Say Brother, Can You Paradigm?

Did you ever hear this one: “A consultant is someone who comes in to solve a problem and stays around long enough to become part of it.”

One of Emily’s favorite commercials right now is for UPS. In it, two smug consultants sit across a shiny table from their client and outline a strategic plan. The client smiles, nods, and tells them to “Do it.” The consultants look at each other in amazement.

“Sir, we don’t do what we propose,” says the first one.

“We just propose it,” says the second.

Consultants are right up there with lawyers and used-car salesmen as the butt of jokes that imply everything from ineptitude to downright fraudulence. At a minimum, consultants’ mere existence is a joke.

When Emily worked “in-house,” which sometimes felt like being “in the big house,” she and her colleagues would smirk at the stuffy earnestness of the consultants who marched through the offices. There was the consultant uniform — the predictable dark suit and don’t-stand-out-in-a-crowd shoes. One day, a gaggle of consultants walked into a conference room, all slapping their brown leather attachis on the table in unison, sat down, and obediently laced their fingers on top of the table. (A “synchronized” exhibition Olympic event cannot be far behind.)

Perhaps Emily’s reaction came from a flashback of her Catholic school days of behavior modification vis-`-vis the wooden ruler: “Good MORNING, Sister Agnes.”

The chickens have come home to roost, as it were. Emily has now become a consultant herself, although she likes to think of herself as a counter-consultant, refusing to use words such as “dialogue” (as in, “We had a dialogue”) or “paradigm.”

But in the last nine months of her illustrious consulting career, there are a few truths worth sharing about consultants and their role in corporate America.

The role of consultants is to prove someone right or wrong.

More often than not, a consultant is brought in not because the organization doesn’t have a clue. Usually there’s someone (who is usually not in upper management) who knows exactly what to do. But this person doesn’t have the clout or salary to be taken seriously. So this person, if lucky, convinces senior management to bring in a consultant to say the same thing this person’s been saying for three months. Except now it costs more, so it must be true.

Consultants charge by the syllable. Well, not really. But Emily has definitely noticed that many consultants’ fees have a direct correlation with the relative use of long words. This, of course, can be a career killer for Emily with her “less is more” style of communicating, wrought by an early career as a television reporter who had to tell each story in 45 seconds.

Many consultants have never actually done what they’re suggesting.

Like the UPS commercial, some lifelong consultants have never actually implemented one of their own plans in a real situation in a real company. Most plans are based on best-case scenarios of no politics, no labor strikes, and no budget cutbacks. Implementation is messy work and can mean messing up one’s reputation — and confidence. Not to mention a manicure at a hotel salon.

If you want to see a consultant gasp for air, ask “Where have you, personally, implemented similar plans?”

Consulting thrives because in enough cases, it occasionally works!

Consulting is a great gig. People actually listen to your advice — a rare occurrence when Emily was working “inside.” You get to meet different people. And you get the opportunity to truly build skills and gain knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise by working at only one company, or even two or three.

So while this article may seem like it bashes the profession, we just want to go on the record to say consultants have a purpose and a place in the business world.

At their best, consultants can expose a business to experiences or knowledge that it could not acquire without costly investments of time and money — and plenty of mistakes. A consultant is a guide, an advisor, a counselor. He or she has often seen the same or a very similar situation elsewhere — perhaps even at a competitor — and can give you insight that you can’t get in-house. A consultant can also pull an organization from its political paralysis and jump-start a new initiative or way of looking at things.

At their worst, consultants can be misapplied and/or add little to what a business already knows. Lacking hands-on experience implementing many of their “risky schemes,” consultants can sometimes be no more effective — and far more costly — than calling a psychic hotline.

But a consultant’s advice is only as good as the company who takes it.

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