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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 28-Jan-11


Friday 28-January-11

The second-oldest profession

Management consultants have very varied reputations, from genius saviours to disruptive parasites. One senior manager I know describes them as 'scum of the earth', yet he still employs them, and therein hangs the tale. Like them or loathe them, it seems they are here to stay. They disappear sometimes in cost-cutting exercises, although they are as likely to be driving these activities, hiding their own exorbitant costs in the assumed savings. And when the rubber meets the road a few months later and the slimmed-down organization can't cope, guess who turns up on the doorstep?

As an erstwhile consultant, perhaps I shouldn't complain, but at least I think I can speak with some authority. I have been an internal consultant and an external consultant. I have hired consultants and had consultants put in charge of me. Heaven forbid, I've even been a full-time employee, yet working for a consultant who was working for another consultant.

Like most of us, consultants have a business to run and profits to make. At root, they are body shops, albeit very expensive ones, selling brains that are often assumed to be better than those that their clients have. There is a psychology in this that is akin to Bion's 'Basic Assumption Group' where groups fall into a primitive and anxious leader-seeking search for a saviour, much as a child wants a parent to solve all their ills. Consultants may happily encourage this dependency as it is more profitable to feed people than teach them to fish. It's a scary thought, but there are companies out there effectively being led by consultants.

Consultants can also be caught up in, and perhaps complicit with, political shenanigans. For example where a manager sees a project as personally risky, they may call in a consultant to manage it -- and who is an easily fired scapegoat when it inevitably fails. Another game is where consultants are asked to do 'independent' reports which support decisions that have already been made.

Consultancy has been described as the second-oldest profession in the world. With all the connotations, this can be an accurate descriptor. Consultants can also be the intelligent and incisive support that they promise. I've found that in the end it comes down to the person. There are a lot of consultants who do a reasonable job, but who do not set the world alight. There are also truly great consultants out there, but my experience says that it takes a lot of searching to find them.

Your comments

Thank goodness you make the remark towards the end of the article that it's down to the person - I was beginning to think that anyone faintly connected with consultancy in whatever guise was being vilified along with the charlatans who do indeed pervade the profession!

From my perspective (as a learning and development consultant!) a lot of it is down to the hiring attitude of the commissioning company. If you view people as 'the scum of the earth', then everything that happens is likely to confirm that opinion, and it'll be at least partially your own fault. On the other hand, it's unwise of organisations to think that a consultant has all the answers - they won't if you don't.

And let's not also forget that many organisations see consultants as a convenient scapegoat when difficult decisions need to be made...culprits, you know who you are!

Annabelle B

Dave replies:
Don't worry, Annabelle, s a  consultant myself I'm not tarring us all with the same brush. But as you say, there are charlatans out there, which is even more galling for the honest folk who want to work with integrity and who may pay a high price for doing so. Again I agree that the hiring company (and person) has a lot to do with it, especially how they view both their own people and also of course consultants.

I ran a change programme a while ago in which I was hiring consultants from both large and small operations. Big name brands were no guarantee of the quality of the person, intellectually, experientially or ethically. I tended to hire a person for a small job first, then decide whether to re-hire them.


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