In the consulting game, the buck needs to stop somewhere


Company leaders routinely hire consultants for the wrong reasons, wasting money and alienating employees. Outside experts should only be used to achieve and be accountable for specific results.

Karl Albrecht

Lecturer and author Karl Albrecht deciphered the ubiquity of feckless consultants when he said, “Intelligent people, when assembled into an organization, will tend toward collective stupidity.”

The improper, ineffective and wasteful use of consultants is an epidemic.

Like many other diseases, this one attacks everyone but the parasites and their hosts, those being the leaders who hire them. Victims include customers, shareholders, employees and vendors. Even seemingly uninvolved executives and directors are compromised by harmful machinations cleverly disguised as transformation or quality improvement initiatives.

To get a grip on this problem, every corporate decision maker ought to ask the following question:

Am I as purposeful in engaging consultants as I am when selecting my plumber, auto mechanic, surgeon, landscape architect, etc?

Indeed, nobody (corporate bigwig or homeowner) needs an outside professional or other contractor unless they cannot:

  1. Understand why things that should be better aren’t improving.
  2. Solve problems with the resources at hand.

Regardless of size or scope, there should be only one determinant.

Something’s broken or not quite right. It makes more sense to hire someone who knows how to fix it than do it myself.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it is in the corporate world. That’s because executives and managers have more on their minds than identifying what needs to be done, then selecting the best people to make it happen.

The absolute best way to get nothing done


Greg LeStage is a vice president with Kotter International, one of the few leading consulting firms to admit that companies must solve their own problems.

Many factors cause corporate leaders to call for consultants rather than organize their own staffs to fix problems and manage change. Executives routinely affirm their hubris by assuming problems are extraordinary “or we would have already handled them.” It’s amazing how often so-called leaders react to important yet manageable issues, as though they were out-of-control oil rig infernos requiring emergency response by Halliburton’s Boots & Coots.

Once an executive validates the “need” to hire a consultant and secures the budget, the benefits of simply sustaining the engagement can far outweigh those of getting the job done quickly.

None of this would happen if large organizations set guidelines for why, when and to what limited ends consultants can be hired. Generally, the only criterion for deciding whether staff or consultants should address an issue is an executive’s place in the hierarchy.

The medieval physician syndrome

CEOs and their accomplices fuel poor workplace performance and employee discontent by misunderstanding the proper roles of consultants and misusing their expertise. Examples of the syndrome include:

  • Can’t tell the symptom from the problem. In business, cries for outside help are always triggered by some kind of bad report card: lower profits, revenue, market value, quality, etc. Perhaps, a single performance aberration spurs an edgy leader to dial 911? Conversely, complaisant C-suites may scream for disaster relief long after ignoring a slow-moving tsunami.

    Either way, companies and the consultants too often act like patients and doctors in the middle ages, conjuring all kinds of futile treatments for the symptoms because they have no idea what disease is causing them.

    Everyone has had a flat tire at one time or another. If you’ve had several flats over a short period, the problem is not with the tire or the vehicle, but has to do with where you are driving. Yet, executives and their consultants are as likely to requisition new kinds of tires and redesign the vehicle as they are to fully examine the route they’ve been on.

  • Executives who know less about their companies than consultants are not leaders. Failure is inevitable whenever a decision maker needs a consultant to explain what’s wrong with his or her organization, then gives the outsider responsibility for fixing it. Leaders should use consultants to analyze situations and perform tasks. But large corporations are filled with executives immersed so deeply in the rituals of leadership that it’s easier and safer for them to empower consultants than engage their own people.

    Spending most of their time in meetings with other executives, they and their direct reports eagerly seek and accept the assessments and recommendations of the “world’s best experts.” Yet, Kotter International’s Gregg LeStage is one of the few consultants declaring that “outsourcing the process of organizational change often does more harm than good.”

    According to LeStage, an outsider will never understand a company as well as its employees. Executives who believe it is “risky and unwieldy to invest that much trust and power in your employees” have it all wrong.

    If you are relocating your family and cannot personally supervise packing and transportation, you will entrust family members, friends or aides to make sure nothing is stolen or broken. But, corporate leaders commonly cede responsibility to “the movers” and tell employees to stay out of the way. The consultants may or may not know how to do it but you can be certain they don’t care. What’s worse is that employees won’t care either after you do that.

  • Avoiding accountability is a good thing. In a stagnant or under performing organization, executives will more likely focus on their own careers than the future of the company. For these people, partnering with leading consultants is great.

    Psychologist Karl Albrecht, best known for his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success has detailed Seventeen Syndromes of Organizational Dysfunction which are typical of most large organizations.

    Any sane reader will understand why executives have little to gain by accepting the burdens and challenges of problem solving. The best approach is to bring in the consultants.

    On the Plus Side, the decision maker can claim responsibility for addressing the situation; validate the effort via the consultant’s credentials; exert hardly any physical, emotional or intellectual capital; and buy time needed until either the need for a solution goes away or the executive escapes the situation entirely, maybe to become a consultant.

    On the Minus Side, the company will waste money and employees will run around in circles and/or lose their jobs. But, the the consultants will do such a good job “framing” their process, that no one will be blamed for anything.

It’s all a matter of where you are on the food chain

Even though you, me and all the other consultants should do exactly what needs to be done, as well as be accountable for specific results, what’s expected of us depends on who we serve more than our expertise. Decision makers fool only themselves and their superiors when they ballyhoo so-called transformations spearheaded by outsiders.

When it comes to improving performance and solving problems, the people who manage a company must do it themselves or be certain about why they need help. When something extraordinary does need to be be fixed, hire the right specialist, get the job done and pay the bill. A consultant should have no role running your day-to-day business .

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