Monday, January 30, 2012

Ah, Consultants

In the three chapters of The Social Animal by David Brooks we’re discussing this week at The High Calling, the fictional character Erica we’ve been following graduates from college and decides to join a consulting firm. After a few years, and learning the highs and lows of consulting, she strikes out on her own and becomes an independent consultant.

Ah, consultants.

In the course of my career, I have worked with many “outside consultants.”  I’ve worked with virtually every big-name consulting there is. I have worked with numerous consultants no one has ever heard of. I have been an outside consultant myself.

I’ve worked with good consultants and consultants who had far too many degrees to be of any use to anyone. I have ridden the waves of virtually every business fad known in the past 30 years. I have heard consultants offering expert opinions that were as vacuous as the nodding heads of the clients hearing the opinions. I’ve experienced consultants instructing a roomful of 300 highly paid executives how to build Legos together while sitting on the floor. And I’ve experienced consultants miraculously breaking through a corporate culture that needed to be broken.

As a consultant myself, I once spoke to a group of company executives who were keen to change their corporate web site, and had been arguing for months how to have the best web site in the industry. I wowed them – I am not making this up – by showing them print-outs of what their competitors were doing. No one had thought to look.

In general, outside consultants were viewed by organizational insiders as the enemy, an enemy whose primary purpose was to destroy jobs. Consultants didn’t help their cause when they arrived with attitudes. Senior management rarely saw the attitudes, because few senior managers worked with consultants. Communications people, like myself, worked with them all the time. Consultants knew, often better than executives, that communications was critical to any effort to change an organization.

One of the best experiences I had with an outside consultant was when St. Louis Public Schools hired a management firm to run the district and do what elected Board members were unable to do politically themselves – close schools, eliminate jobs, outsource everything not related to education. It was a district that at its height had more than 100,000 students. But that was four decades earlier; the number of students was below 40,000 and continuing to decline. The problem was a school district that had an administration and infrastructure for 100,000 students, not 40,000.

A political war ensued. The consultant was given a year when it needed at least three, but it still made significant gains. But schools were closed, jobs cuts, benefits policies changed, contracts outsourced. Even more was needed. The communications function was the crossroads, and was often at the epicenter or every major (and daily) trauma. A few years later, the state of Missouri took over the district, and still runs the district today.

As described by Brooks, Erica’s experiences as a consultant and what she learns ring true. She goes out on her own, expecting to bring something of value to clients. But she finds that clients aren’t interested, and that, to survive and be successful, she will have to add some “wow factors” to what she knows and can do. She turns to behavioral economics, and it is there she will meet Harold, the other major fictional character in The Social Animal, whom we left in high school a few chapters back.

To read more posts on these chapters in The Social Animal, please visit The High Calling, where Laura Boggess is leading the discussion.


Laura said...

I think the world of the consultant must be a slippery slope. Balancing that expertise and a healthy respect for the system one is entering into must be a challenging thing to do. But also, to have more substance than wow factor...these are all tricky things in the world of behavioral economics. We don't know what we need, most of the time, or what is best, it seems. I appreciate all of your experience in this area, Glynn.

Louise Gallagher said...

Ok. So now you've convinced me I must read this book as I set out on my career as..... a consultant :)

'behavioural economics' huh? Okay. I'm there! :)

H. Gillham said...

Educational consultant -- is an oxymoron.


Just sayin'.