multiple choice and simulations. I’ve never enjoyed multiple choice tests so on the first day after finishing it I was not confident in how I did. The final portion of the test was to be written 10 days later and was a simulation test, which I had never done before. Going into test day I was feeling pretty good about my ability to write the simulations, and once the test was over I felt really confident about how I did. Luckily when the test marks had come back my gut feeling was right, and had exceeded what I was hoping for on the test.

Mod 2

Mod 2 was not that bad. Having Mod 1 under my belt, I felt a lot more comfortable with the work. The weekly assignments began to change to where it was more writing assignments than reading, which I enjoyed a lot more. The time flew by and before I knew it, it was time to head to Moncton to read this Mod.

I was pretty confident heading over to Moncton, as I felt I knew the material well enough. It was just my writing capabilities that I needed to sharpen up on. I knew in Moncton the facilitators were going to help us with our writing so I was not that nervous heading over. After three days of intense workshops it was finally time to write. After writing the ‘sims’ again I felt confident that I had done enough to pass the test, but not necessarily done well. When I got my mark back it was as I expected,  I’d passed!

Lessons Learned

What I’ve taken away from the program so far:

  1. Stick to your time budgets; this is useful when completing assignments and doing tests. The budgets are given to you for a reason so try to follow them.
  2. Plan your time and do not plan to do all your work in one day. You will just drain yourself and won’t retain as much information, which is a waste of time.
  3. Listen to Paul Morris: When you think about it there really is only time to do two things in a day. Schedule your week so that you can get a good balance in there.
  4. Ask for help. If you are lucky enough to be working at a larger firm while going through ASCA, many of your colleagues may have gone through the same process, so don’t be afraid to ask!

 

Some less-than-obvious benefits of the Medical Expense Tax Credit

When it comes time to file our personal tax returns, we all know the routine. Pretty well everyone looks for a way to reduce their tax bill or to increase their tax refund. There is always a chance that those much sought-after savings will come from an unexpected source. The Medical Expense Tax Credit is one example. It's possible that you have incurred expenses over the past year that you assumed were 'routine' but can actually earn you a heftier tax refund or reduce your tax bill. In other words, this credit can provide tax relief on items that may not appear to be medical expenses at first glance.

A person with impaired mobility can face housing costs that most of us do not. Those who qualify for the disability tax credit because of impaired mobility may be able to claim as medical expenses the cost of renovations to their current house or apartment that enable them to gain access or to be mobile within their home. If they build a new house, they may be able to claim the above average portion of their construction costs that are related to access and mobility. If they move to a house or apartment that is more accessible than their previous residence, they can claim up to $2,000 of their moving costs as medical expenses. Here are some examples of renovations and construction costs that can generally be claimed as medical expenses:

  • Adding ramps for a person who cannot use stairs
  • Widening halls and doorways to improve access to rooms
  • Lowering kitchen and bathroom cabinets to make them accessible
  • Modifying the driveway to allow access to a bus

 

A person who suffers from a severe chronic respiratory or immune system disorder can also claim certain household costs as medical expenses. With a prescription they can claim the cost of the following items:

  • An air filter, cleaner or purifier
  • A water filter, cleaner or purifier (including a water softener)
  • An electric or sealed combustion furnace that is replacing a furnace that is neither
  • 50% of the cost of an air conditioner (maximum claim of $1,000)

 

Here are some other household costs that can be claimed as a medical expense if you have a prescription for them:

  • Grab bars and other equipment to assist in the bathroom
  • A stair lift chair

 

Generally, the cost of repairs and maintenance to these items can also be claimed as medical expenses. Not all medical expenses involve medications or treatment by a healthcare professional. The items above are just some examples of extraordinary medical expenses. If you have incurred costs relating to a medical condition or disability and aren't sure whether to claim them under the Medical Expense Tax Credit, be sure to discuss them with your tax advisor during preparation of your tax return.

 

 

 

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