Illustrations by: Elise Duxbury, duxgraphics.com

I. History

A friend of mine approached me at some point during my Junior year of high school with a deal that seemed too good to be true. A businessman was looking to hire interns and he was paying well above the going rate for cheap high school labor. The friend was a trusted buddy and he seemed happy with the gig, so I had no reason to doubt him. My friend warned me, “Look, you’ll need to take a typing test, but I know you can type quickly, so you’ll be a shoe in for this.”

Sure enough, my interview came around and the gentleman, who I’ll call Donald for the purposes of this article, did indeed have me take a typing test on an ancient computer running Windows 97  (this was sometime in 2003-2004). And in hindsight, taking a typing test on dilapidated computer was rather mundane relative to the rest of my career working with Donald.

Donald ran his operation out of a converted house-office. The first person I encountered on day one was a nice, but odd man lurking near my car with a hose in his hand. I came to learn his name was Ed and that he was homeless. Ed was in charge of upkeep on the house-office (mostly the outside of the place) and he came to work everyday via bike, although I often suspected when the weather was nice he snuck into the house or outdoor shed.

The rest of the staff was rounded out by high schoolers.

Donald directed the operation from his office in the back of the house. The rest of the house was divvied up into mini cubicles and work areas.  I quickly realized the “main computer” was rather indicative of the entire operation. All the computers were equally slow, ran ancient internet (I think he was tied into Compuserve) and Donald refused to use any of it.

In fact, Donald never touched any of the documents he was handsomely paid to prepare. He dictated ALL business documents and preferred faxing** to email (he’d pull one of us aside to write an email over our shoulders if he absolutely HAD to).

** One equally successful peer of Donald’s ONLY communicated via fax and ONLY during a certain window of time on a certain day of the week. So maybe I’m being too harsh on him.

As you might imagine, we next to never had office visitors. I’m not sure what the clients would have made of the motley crew Donald had assembled, but I’m guessing he, like me so many years later, thought it would have made clients rather uncomfortable.

Why am I begging the reader’s patience to sketch out the picture of a strange old man running an old school, strange and until now mystery business?

Donald was a multi-multi million dollar successful management consultant who often advised Fortune 500 companies.

Desk-Stratosphere

II. Tricks of the trade

One of the many reasons Donald was able to run his operation in this manner for such a long period of time was the way in which standard documents were recycled and reused. A classic example:

Donald would often approach (or be approached) by CEOs looking to find out what their senior level management really thought. Donald would charge the company 25,000 for the survey he’d conduct and another 25,000 to discuss the results during a speech he would deliver in two or three months time. 50,000 dollars. For a survey.

What did this look like on our end?

The results would arrive usually hand written (or toward the end of my tenure in an email). We would look up the standard survey document and arrange all the answers in a triangular shape, or “Success Pyramid” – management consultants are big on their own exclusive shapes, sayings and terminology. More on that in a moment.

The Success Pyramid thusly assembled by his high school minions, Donald would then re-arrange the standard Success Pyramid speech, flip and flop a few slides, take out or add a few more and depart for a few days to meet with the CEO and deliver his speech. The CEOs of course could and would remove super negative bits about leadership before it ever hit the common folk.

The check comes in and clears. Onto the next one.

A few moments ago, I glanced at Donald’s now defunct website. I laughed at the countless grammatical and spelling errors- I’d have done it better, dammit. It still mentions the Success Pyramid and the secret system developed by Donald that has helped thousands across the globe. Littered throughout our marketing materials, some of which I wrote and re-wrote hundreds of times were our standard vague phrases, ALWAYS CAPITALIZED.

“Are you ready to make the JUMP TO THE STRATOSPHERE?”

“Are your clients getting the STAR QUALITY CUSTOMER SERVICE they deserve?”

“Donald’s INTEGRATED SYSTEM has worked for thousands, it can WORK FOR YOU.”

The idea is, of course, that Donald has exclusive business secrets, his own language even. You do not speak this business language, but you certainly could… if you wanted to.

Tie

 

III. Consulting 2.0

My time with Donald lasted nearly two and a half years. Millions of dollars flew into our hodgepodge office. We edited and re-edited the same documents over and over again. The surveys flew in, the high schoolers made the exclusive shapes and they flew out again. Sometimes they came with a gift! Donald had a closet full of ties and, of course, a standard letter to accompany them. If a client had been particularly lucrative, the “conversation piece neckties” were deployed.

I look back on my time in this strange world with bemusement and frustration. Bemusement at the unique behind Oz’s curtain viewpoint that frankly, is only just permeating the mainstream. And frustration for the same reasons.

Donald hired famous animators to work on the slides that he would present during his corporate presentations. It was a big deal! Famous animators, gasp, they may have worked on movies you’ve seen! Pretty colors! Engaging shapes! No one will be bored!

I’ve now, from my IVORY TOWER OF EXPERIENCE, watched two titans in the management consultant industry deployed in the wild. The commonalities, sadly haven’t changed much since I was driving around my 83 diesel Mercedes.

