There are lots of positive aspects to being a management consultant. Like a free Economist subscription and a salary that buys me Spotify premium. I also genuinely like some of the people and some of the partners. Some of the projects are even interesting. (I write about them too much in my CV to mention here). But there is also a psychological condition called the Stockholm syndrome, where hostages express empathy and have positive feelings toward their captors. It is nearly Monday morning, and I suffer from neither empathy or positive feelings, so here you go:
1. Team working
If constant brainstorming in teams and the use of flipcharts were a prerequisite for leadership, the apartheid might have never ended. I’ve referenced Susan Cain and the power of introverts a couple of times already, but that’s because I think it should be on the mandatory reading list of any MBA student looking forward to life-long leadership workshops put into practice in some over-ventilated open office. Because otherwise you may start thinking that when the constant interaction is disrupted by an unexpected occurrence such as the weekend, it is normal to suffer from a separation anxiety from your colleagues; and that to alleviate this pain, you need to provide frequent email updates on progress, i.e. that you are doing your work (it is always a good idea to send these updates between 10 pm and 7 am as that shows commitment).
Because just as you’ve come to believe that as an individual you are nothing and that we are in this together; you have nailed all of this in your personal development plan signed off by your manager, the year-end presents with your performance appraisal, and you shall discover that there is an ‘I’ in the ‘ team’ after all. You realise that the contest for who most audaciously and convincingly takes individual credit for the past year’s team achievements started a year ago and is about to close.
Team working in the corporate world is like the prisoner’s dilemma without the dilemma. (You know the “if A and B both betray the other, each serves two years in prison; if one betrays but the other doesn’t, the betrayer is set free the betrayed serves three years; if neither betrays, both will serve one year”).
Unlike the term suggests, deadlines have nothing to do with death and everything to do with the regret that we have chosen a useless profession. The presumption is that without these self-imposed dates that always get moved at the eleventh hour, we wouldn’t a) feel important b) give a shit. They are the commonly accepted mitigating factor when you’re an arse to your colleagues, shout at your children, don’t see your friends and don’t call your mum.
No-one is actually going to die.
In fact, someone may stay alive a bit longer if your hospital client doesn’t receive the report on A&E efficiencies today.
But we are constantly running, like that sorry Wile E Coyote speeding over the cliff, looking down seconds too late and falling down.
If we paused for two seconds, we’d face the risk of finding nothing below us.
3. Language (Spiritual and Otherwise)
When I applied to university to study Sociology my then boyfriend’s dad congratulated me on becoming someone who can talk so no-one will understand. Ten years later I disagree. My essay on Gramsci’s subaltern concept was as clear as Hickory Dickory Dock. When I started management consulting for the first year I kept a little glossary on the back of my note book. Not only do we commonly use verbs as nouns (“I will send you an invite”) and nouns as verbs (“I will action this by COP”), our pseudo-scientific methodologies meshed with stints in the industry have produced terms that no longer make sense outside their original context. (For lots of funny examples see Steven Poole’s Who Touched Base in Thought Shower) The purpose of this pomposity is to make us look more clever than the client; disguise our common sense solutions, and so justify our fees.
A friend once responded to my regular weeping about work by talking about the difficulty of expressing myself within the constraints of the “spiritual grammar” of the firm (He is not a management consultant but a theologist). I really liked what he said, although I’d never thought about a spirit having a grammar and I’m most positive that the ninth floor of our office building has no spirit. But presuming such grammar exists, I am getting very bad marks. I am getting very bad marks anyway, as evidenced by my “personal development” need to improve on my writing. It doesn’t meet the high standard of our brand: “I did quite a bit of editing on this more than I would have expected,” I read after sending a letter for the project manager’s review. Keen to learn from the high standards so elusive to me, I highlighted one of the two sentences he had added in the letter: “you have only reported on spot checks and you have suggested the rates are x% and y% which seems really low – this needs more exploration – you should be using have registration if you have it with spot checks used to triangulate.”
I read it again.
I read it again.
Then I told my spirit not to worry as I do not understand the English grammar of this place either.
If after all the team working and deadlines you are still feeling creative, and speak the right language, let the artist within you out of its cage and innovate! All you need is a ‘sponsor’ i.e. a partner who takes you seriously; be immediately able to show the commercial value of whatever it is you are creating; make it consistent with the corporate brand; get it through the internal risk and quality – congratulations!
