Goodbye to consulting?

Jul 17, 2023
Personal development, personal and career growth, progress and potential concepts

’You cannot serve God and mammon’. Make your choice.

I have been proud to be a management consultant for over forty years. I worked for PwC for five years before establishing my own consultancy twenty-five years ago. However, given the taint of PwC’s recent behaviour, consulting as a profession has been damaged for at least a decade, if not a generation. This is a real shame as most of us do good things – and the right thing.

In the failures of PwC, the structure is a problem.

It is a loose federation of managing partners apparently with no board and no corporate governance mechanisms. It is like a network of independent franchises.

The constant quest for profits is another problem. ‘You only have a job because of partner profits’ was the partnership’s way of motivating us specialists. The partners saw the firm as a business within an industry to make money. However, most of us who worked there, saw ourselves as professionals adding value to clients and the community.

‘Up or out’ was the mantra proclaimed. If you were not made a partner, it was expected you would leave within 2-3 years, that is, if you were not burnt out before then. I was told I would never make partner as I did not fit the culture. My response was, ‘why do you think I would want to be a partner? I support and challenge CEOs about town, so why would I spare you guys?’ – a career limiting rejoinder!

There was a disconnect between the partnership and professional staff. Oversight fees were charged to clients when there was no oversight: bringing this to the attention of the partnership was not received well. Such behaviour is reminiscent of John Grisham’s book The Firm, later a movie in which a young Tom Cruise starred.

One partner in our consulting division was nick-named ‘Bottom-line (first name).’ When I confronted other partners about what I viewed as unethical and dishonest behaviour, the response was, ‘you’re commercially naïve.’ My resignation letter soon after thanked the partnership ‘for this valuable learning experience.’ The irony would have been lost upon them.

Now PwC is graciously offering to pay back $1 million for the consulting fees they were paid to design the Robo Scheme. It is revealing that this was offered after the Royal Commission’s damming report into Robodebt had been released. This is cynical and reactive by PwC. The pub test here is, ‘too little, too late.’

My PhD highlighted that employees are not assets. This only commodifies them into ‘things.’ Rather, employees are ‘people’ – unique, irreplaceable, self-determining, and connected to a community fostering the common good. That is the key point: organisations exist for the common good; society does not exist for organisations or their shareholders.

Cynicism about consultants

There is much cynicism about consultants – ‘those who can, do; those who can’t do, teach; and those who can’t do either, become consultants.’

When journalists are embedded in military units, objectivity in reporting becomes difficult; when the public service becomes politicised, and public servants are too intimidated by ministerial advisors, their ‘frank and fearless’ advice is questioned; when consultants are too hungry for profits at any cost, ethics and the community suffer.

The so-called smartest guys in the room at Enron, after the title of the book by McLean and Elkind, were indeed clever – right up until they were jailed for fraud. The accounting firm, Arthur Andersen was severely implicated in the Enron scandal.

Mazzucato and Collington in their book The Big Con decry the proliferation of consultants who hollow out public sector capability, ignoring the transfer of skills and knowledge that good consultants provide. Further, they do not distinguish the aberrations of the tax, audit, and insolvency divisions of the ‘Big Four’ (PwC, Deloitte, EY, and KPMG) from their consulting services.

Even Niccolo Machiavelli has been wrongly accused: The Prince reveals that he was a dispassionate adviser to the Doge of Venice, not the arch-manipular which bears his name.

The valuable contribution of consultants

When we work as consultants, our contribution is helping managers be the best they can be as leaders, and to become effective and responsible stewards of their organisations. We foster organisational prosperity, but not at the cost of community well-being. We take a holistic and long-term view of what organisational success looks like. It is a multi-stakeholder perspective – we do not just work for ‘partner profits.’ Often, the consultant provides a conscience when the managers lack one.

As an independent investigator into bullying, misconduct, and sexual harassment complaints, I know the value of providing an evidence-based report with actionable recommendations for an executive. Whether an internal consultant even with similar competence would have the same perceived access and credibility, was debatable.

At times, I have been dismayed by the lack of strategic oversight provided by the very client who was out-sourcing for my services. ‘Ticking the box’ to get a program ‘up’ is all that seemed to matter. When I pointed out that I might own the process and the intervention, but that they were accountable for its outcomes, they had little idea what I meant. Consultants, then, are not the only ones to blame for expensive, useless interventions.

If we truly act as independent advisors, we act without any real conflict of interest. At times, I stepped aside in a coaching/consulting role when the client was too dependent. The worst consultants foster co-dependence with their clients – ‘you still need this program, or you need my latest book.’ When the student is ready, the sensei will indeed emerge. However, when the student has attained mastery of the art, the sensei says farewell.

At our best, and in terms of John Louth’s book of the same title, consultants are experts not charlatans. Indeed, there needs to be restraint and self-awareness from both clients and consultants. My most rewarding assignments have occurred when I worked with clients for the long-term good of their enterprise and their beneficiaries.

The tragedy is that the good work which most of us do as consultants has been severely tarnished by the unethical behaviour of these PwC partners and their ilk.

The big question for PwC and for us as consultants is, ‘do we really work for the common good, or do we just work for partner profits?’

It has wisely been said ’you cannot serve God and mammon.’ Make your choice.

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