Those that can’t… consult

Periodically I can’t resist poking fun at “traditional” journalism, where they take a simple thesis, “humanize” it with an interview of example, and then roll to a simple conclusion. The conclusion is often driven by the all-too linear narrator, who tells a story that is supplanted by corroborating facts.

In the usually-vapid managing your career section in the WSJ (these sections are much less illuminating than their hard-news elements) a recent article was titled “How one executive used a sabbatical to fix his career“.

While the article ostensibly showed the linear story of a person who was 1) having a hard time with their career 2) took a sabbatical 3) then performed better, the real story “behind the scenes” was much more interesting. Let’s review…

The protagonist is a consultant at Mercer, a company that specializes in human resource consulting. He starts by saying how burned out he was and waking up in a hotel room not knowing where he was after going to three clients in three cities in three days.

This type of totally dysfunctional situation is typical of your major consulting firms. When I worked for one of those firms I once sat next to a partner who called in his itinerary for the week to come; he was going to be in six cities in six days, covering the whole country east to west coast with a stop in Mexico. This schedule was so impossible that once he completed his over one hour call to the office to put this in motion, the admin actually told him that he was insane to plan such a week. I wasn’t surprised because every time he showed up to my job site he was a distracted zombie; no one can actually add value when they spend 90% of their time travelling and the rest trying to find a Starbucks. Of course, this didn’t stop him from charging an extortionate hourly rate (over $700 / hr, although we didn’t collect that) which also probably was something close to the rate of the protagonist up above.

Back to the story; our protagonist is disillusioned by the pace and decides to take a sabbatical. Here is where the funny start begins:

“Professionally, he explored teaching part time at UCLA’s business school, invested $125,000 in two young unprofitable businesses (“I wanted to put myself in an uncomfortable position and try new things,” he says), and played in the World Series of Poker. He says the Las Vegas event helped him realize he should focus on what he did best — advising corporate boards.”

This is a howler – what is the connection, however tenuous, between playing (presumably losing, since he doesn’t mention winning) in the World Series of Poker and deciding that he should focus on advising corporate boards? Also – he is stating that he invested money in businesses without stating the outcome – I will “read between the lines” and assume that his vapid corporate-speak pronouncements didn’t help the start ups and he lost his $.

When he goes back to Mercer consulting, he immediately falls ill (don’t blame him there, I’d probably fall ill if I went back to 5-days-a-week traveling vapid management consulting jobs, too). His “sabbatical adviser” says that he failed because “he didn’t make a substantive, written evaluation of what he wanted from his job, his colleagues and his work environment.” This is complete drivel and nonsense… what does this even mean?

In the end he goes to a small firm where he finds a better life balance. Note the key here – working for a smaller firm, where you can just bring in some money and not engage in vast interstellar travel and inordinate politics, but the money and upside is smaller, too.

In reality, the sabbatical wasn’t the issue, it was the fact that he needed to go to a smaller firm which was a better fit in his life.

Also note that he is 51 years old and single (doesn’t mention a relationship with anyone else). Couldn’t he have used his 8 month sabbatical to get a date? He says he bought a puppy, so I guess sublimation is the answer.

At least he had the insight to realize that he better stick to consulting, since he doesn’t know how to run a business, play poker, or even teach. Consulting, by comparison, is easy $.

Cross posted at LITGM

14 thoughts on “Those that can’t… consult”

  1. Wouldn’t having a track record of running a successful company be mandatory for being a business consultant? I understand bringing in some technical consultants that have some specialized knowledge of a particular technology or technique but what exactly does a generic business consultant who never actually ran a business know that a true business man doesn’t?

  2. Shannon,

    Many people believe that business–particularly, business strategy, is a more academic and theoretical discipline than it in fact is. Lord Wavell’s comments on generalship are, IMNSHO, also relevant to business. Also, see the comments by Bennis and O’Toole, here.

  3. I can say with 100% certainty that many / most of the prosperous (high ranking) consultants that I have known have never run a successful business before. Most of them can’t run a consulting business, either, sadly.

