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Foreword to Management Consulting Today

by David Maister 2004

This stimulating book covers a wide range of issues. The diversity of subjects reveals the uncertain state of the consulting profession. There are a large number of viable options on positioning, ways of working with clients, ownership, firm culture, knowledge management and much more. The articles are very persuasive and provide a multitude of suggestions on what firms must do well to compete. While there are some differing points of view, there are many areas of consensus.

Books serve the reader in two ways: The first is by providing conclusions, insights and points of view (what must be done). This book is rich in such lessons. Second, books stimulate the reader to think about the implications of those conclusions (how are those things achieved). Here are some “how” questions that this excellent book arouses.

Where Do We Get New Skills?

Many of the authors stress the continued evolution of consulting to include skills in creating and building relationships, earning trust, working with (not just for) the client and serving the client by creating experiences, not just transferring knowledge.

What is interesting about this (undoubtedly correct) perspective is that few consultants are formally trained in these skills, certainly not in their formal university training and perhaps not by their firms. Indeed a state-of-the-art understanding of these emotional, interpersonal skills is far behind our ability to transfer technical and analytical skills and knowledge. A number of authors in this book report the importance of knowledge transfer in consulting firms. Yet how many firms have figured out a way to develop and share the softer client interaction skills that so many people say are critical in consulting?

No doubt some firms have made real progress in this area, but their methods are not in the public domain. For the rest, the questions remain: How do we speed up the acquisition of client contact skills, not just for selling but to transform the consulting experience for the client? Does the (increasing) need for these skills change the way we think about recruiting and staffing of the consulting firm?

Do We Really Know How Organizations Work?

Consider a related question prompted by the chapters of this book: Do consultants really have the skills to bring about major change in their client organizations? As Mintzberg has pointed out in his recent book, Managers Not MBAs, there is a big difference between knowing a lot about business and knowing how to manage, and most consultants are trained in the former, not the latter. You can be very good at the analytical skills of figuring out what a client should do but be completely unprepared in mobilizing the client organization to achieve it. As with the client-relations topic, the crucial distinction here is between intellectual skills (which consultants have in abundance) and the emotional, interpersonal, psychological and social skills needed to bring about change in large organizations.

A number of consulting firms have “change management” practices (referred to in this book), but the challenge is greater than that. If we as consultants are to achieve real results (as so many of this book’s authors say we must) then all of us, not just the change management specialists, must learn about management and how it works. We must all learn about such subjects as energizing people, obtaining buy-in and building mission-oriented teams. If we do not, then we will achieve less for our clients. We will have been “right” but “not helpful.” There is a lot of intellectual satisfaction in being right but not a profitable career!

Do We Know How to Manage People? Do We Do It?

A third area of reflection prompted by this book is the role of people management inside the consulting firm. While a number of authors make reference to the importance of the topic, it is not explored in any great depth, certainly not in comparison to the time spent on client topics.

This is not in any way a criticism of the authors represented here. Instead, it is an accurate reflection of the relative proportion of time spent on these topics by consultants (and other professional firms). As with many of this book’s topics, we have a good sense of what we want to achieve but do not always have a clear understanding of how to bring it about. Do we really know how to attract and select those most likely to succeed as consultants? Do we really know how to create cross-boundary collaboration in a multidimensional consulting firm? Do we really know how to achieve fast skill building in junior staff (not just knowledge transfer)? Do we know how to get people to do things for the good of the firm and not act independently?

As before, some firms will answer, “Yes.” But the approaches and methodologies of effective people management in consulting firms remain proprietary. There is far less debate about how to mobilize a firm of consultants than there is on how to influence clients. Yet a good case can be made that effectiveness in managing internally is a logical prerequisite for achieving great things externally. Clients receive only what consultants can deliver. So a superior ability to excite and energize one’s consultants, getting them to collaborate, share and develop new skills, would clearly result in a competitive advantage in the client marketplace.

Do We Manage?

A final topic that surfaced in this book is the issue of managing and leading within the firm. It is noted that, in most firms, those who occupy managerial positions rarely spend all their time on the managerial, leading or coaching function. Rather, to a greater or lesser extent, they also serve clients and run engagements.

Experiences vary, but the result of this dual role in many firms is that whenever it comes to a choice, the client service role takes precedence over the managerial role. If managing means active efforts to raise the performance of team members through guidance, exhortation, cajoling, inspiring, following up, nagging and helping, then little managing takes place in many consulting firms. Firms do administration well and most have good performance metrics to monitor and reward performance. However, they spend little time on managing individuals and small teams to improve the performance. In most firms, as we have seen, this is because external client activities always dominate internal managerial activities.

Wisely, a number of the authors of this book point to the role of culture and values in making the consulting firm work. They are correct to stress the power of culture and values and also to suggest that not all consulting firms have these topics working effectively for them. The questions arise: What does it really take to create and sustain a strong, productive culture? What do you have to do to ensure that your firm has, and adheres to, a common set of values?

One of the things you must do is manage. A value is not a value if it is not enforced. That requires a manager to know what is going on and, whenever there is a departure from the value, have the time and inclination to intervene (in real time). If a departure from living the value receives no reaction and sparks no consequences, it will not be a value for long.

A good case can be made that this will have to change and that consulting firms will have to give more attention to management. Consider some of the changes explored by the authors of this book: new services, multidisciplinary structures, globalization, outsourcing and knowledge sharing. All these trends suggest that we are creating increasingly complex organizations. And that will, I believe, cause firms to reexamine what kind of management approaches they will need to accommodate the changes. The authors of this book have served us well in pointing out what needs to be done. We all have a lot to do to make it a reality.