The C word

Somewhere in the dictionary between Conspicuous and Contemptible sits the word Consultant. It sits there for a reason. Certainly, my experiences of the mainstream consulting industry have consistently been as disappointing and predictable as the average person in the street would expect. Totally detached from the reality of most situations, failing to recognise the challenge of actually doing stuff, far too focussed on “upwards” management, and following a business model designed to already be laser focussed on upselling the next gig way before actually breaking a sweat on the current one. Maybe they’re an easy target to take aim at – but only because they warrant it.

And now here I am. Consultant. It must be true, it says so on my e-business card, and even more tellingly, on my LinkedIn profile. After an enforced period of absence from my last proper job, (see previous blogs) and without the next top team gig fluttering silf-like into my lap, I am out there selling myself. And yes, it feels like it’s to the devil.

The good news is that Beelzebub is buying, although the depth of his pockets (I think it is OK to proclaim that Satan is a HE) is yet to be proven. Indeed so far my independent consulting world does not seem to be a road paved with gold. A veritable flurry of “two” consulting gigs have come my way so far. One was a call with a pair of nameless faceless strangers who for $200 picked my brains about a subject I knew little about in a market that I did. Delighted when I found out I was to be paid via gift card. Still haven’t used it. Note to self to check expiry date. Secondly I spent a full day travelling (expenses paid) to a far flung foreign place to transverse in a different language, get a quick tour of the business, lunch with the CEO, give a hastily convened motivational talk to a room full of trainees, deliver a set of impromptu tips and experiences to the full Exec team, take the obligatory humorous team photo, and then to be quickly paid by way of a silk tie in a fancy box and a big thank you before being whisked back to the airport. Not sure that I have the sharpened teeth and commercial savvy for this gig but what the hell.

I should confess that I have briefly trodden this populous pathway previously. Again during an “unexpected break” between roles I stumbled accidentally upon an initial earning opportunity which then led onto more. My very first entry into this lucrative alien world was standing in for someone at short notice for a one day trip to Paris to devour a posh pontificating luncheon and then entertain some high end consultants and their clients with my detailed active operational knowledge of an en vogue “next big thing” concept that was hitting the consulting journals (pre LinkedIn) with venom. I was flown in the evening before, wined and dined at a swanky restaurant very close to my even swankier hotel, and then picked up late morning to head to the business district venue for the conference style lunch where we would meet the all important clients. All very pleasant. Sadly I’m not sure how well I fulfilled the intended brief when I actually started describing how successfully this great new concept was being adopted in my “real world” – because the reality (alongside most consultant led fads of the previous 2 decades) was that it wasn’t. Strangely I wasn’t invited back by that particular “big” consulting firm, although they did have the decency to pay me the agreed $3000 fee and stick me on a train. However I did think as I was contemplating purchasing some old rope on the way home with my earnings – “well, I can certainly do this”.

Doing and enjoying though, are two very different things. My next foray was a real eye opener – less about consulting per se, but more a wake up call to big business ethics. I had, somewhat naively, expected all big companies to be run in at least a semi professional and effective manner. This was as a result of my formative 15+ year stint with a successful powerhouse of a company, built on humble, thrifty, sound business practices and a large dosage of ethics. A little different to the gold taps in the toilets – I kid you not – approach of the large corporate client of my next consulting gig. Being hired as part of a small niche consulting group brought in to “validate” strategies post a takeover, we were housed on the recently cleared Executive suite top floor. Gold taps were just the start. Marble floors. Luxurious seats. Stunning views. And direct access to the building roof which played host to the former CEO’s personal tennis court.

The success of my role in that project led to a full time offer to become a bona fide consultant rather than just playing at it as a filler. I gave it due consideration and even undertook a trial period, but quickly the horror of the selling cycle brought me to my senses. The conference circuit may work for some, but standing spouting bollox and knowing your only objective is to smooze some poor unexpecting mid level company attendee into granting you an opportunity to blindly pitch what you can do for their business was simply not for me. However exotic the location was.

I did gain valuable knowledge from these forays though, and parts of the niche role, actually helping out, were quite good fun. Most critically for me it also led to my next big job. Here’s hoping for a repeat performance this time around.

Why then, the vitriolic intro, I’m sure you’re wondering? Well, let’s face it this new era of innovation and disruption is not bringing the best out of the consulting industry. The hyperbole is on overdrive, revolutionary new concepts are ten a penny, most big business (except the very big few) are stagnating or retreating and executives are burning like a Californian forest fire. The ingredients are all there for the magical solution from Boards of calling for a generous helping of consultant “support”. Yet what is being served up falls well short in almost all instances I’ve come across.

Because ultimately there’s not much to be gained, and even less to like, about the blood sucking modus operandi of most consulting firms and their spawn. Certainly my eyes were well and truly opened to the people and their priorities, by what I found when plunged into the first really big role of my career, in a new company, in a new country, with a remit to sort it out and get shit done. A full buildings worth of these poor young morsels had been blindly parachuted in, resplendent in their shiny suits and even shinier smiles, earning their $1500 bucks per day to arrogantly spout theoretical twaddle about “transformation” to the confused, bemused and demotivated full time employees, who were to a person wondering why on earth they were there. Progress was stellar, if you believe in moving in ever decreasing circles. It was a quick fire (literally) action plan that sorted that particular problem out, and strangely at the same time our budget overspend was also solved.

Who is to blame for this mess? For providing such poor service in the very era when businesses desperately need real and effective help? It has to be the greedy head honchos of these highly profitable businesses, who are so focused on perpetuating the myth of consultant superiority and the beauty of the on-sell that they cannot see the extent to which they are selling their customers down the river. And as for my current predicament of joining their ranks? Well, I think it’s fair to say that it will only be a temporary sortie into this world. As soon as I can I will be bidding Satan goodbye again with a cheery wave and hearing back to the real world.

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