Consultants have certainly taken their share of heat. It is easy to understand why. For every proponent you will find a critic.
Entrenched old-guard company leaders can develop blind spots. Having an outside, objective business expert fully assess that company’s processes can be a tremendously powerful opportunity. If it is done right, it becomes a win-win situation. The company can execute changes that enhance revenue and profitability for years to come while the consultant earns a fair fee.
Duff McDonald’s book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, explores the development of James McKinsey’s consultancy and what it meant for American business. James McKinsey was an accountant who launched his consulting firm in 1926. McKinsey realized a crucial business-growth dynamic that was new for the era, as Adam Sternbergh explains (“We’re Here to Help: How McKinsey Created a World Full of Technocrats” Bloomberg Businessweek 9/9/13–9/15/13, p. 70):
“Instead of setting a budget based on projected expenses, you should craft a business plan first, then set the budget that will allow you to achieve it.”
Painful situations can occur if consulting is not done right. When this happens, not only is the company harmed, but the entire consulting industry is called into question. Additionally, companies will rarely officially admit their error:
“The McKinsey Man wasn’t an expert in any one industry, but a generalist valuing rational thinking and blunt talk. McKinsey fostered a reputation for attracting fresh minds that weren’t hampered by entrenched ways of thinking. Another way of looking at this is that it hired inexperienced kids and forced them to learn on the job at the client’s expense. This rarely became a problem, however, because the decision to hire McKinsey was typically made by a company’s chief executive officer, the last person to admit that he’d made a rotten decision by hiring McKinsey.”
The good, the bad, and the ugly are out there. As with most other lines of business, the adage is true for consultants: Let the buyer beware.