Why Consultants Generally Suck It's nothing personal. It's just that we know you are out to kill us.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – A couple of weeks ago in this space, I tersely dismissed the entire profession of consultancy. This was unfair. I should have taken more time to do it.
As you may recall, I stated that young people should not become consultants if they can at all help it. The outcry was immediate, revealing, and pathetic. People--many of them consultants--were so very surprised and bewildered. What could I possibly have against consultants? Was there something wrong with consultants? Some of these people were actually studying to be consultants and wanted to know whether they had made a suspect career choice. Across the board there was a giant cloud of unknowing about a basic fact, and it is this:
Beyond the occasional CEO or middle manager who doesn't know what to do with himself, people in business don't like consultants. Oh, we have nothing against you as human beings. Beyond that, well...where you tread, pain, boredom, expense, and aggravation come humping along behind.
But you don't know that, do you? In this, as in many matters, you are blissfully clueless. In any other profession that would be a liability. In your case, you'll probably work it up into a paradigm that generates a process designed to deliver maximum real-time benefits to the change-resistant organization. Now before you start developing cost-based, zero-sum scenarios to shoot the messenger, I'll provide a few reasons why you've earned our enmity and mistrust.
You temporarily bridge gaps in our organizations that should be filled by staff. Since the 1980s, the offices you invade have been reamed out for head count not once, not twice, but six or seven times, until everybody is now doing a job that used to be done by dozens of people. Instead of a completely functional employee who could work nights and weekends, here you come to produce a bunch of ideas that we guys on the inside will have to execute. Get out of here.
We don't like your expertise--with the exception of guys who come in to reprogram our databases. MIS tends to need a lot of help, and we all hope they get it. Other than that, what are you talking about? Nothing that was on our minds, I can tell you that.
You're way too enthusiastic, and you dress funny. This is not your fault. But you can't blame us for feeling annoyed when you show up all bushy-tailed, and your tail is in $1,200 blue pinstripes and we're in brown. Or you're wearing a power tie we haven't seen in ten years. Or your hair is too short. Or too long. There's no question you're from over the border, chum.
The boss likes you far too much. You're an institutionalized suck-up. You're there to make him look good when he shouldn't. Does he listen to the guys who are in the trenches every day? No, he does not. Instead, here comes you. You hold meetings. You're looking into things. If anybody asks Mr. Beanbag what he's doing about slow growth in sales, he can say, "Oh I've hired the McWeiner Group to look into that. They'll be giving me a report real soon, and if there's any resistance in implementing those goals, well, you can bet that blah blah blah..." Boy, doesn't he look dynamic. And what if it is, in fact, Mr. Beanbag who is the problem? Do you tell him that? Well? Do you?
You don't listen. You look like you're listening, but you're not, you're just waiting to talk. Because you've got a lot to say. You've been waiting since they poured all that stuff in your ear at Wharton to download all your knowledge, and this is your chance.
The solutions you propose to our problems were baked fresh in the 1990s and have been used every year since then. You have your spiel, and you stick to it. Why not? It's why you were hired. This is particularly true of McKinsey guys, who seem to come out of one Stepford factory with the entire program ingrained on their internal database.
You don't really know anything about our business or our company. You've been here for five minutes! Last week you were flogging cheese processors in Wisconsin. The week before, it was a private hospital in Omaha! Quick--who are we again?
Your solutions generally evaporate like fog over a mountain lake. You have your meetings. You "capture" all this stupid stuff on big sheets of paper you tack onto the wall. You rush around with overheads and Magic Markers. We get real creative for a while. Then you go away to put together the results. A few weeks later the report comes. It has all the resonance of old love letters written by another person. The report is filed and forgotten.
You cost a lot. We're dealing with 4% raises, and you cost, what ...$25,000 a month? More? How much do you cost, anyhow? We don't know. A few years ago we hired a consulting group on what our newly merged corporation should call itself. At the time we were Acme Inc. Several hundred thousand dollars later, we were Acme Corp. Ha!
You alienate us from our bosses. You sort of have to. If staff can solve internal problems, that's the end of you, isn't it, Charley?
You're here to get us fired. We know it. You know it. What you're selling might be called Quality or Excellence or Productivity, but you're here to figure out ways to kill us, or spend money on something other than us. We had a guy one time whose big thing was international investment. So we invested in global stupidities that didn't really fit into what we knew how to do. This led to losses, which led to the need to trim costs by several hundred million dollars. Guess who got trimmed? Us, baby. Not you.
And in the end, you're after our jobs and our boss' job. Don't lie. Admit it. Do you know how many times I've seen the scenario? The chairman announces that a reorganization is advisable. A bunch of people are fired, including the guy one down from the chairman who hired the consultant. The McBarfage Group has run the bloody process so far. It's only natural that their senior consultant lead the search for the new chief operating officer. A lengthy hunt is conducted and the perfect person is then suggested. Guess who? The McBarfage guy! What a coincidence!
And it could be different. This, in the end, is the most tragic and galling part. There are some good practitioners of what you do. They come in with highly specific knowledge and expertise after years of fighting in the trenches. They help the inside guys identify a problem and fight against senior management to get things done. They have ideas but impose none. They come like the blessed rain and are gone like the wind. And they are loved.
No one just out of school can be this person, nor can some ancient mariner ten years into retirement. If you aspire to be a consultant, I wish you well. You've got a lifetime of preparation and study before you. And in the meantime? Hey. You're smart and resourceful. Why not get a job?
By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at email@example.com.