Consultants – Who, What and perhaps most importantly, Why?

I want to postulate something to you: consultants – what exactly are they? Yes, I know they’re, well, consultants. But think deliverables, specific, defined outcomes and the whole becomes murkier.
A LinkedIn search as I write this throws up 2,543,848 results for consultants. No you’re not mistaken; you have read it correctly. So, you ask, am I anti-consultants per se? Absolutely not though there are 2 very evident sides to the coin: those who are and those who hire.

I have a friend, now retired, who established his own business many years ago. It remained small, though successful, but he got to the point where he was ready to step away though retain a major shareholding. We were chatting about the transition shortly after it was completed, me just generally asking how it went. He said his one parting piece to the new management team was that if he ever discovered they had hired consultants he would fire them – I think he meant the team but it could have been both groups! I asked why and he advised that if an appointed management team can’t run the business they’re being paid to manage then they shouldn’t be there. When he put it like that it seemed an entirely valid point.

Consultants will, I’m sure, tell me that’s unfair and that my friend doesn’t understand the value of consultancy. Perhaps so, but my friend’s position is somewhat backed up by the many, many very large projects – private and public sector though statistically predominantly public – that we have all seen very widely reported over many years, failing horribly, going years over and massively over budget, and invariably hiring consultants.
Police Scotland – between 2013 and 2016 – an FoI request showed they paid £733,551 on consultants.

Edinburgh Trams – came in hugely over budget and very late. In 2011, TIE, then then-controlling company, admitted that they were paying consultants £1000 daily. In some cases, this went up to £1200 and 1 of these received further fees of £23,000.

Following a separate FoI request, The Telegraph reported in 2016 that the NHS spent £313 million in 2010 compared to £640 million in 2014 on consultants employed to model the health service. David Oliver, a former clinical director at the Department of Health, likened consultants to ‘racketeers’ profiteering from ‘times of chaos’. The amount spent would pay to run 3 hospitals or employ 2,000 extra nurses each year.

So the thorn is evidently one of: does business in the broad sense actually need, or simply want, consultants? I don’t think anyone ever starts their career and thinks “I want to be a consultant”. But – forgive me, consultants – is it the career option of choice for clever people who don’t know what they want to do in life? At worst, consultants simply write and produce reports that tell management what they want to hear.

In 2016 McKinsey & Company’s own site says they “focus on delivering practical and enduring results, and equipping our clients to grow and lead. We partner with clients to put recommendations into practice”. Yes – they write reports.

As someone who comes across consultants every day at work, the concern is that so many have an MBA – sometimes 2 – and are, very often, over and above this, certificated up to the eyes. And most then go to work for consultancies, usually on very large salaries. In 2016 the website consultancy.co.uk notes that a “senior consultant” will, on average, earn £63,074. I wonder how many £ that is per report.

The problem with this is amplified when we factor in that many consultants often have little direct experience of business. In 2013, Scott Berkun, writing for the Harvard Business Review, noted that: “I challenge all consultants to spend some time — at least a year — back in a “real” job, working shoulder to shoulder with the same kinds of people who pay for their advice. So few authors and experts are willing to do this, because they’re afraid.”

It is very easy for a young person fresh out of college, with a lot of theoretical “knowledge”, to tell senior executives how the senior executives should do their jobs. As Brett Arends titled his 2014 article in the esteemed Forbes, “How to Speak McKinsey: 15 Key Phrases to Pass Yourself Off as A Top Management Consultant” – “maybe you have consultants swarming all over your offices, trying to work out how to cut enough costs… to afford $5,000 consultants”.

For not only do these people, despite their lack of direct business experience, end up advising institutions everywhere, but get paid a fortune for it. With the lunatics – or at best inexperienced – running the asylum maybe it’s no wonder things are such a mess.

Written by

Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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