This section is short. This is intentional.
5. Humble Pie Chart
Judging by the above you may think there isn’t much creativity happening in the firm. You are mistaken. I once took part in a video project called “What I admire about Partners and Directors”. I wasn’t there when this was conceived, but I imagine there was a brainstorming session and a conversation that went something like this. “But we only have five partners in the current practice. It is impossible for them not to be identifiable.” “How about we add ‘directors’?”
Those squirming at the thought of having video evidence of brown-nosing were won over by the promise that this was not really about what I admire about partners – and directors! – but an opportunity to highlight admirable leadership behaviours that could inspire our very partners and directors. Aaah, now I get it! Apart from two directors that had been made redundant two years earlier, I couldn’t think of anyone I admired though, so I made up a fictional character for my two minute clip. I’m not lined up for a Golden Globe though, because my talk about ‘humility’ was edited out.
When a seven year old says they want to be a premier league footballer – aww. When you know that there are about 540 registered premier league players (ok, you didn’t know, but you googled it) and around one and a half million boys in the UK kick a ball, and it is your son in question, you might encourage little Tyron to practice his spelling just as a back-up no matter how good he is on the pitch or how fly the hair style.
The commercial models of big consultancies operate on somewhat similar staff-partner ratios. Yet no-one thinks it illogical to kill yourself, get fat and have no life over ten, fifteen, twenty years if it’s to become a partner – any self-respecting management consultants aspires nothing but – for a worse hair style and a lower weekly salary.
Please see the section on Team Working for more details on how to get up there. (And if you have time, read ‘Ranked and yanked’ published in the Economist: “their business model is, in a sense, built on recruiting large numbers of junior staff and motivating them with the prospect of becoming a partner, even though in practice only a few of them can ever make it… employees may look for ways to game the system, as happened at Enron, where workers conspired to inflate their results to secure their bonuses or escape the axe.”)
7. Your Body and Soul – Buy One Get One Free
You might be excused if every day conversations about selling yourself, making yourself available, being utilised, made you confuse consulting with the world’s oldest profession. But if your average management consultancy conjures up parallels with prostitution, being a mother is like being a prostitute with one leg and one boob, and being a single mother is the above plus syphilis. You wouldn’t believe the kind of daily logistical circus tricks we have to perform to end the year with the same, let alone higher, utilisation as the management consultant equivalents of Julia Roberts. (I’m saying “we”, although in my five years I’m yet to come across another single mother in the sector.)
Of course there comes a point when putting you on projects is not economical (because your salary is at least twice as that of your peers working in the industry, because you are so bright), and at that point selling people things they don’t need becomes another key metric against which your human worth gets evaluated. You’ve now made it as a pimp.
I woke up early on a Saturday morning with a hurricane in my stomach – one that was wanting to come out. Good disaster prevention practice meant no electrical equipment should be placed within a three meter radius of either possible exit. That included my laptop. So my first thought at 5am on Saturday morning was not how to get my daughter to the swimming class, but that I would have let my colleagues know I was not going to be able to look at that report. That thought was followed by two questions: how do you take a day off sick when it is your day off? And, are they going to believe me or think I was just suffering from a hangover?
Then I knew I didn’t own my life, let alone my career.
When you complete your PhD you look up to some emeritus professor with forty five years of experience in the use of nuclear reactions to enhance the treatment of cancers by ionizing radiation, and you wish that one day you could call yourself an expert. Do not waste your time. Join a management consultancy, do a three-month project in pharmaceuticals and in the next proposal your CV is annexed under the list of experts! Market changes, worry not, you are only three months from being a telecoms SMS (=subject matter specialist)!
Only you will ever know that really the only thing you’re an expert in, is bullshitting about your expertise.
9. (Stay) Away Days
The kind of team building days at a corporate venue in the London tube zone 7 or beyond, where you really entertain yourself by trying to guess how much the motivational talker gets paid and making really good doodles in your venue branded note pad while getting an indigestion from over eating mint sweets. I don’t remember any of the content, but if I do, I’ll amend this section.
All of the above come together nicely in propositions, the menu items we sell to the client. If you are stupid enough to have stayed around for five years, you realise the menu never changes, just the names do. But you will still go to the training, because you have to and because of the free sandwiches. The menu of those never changes either.