- The code words and jargon remain essential to including and excluding certain people throughout the building. And as previously discussed work quite well as marketing tools, too.

- The systems always work (unless they don’t).

- There’s always room to move up and learn more about these wonderful systems. For a fee.

One new variation I’ve noticed in the consulting world is the vanishing partnerships in favor of infecting organizations from the inside. Back when I was working for Donald he would often be asked to contribute chapters to “wealth making” books. Each consultant would essentially give a bit of guidance for 3-4 pages and then make a pitch to TAKE IT TO THE NEXT STEP and LEARN MORE. These partnerships among consultants were friendly, because everyone benefitted. Blurbs on the backs of books were common, as were invitations to exclusive events and such. Not so much anymore.

The new angle seems to be creating positions WITHIN organizations that cater exclusively to only those trained in the secret corporate religion du jour. A friend of mine is targeting jobs wherein the postings look for ONLY those adherents who are trained up to a certain level. He’ll stand to recoup the 3,000 dollars he’s been fleeced into spending to become certified as an “expert” in THE SYSTEM. In this way, the virus mutates and grows, until eventually the symptoms subside. But at that point everyone is happy – my friend gets a job (is it worth the 3k?), the company execs feel like they are doing SOMETHING (no matter what that something might be) and the company may even, for a time see some results as the virus spreads.

But as with all viruses, they fade with time, or kill the host- in this case the company’s general fund. Personnel also changes. And attitudes towards the next best thing are cyclical. However, it’s fascinating that the industry as a whole has shifted with new and impressive ways to stay relevant and most importantly pushing money into the pocket linings of the select few.

Funnily enough, nearly all of these foolproof systems prescribe an EXCLUSIVE method, often named and renamed in double speak that deals with the grand secret of all business. What is this grand secret you may wonder?

Come close, friend and I’ll tell you:

It’s goals.

No seriously, that’s it. Setting and meeting goals. From Donald’s dictation many moons ago, to Jack Welch’s fancy charts, the recurring theme among all management consulting is that they can teach you how to set goals. Whether or not they can ensure that you meet them is another thing entirely, but that’s beside the point and you need to stay ON MESSAGE with me here.

Franklin Covey might have my favorite repackaging of this “goal” concept.

You have to DEAL WITH THE WHIRLWIND to ACCOMPLISH YOUR WIGS.

That’s a fancy of way of saying “Hey Greg, when you are done dealing with your day to day bullshit, don’t forget you have that big project due in a couple weeks… That’ll be 20,000 dollars by the way.”

“Oh and since I have you, Greg- how about that survey of execs? I can throw that in with my next speech. Get you rolling to the UNDEFINED CYLINDRICAL OBJECT OF UNPARALLELED SUCESS in no time.”

IV. In Which I Make A Parallel

I earlier alluded to my personal feelings about the management consulting industry by making the comparison to a virus. Over time, it has indeed mutated into this nebulous creature. And I mentioned earlier, those at the top make a concerted effort to infect all business lines via getting themselves into the company via disciple employees and/or creating a culture of need (i.e. You need help with sales. You need help with personnel. You are concerned about being lonely at the top of the pyramid. etc). Everything and anything can be solved with the right SYSTEM (or virus, as it were), etc.

Yet my example doesn’t account for the true adherents. Those soldiers who pay the 5,000 dollars to become the “experts” who truly believe they can save you and your company. Or, to continue the thought, those who are forced into the belief system at gunpoint (join or be let go).

To me, the management consulting industry might more closely resemble a religion, or, dare I say, a cult. 

Well that’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?

- Certainly, attaining the BRIDGE TO TOTAL FREEDOM, while a bit of hyperbole, is indicative of the freedom that comes with having a qualified management consulting team pushing you and your company to your maximum potential, no?

- And certainly everyone could use a bit of EXTERNAL AUDITING as they continue to apply the TECHNOLOGY provided to them by management consultants?

- With the internet, we’re entering a GOLDEN AGE OF KNOWLEDGE and studying the BASICS will improve anyone!

- What is your ACCEPTABLE QUALITY LEVEL? And how can your BLACK BELT OF KNOWLEDGE improve it?!

Quick question- how many of those phrases were from a large management consulting firm and how many did I steal from the “Church” of Scientology?

Among the major corporate management consulting groups, a failure rate of 60% is common. Which begs the question – what the hell is going on here? Millions of dollars are being poured into a coin flip. Those dollars are real, they cost jobs. And inevitably when the system fails, there are consequences.

More criticism is finally being leveled at these modern day elixirs – flip on Showtime Sunday nights for one humorous example, but read the book the show is based on for a better one. But the problem persists.

As long as there are weak kneed leaders, there will always be another Donald, ready and waiting to push you up the pyramid of success. And behind Donald, a 17 year old high school kid typing out all his miracle cures, one conversation piece necktie at a time.