The business of consulting shouldn’t be incompatible with a functioning conscience – it just seems to be. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that the peculiar nature of the profession means that best people don’t become the best consultants, and vice versa.
I don’t mind admitting that I have a dark sense of humour. I try to keep it in check when I’m meeting new people, but my dry quips have been known occasionally ‘leak’ out into conversation like a rush of cold air form a cracked freezer door. I’ve found that some people respond well; others… not so much. I’ve found that the reaction I get depends on the listener’s formative experiences. Gallows humour is a natural cultural side-effect of many years spent in the military. Likewise, acerbic and cynical jokes are a natural psychological defense inculcated by many years spent working in business. Further, the older that a person gets, the more that he or she is forced to confront the absurdity inherent in their profession (whatever that may be), leading to self-deprecating jest, if not outright rebellion.
In my case, one of my primary occupations has been ‘consultant’. That’s why I tend to make a lot of cutting remarks about the consulting business. I’ve been at this for going on 20 years, and I’ve spent a lot of time ‘behind the curtain’ in various firms, observing how things really work in the House of the Holy Billable Hour. Like most professions, there are admirable practitioners and outright villains in the business consulting world. There are good companies and bad ones. There are jobs (or ‘engagements’, in consultant speak) that you can be proud of and ones that you’d be willing to do terrible things to forget. The one consistent element in all consulting work is that a consultant is (for all practical purposes) a professional parasite. That is, you get paid do things for others that they either cannot or will not do for themselves. That need makes you, the consultant, operationally and economically valuable to your client in the short-term, while simultaneously making you a deadly liability to your client over time. The best thing that your client can do for itself is to get rid of you and your ilk as swiftly as possible so that your firm is no longer siphoning away its metaphorical lifeblood.
That’s why older consultants tend to become extremely cynical people. Once you grow out of your adorable larval neophyte stage and become a seasoned advisor, you start to appreciate just how much your presence irritates your client, like sand in a bathing suit. Yes, you’re often wanted – even celebrated! – for the immediate business value that you provide. That said, you’re also often loathed by the client’s workers because of the threat that you represent to their future employment, and by the client’s management for the huge drain that you’re inflicting on their budget.
I overheard a senior consulting manager once refer to us as ‘prostitutes with laptops’, and that’s not too far off the mark. There’s an old joke in the US that a client doesn’t pay a prostitute for sex; he or she is paying the prostitute to go away afterwards. In that sense, the vulgar analogy fits rather well: no matter how good a consultant is at a particular skill, there’s a reason why we’re contracted to perform a service instead of being hired outright as part of the client’s permanent staff: once we deliver the goods (in whatever fashion the engagement requires), the client wants us to disappear so that they can get on with running their own operation.
Consulting firms, meanwhile, want exactly the opposite outcome: by our inescapable nature, we want to keep receiving that sweet, sweet infusion of currency. Consultants have a built-in incentive to find as many new ways as possible to separate a client from his or her cash reserves. This isn’t a criminal instinct  so much as a basic biological need; if we don’t bill hours, we don’t get paid. If we don’t get paid, we go out of business.
I spent some time around one firm that had a very clear expectation for all of its personnel when it came to generating new work: line-level consultants and senior consultants were expected to focus all of their time on delivering whatever work had already been contracted. Managers, meanwhile, were expected to devote about half of their time to ensuring that the consultants delivered, and the other half of their time to scouting out possible new engagements. The best way to do this was to expand whatever service their team was currently delivering. Above them, senior managers and partners  were expected to devote 90-plus per cent of their efforts to securing new work. For the higher-ups, it was always more efficient to expand existing contracts with known, stable customers than it was to entice a new customer into buying something. The parasite analogy held up very well.
The net effect of this imperative was that if you wanted to get promoted to manager, you needed to demonstrate that you were both willing and able to become a sort of commission-less salesperson. I knew a lot of very talented consultants who outright refused to accept a promotion because they didn’t want to sour their working relationship with their clients by constantly weaseling more hours out of them. One fellow that I discussed it with felt like it would mean compromising his professional integrity; once your start placing your revenue/sales/new business development targets above the client’s needs, he said, you transition from being the client’s faithful helper to becoming their cruel exploiter. You become something that you and the client both despise. I get that.
I’m not arguing that service firms shouldn’t be trying to generate new business. That would be ridiculous. New business development is the lifeblood of most every business entity. If you don’t have something else to do after you finish your current job, then you’ll go out of business. Further, if you want to grow to the next level of revenue or company size, you’ll need to acquire more paying clients than you’re currently servicing. Therefore, someone has to be hustling all the time to line up new paid work. I get that. That’s not inherently evil.
What is evil (I believe) is prioritizing new business development over servicing your existing contracts. As a painful example: I applied for a few leadership gigs at a huge national consulting firm a while back and managed to snag a pre-interview  with an HR rep. Throughput our discussion, the HR woman focused on my sales experience for what was supposed to be a team leadership role. When I pressed her on it, she admitted that her firm expected all of their team members to be salespeople first and to be consultants a second. In their culture, if you didn’t hit your targets for new sales every month, you’d be terminated for non-performance. I asked some clarifying questions, and learned that their culture was so broken that they didn’t care if an employee failed to ever deliver a service that a client had already paid for; the only thing important to them was the next sale. The HR lady was quite candid about their firm’s disdain for their customers. 