    In fact I struggle to think of a single consultant I have ever met who ran a successful business prior to becoming a consultant; many of them did work hard and were effective in a variety of disciplines (accounting, operations, finance, etc…) but that isn’t running a business.

  4. Not to mention an interesting group called “government consultants” – people who used to be govt bureaucrats, retired and went into consulting businessmen on how to deal with bureaucracy…

  5. I have met a number of consultants who are very good. They left jobs because they felt it wiser to be on their own and be totally in charge of what they did and offered. I also know a few who left p-laces that got sold or laid off people and they decided to go out on their own. In each case, they were successful as employees and successful as consultant. I can not speak for ALL consultants, of course, but only for the 7 or so I know personally.

  6. There are a few individuals who can do useful consulting work at the corporate strategy level without having themselves run a complete business or a major business function–as far as I know, Ram Charan, for example, has never run a business (other than of course his consulting business.) But such people are relatively rare.

    A major problem with consulting is that the consultant often sees the business as just one more example of whatever “paradigm” he is using, rather than seeing it in its actual and unique reality. In his novel That Hideous Strength, C S Lewis described his protagonist, a sociologist:

    “”..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.””

    This phenomenon has migrated from academia into the business world.

  7. And then there are those consultants that are specialied and do not run a “complete business” but working along with a large firm for special projects savbe the firm from hiring full-time people for a short-term goal. There is, then, a useful place for a specialized consultant and he or she does not need to have run a full-blown “successful” business.The way the notion has been phrased here is a bit like: those that can do, dop; those that can not, teach. That is jut not so.

  8. Joseph Hill – the people you are describing are mostly at small, specialized firms that consult for specific lines, not general business consultants. I work with many of those, and htey are pretty good, but they are also not pulling in $700 per hour becuase htey hobnob with the CEO. What we are talking about here are the McKinseys, BCGs, and Accentures of this world.

    Most of those firms are comprised of a few partners with long term experience in navigating the upper echelons of the corporate world by spewing BS all over the landscape. The worker bees are even less useful, being mostily B-school grads with no post-B-school experience, to temper all the theory from B-school with experience outside consulting. The people McKinsey took from my class were the biggest BSers in the lot of us, but taking someone with 5 years pre-MBA work school experience and no post-MBA work experience means that all you are going to get is platitudes, even if they are sincere. Those worker-bee consultants are also going to trend younger becuase that lifestyle is hell on a family, which also means that theory they spout will be less likely to be tempered by wisdom.

    The small-firm specific consultants of whom Joseph hill speaks are more likely to be older, with families.

  9. I apreciate your comment and for sure I am familiar not with small firms but a fairly substantial bank, with many branches

  10. I spent the last 20 years of my career with a petrochemical manufacturing company that went through a leveraged buyout, an IPO, acquisition by a foreign corporation (twice), numerous “reorganizations”, and some divestitures. Accordingly, I am very familiar with consultants. Based on my experience, the comments by John Jay and David Foster are right on point.

    The only successful consultants that I encountered were those that interviewed employees at the middle level, took their ideas, repackaged them by adding in some “consultant-speak”, and presented them as their own. Even though the upper management had heard these ideas before from their own people, suddenly they became viable because they were presented by the consulting firm. They were validated by the fact that the company had now paid big bucks to get them.

    Just one man’s observations.

  11. Joseph Hill, glad to see you are here with random, barely on topic comments.

    I actually know a tremendous amount about consultants, having spent over a decade in the business, and know literally hundreds if not thousands of consultants. I don’t know “seven”.

    If you read the article / post and understood it I wasn’t slagging consultants per se, I was saying that the real issue is that this guy was working at a big firm and was a better off at a small firm and that the sabbatical was a red herring.

    Consulting is a big industry and you are on point with all the differences. I will post something on the consulting industry soon.

    And, for now, I won’t edit your comments like Dan from Madison… my co-blogger

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