World of work
Lesson No. 3

Cabin Boy to the Wheel — While the Captain Stays Below

by Julius Lengert

It often happens in old fairy tales: when enemies threaten the kingdom, when there is a drought or a famine, or the king’s daughter needs a husband – in other words, whenever things get too hot to handle, the king calls his advisers and they considered what to do.

These advisers had a variety of backgrounds and professions. While some lived at the palace, others lived as hermits, in glorious introspective isolation. Some were religious men who keenly studied the Holy Scriptures. A few were seers, with the power of foresight, who could interpret signs and circumstances, and foretell the future. A good many were philosophers who used their mind power to search for truth, the nature of things, and right behavior. All of them were men of honor and experience, who knew all about life, the world and humankind, and each had his own method of interpretation. Each of them had seen, experienced and learned many things.

Today fairy tales are rarely told, even in children’s books. Kingdoms, too, with absolute monarchs, courts and princesses, are nearly extinct. Yet, still among us and living happily ever after is — the consultant.

However, consultants are not always honorable, experienced, expert, mature and wise, with domain knowledge. On the contrary, they are young (or act youngish), smart, dynamic, analysts with minds full of academic theories and methods. They are usually brash and claim the ability to dissect any business and immediately identify and permanently eliminate any weaknesses. Their approach is always the same: they use impressive-sounding neologisms and pseudo-scientific language (consultant-speak) to market their methods. In this way, the problems ('challenges') of a business (any business) are soon identified, analyzed, assessed and described in impressive scientific-sounding terms. After making the assessments, they recommend a catalog of measures to be implemented to solve the problems identified.

There is yet another difference between this new uber-smart generation of consultants and the advisers and wise men of olds: those rulers ordered their advisers to attend them at court. Today, leaders of major corporations have to fight off an industry of consultants, who are unsolicited, obtrusive and invasive. These consultants are organized in alumni networks and develop strategies to occupy top executive positions at host corporations. They aim to switch from the role of consultant to board member as swiftly as possible. Managing boards are, after all, the source of the most profitable consulting contracts, and board decisions can exclude competitors (networker loyalty). After all, one is still among like-minded people. The difficult part, implementing the measures, is for the operating units of the host business to sort out. That these measures may be near impossible to implement, seems to bother no one. Neither does anyone appear to notice that such advice is nearly always the same: restructure to 'world class', focus on core competences, cut the workforce, benchmark, optimize cash flow, outsource, and so on. The smartest of the smart consultants call themselves strategy consultants: they resemble clones, arrive in strictly organized groups and in uniform.

Strangely enough, private firms and public bodies hire them repeatedly, despite their fees, which are anything but modest. It is even more surprising that host business executives, proud holders of science degrees themselves, fail to notice the questionable methods used by consultants — it is a precept of science that the analytic method chosen must fit the problem, not vice versa. In other words, it serves no useful purpose to try to solve the problems of a business (which is virtually a living organism) with arbitrarily selected and generally applicable methods. A proper solution requires a method that fits the needs of each particular business and its specific history, structure and culture. Consultants, unfamiliar with the practices and culture of a host business, must necessarily ignore these vital aspects. They argue, unscientifically, that the problem must be adapted to fit their method.

A good consultant should act like a pilot for a ship, and have at least the same seagoing experience as the ship’s master. As an assistant, the pilot should recommend the safest course through hazardous waters. Most young consultants have neither essential local knowledge nor essential practical experience. They contribute mainly theoretical knowledge. They are as if cabin boys expected to act as captain; that their advice has little practical benefit in a storm is not surprising.

An interested observer with common sense will ask the question: Why do proficient managers — grown men and women with business experience — ask advice from inexperienced young graduates? Consultants have an average age of thirty-two in big firms like McKinsey. Why do they ask advice from those with little experience of life and without worldly wisdom, and pay lots and lots of money to do so? Is it because they are merely managerists, themselves without practical experience and professional expertise, and therefore are afraid and incapable of taking big risky decisions; instead they hire expensive outsiders as an alibi, someone else to blame when things go wrong?

Of course, external consultants can be useful as 'sparring partners' and for a second opinion; they can offer a fresh perspective, their view is not blinkered, they are less likely to misinterpret what they see. It can be helpful to stand back to see things more clearly.
That is why kings had advisers, but those advisers were most definitely not — young, smart and inexperienced.

Julius Lengert