I find this inherent conflict of interest in professional consulting to be unsettling because I have a conscience. Looking at it from a grizzled old squaddie’s perspective, I value integrity more than I value profit. I appreciate that idealism is often an impediment to one’s professional success in the dog-shiv-dog world of big business. On the other hand, all those years of preparing men and women to go to war made me strongly idealistic and very twitchy about matters of personal honour. I’ve been asked to outright cheat my company’s clients, and have steadfastly have refused to do so… knowing that refusing to ‘play along’ with management would damage my ability to move up. It was a personal decision every time, and I accepted the consequences of my actions. That probably means that I’m simply incompatible with a great many top-level leadership jobs in the consulting industry. I’m either too cynical to ‘fit’ the role, or else I’m the wrong flavour of cynical.
I’ve found that the optimal business consultant seems to be a guy or gal who is experienced, exceptionally talented, and completely unburdened by conscience. They need a cold-blooded appreciation for opportunities and a corresponding willingness to exploit their clients’ vulnerabilities. The ideal consultant seems to be a bespoke-suited echo of Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name from the classic ‘Spaghetti Westerns’. Someone utterly bereft of empathy, willing to do whatever it takes to secure his or her objectives.
If you haven’t seen them, Leone capitalized on the Italian market’s hunger for American cowboy stories at a time when US audiences were tiring of them. Leone wrote and directed a trilogy of films in Spain that were supposedly set in Texas and Mexico. He cast Clint Eastwood in the man’s first major motion picture role and effectively made his a star. The films themselves were a calculated (one might say ‘cynical’) exploitation of an opportunity: taking advantage of super cheap actors and locations in order to maximize profitability in a narrow market niche.
Along those lines, the first film in the trilogy – A Fistful of Dollars – was the story of a nameless drifter (Eastwood) who wanders into a town where two rival families are feuding over some slight. The drifter cleverly plays both families off of one another with deception and misdirection until both sides become weak enough that he can destroy them. The film’s protagonist certainly isn’t a hero by any means. The ‘hero’ is only heroic in the sense that the people he’s destroying are demonstrably more evil in their tactics than he is, so they ‘deserve’ to be beaten.
That’s as good a tale of the modern consulting business model as any: an outsider discovers a business that can’t get it’s *#&$ together, and slyly convinces one or more factions within said business to trust him/her. Then, the consultant cynically exploits the client for as long as he/she possibly can, even the point of turning different factions within the business against each other. Over the long term, the consultant’s goal is to filch as many metaphorical doubloons out of the client’s pocket as possible before the whole scheme collapses. Then the consultant drifts on to the next host, unconcerned about the wreckage that he/she left behind. It’s not a sustainable long-term model, but then it’s not really intended to be.
Personally, I’m not willing to live this way. I freely admit that a great deal of my youthful idealism has corroded away over the years thanks to all the behind-the-scenes exposure I’ve had to international business operations. That being said, I’m steadfastly not willing to cheat a client. Ever. If a client insists on paying me to do something stupid, I’ll do the work and take their cheque… but only after I’ve made it clear to the payer that such work isn’t in their best interests. If the client makes an informed decision to proceed anyway, that’s fine. Sign the contract and we can press on.
I once heard an MBA opine that a conscience is a liability when it comes to success in big business. That may be so; it certainly seems to be based of the differing career tracks that I’ve seen between consultants with and without a conscience. Consultants who decide to stand fast on principle consistently lose ground to their peers who aren’t so constrained.
On the other hand, I’ve been in some pretty dire economic circumstances over the years, and I’ve never been so desperate that I was willing to jettison my conscience in order to get ahead. Maybe that should be the new standard for professional success… Perhaps it’s not the model of car that you drive or the size of your house that marks you as having ‘made it’… Perhaps it’s how long you can continue to function in your assigned role without having to jettison your principles.
Or maybe that’s all balderdash, and the gold standard of success in business is exclusively based on who walks away with the company’s gold at the end of the company’s life story. Perhaps the MBA view of the universe as being utterly amoral and fundamentally meaningless is the correct view, and the interjection of idealism into business is a counterproductive and ultimately doomed exercise. I might be swayed by that argument if I hadn’t seen the end product of that world-view too many times. Business unconstrained by integrity is little more than banditry with fancier uniforms. It’s more Mad Max than it is Mad Men; dramatic and entertaining, but morally repugnant.
I enjoy those sorts of stories on the big screen. I’m not willing to be a part of them where I draw my paycheck. We just emerged from the wreckage of the last global financial crisis. I’m not willing to be an accessory to the next one. I believe strongly that there is sufficient room in the market for men and women to deliver specialized services with integrity, without exploiting their client. Unfortunately, I’m experienced enough in the sector to admit that that the place for such people is at the tip of the spear – not in the corner office. Perhaps it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the hand we were dealt.
 For most consultants and firms.
 I think they were called principals at the time.
 A ‘pre-interview’ is usually a screening activity performed by a recruiter, an HR rep, or a headhunter in order to verify your qualifications before you’re presented to an actual hiring authority. I treat them just like interviews (because if the screener says ‘no,’ you’re done).
 After that revelation, I politely declined to continue with her firm’s interview process.
Title Allusion: Sergio Leone (et al), Per un Pugno di Dollari (a.k.a. A Fistful of Dollars) (1964 Film)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.