Saturday, January 05, 2008

Consulting (and a bit of Politics)

Over at LITGM we all have political beliefs but we generally don't talk about politics unless we have something unique to say because, well, it's already "done to death" elsewhere. With Mitt Romney, however, I do have an insight.

The Wall Street Journal recently described Romney as "a 60 year old uber-management consultant" who also has an investment management background. Unlike the detailed machinations of politics, management consulting and investment banking is something that I know stone-cold.

And while Mr. Romney was caught flat-footed that his well funded and organized campaign was beaten by Mike Huckabee in the state of Iowa, I could have told you this right away. Why?


Like most of my personal insights, this didn't come from some sort of laboratory setting or deep research. I was a consultant for over a decade, at probably more than 100 companies, working for a variety of consulting firms. When I started out in the consulting business, I was pretty cocky and lackadaisical in building relationships with client personnel (as a staff person). The traditional consulting model is as follows:

1) research the problem
2) write recommendations
3) let someone else implement the recommendations

Under this model, consulting firms hire smart people with academic (MBA) type backgrounds that apply lessons learned (generally from case studies, since most consultants don't have a lot of actual operating or management experience) from other companies or circumstances to the current client that is paying the bills. The consultants do a lot of financial research and build nice graphs comparing market performance against competitors, and then they hit the ground at the client, gathering data and conducting interviews, hilariously spoofed in "Office Space" when the "Two Bobs" attempt to determine just what the employees of that firm did to fill their days.

The consulting (and accounting) firms sometimes trained staff on a bit of etiquette (I remember being surprised that gazpacho soup was served cold) but by and large it was all methods and tools for efficiently documenting and organizing conclusions. You went to the client site, did some research, conducted some interviews, slaved over your power point presentation (if I told you the hours wasted on "harvey balls" and power point minutiae you wouldn't believe me) and then presented the results to the client.

One thing that was mainly lost was the "human element" - people were cogs on the way to a solution, or merely actors as divisions were re-organized or spun off. Since most of consulting was about systems, financials, and operations, people are a by-product of these processes and methods, and weren't regarded (in reality) as a key indicator of the ultimate success or failure of a company or division.

While the consulting companies showed up and went about their business, the actual staff people that sat right next to the consultants seethed. These people weren't stupid; in fact a lot of the "ideas" that the consultants had were the same ideas that were percolating in their heads, but no one was listening to them (or, more likely, no one ever asked). The consultants wore sharp clothes (myself excepted) and went out to fancy restaurants after their "work" of creating excel models and detailed power point diagrams was completed.

After a while it dawned on me that in fact many of these staff people had good ideas and there was some logic to the way they worked. Consultants love to "blow up" processes and value continuity at zero, but in fact there is a lot of value in the web of interpersonal relationships that allow communications to flow and work to get done. Our haughty manner and style weren't doing us any favors, and the fact that new, smarmy staff people who often make more money than the clients in our midst were pissing off the staff people was recognized as a liability.

My orientation for new staff people told them this explicitly - the staff people hate you, so be polite, respectful, and don't "feed the fire". Often the staff people will get over their initial and instinctive hatred and view you merely as a cog of a different wheel, which is what you really are, since most consulting engagements were really to justify decisions that were already made and provide someone (other than management) to blame. Or if you were there to build a system or process that would be used when you left, getting the client personnel on board would increase the (extremely low) odds that the resulting "deliverable" wouldn't either gather dust or be killed soon after by the next passing-by consulting firm.

Romney obviously never "got it" that people hate him. He doesn't show much empathy for those around him, while his competitors often don't have anything but empathy. Romney is a "technocrat", and this goes down well in Massachusetts because 1/2 the state either works at the university, for government, or is a technocrat themselves, but this dies about as fast as Dukakis in a tank-helmet in the rest of the country.

So that concludes this detour into politics, except to say that we all ought to visit this museum below if Huckabee really turns out to be the man.

All right, back to the politics-free blog...

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

1 comment:

Gerry from Valpo said...

A few years back working full time for a large ad agency the Accenture account was one of mine. One assignment was to design Accenture branded print collateral and powerpoint templates in compliance with the new Accenture graphic standards.

Very dry stuff but quite profitable. This was when Anderson Consulting was in the process of breaking away from Arthur Anderson (we know what happened there, don't we?) and for that reason had to change their name.

I met with my clients regularly who were mostly female MBA's (I prefer MBS's) who were in their early thirties. They communicated with peculiar phrases and words I could not find in any dictionary.

My conclusion?

Those that can do...and those who can't...consult.