What are management consultants for?

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Zoom Ahead by Vikram Vetrivel via FlickrShould we hire management consultants?

I’ve worked as a management consultant all my life. Maybe that qualifies me to write this post. Maybe my experience disqualifies me.  This is what I think.  Much as I welcome the business and interesting assignments, hiring consultants can be a bad sign.

Think of it like this. When I go to see my GP (family physician), I expect them to refer me to ‘consultants’ or specialists for rare conditions. It makes sense to see someone who works all day and everyday in one field.

But think of the reverse. Imagine going to a specialist hospital and having the leading specialist refer you to a GP. Now that is back to front.

Sadly, often management consultants are not specialists. They are often young, inexperienced and unqualified. Why then are they used to advise experienced managers?

Why do we hire management consultants?

There can be many reasons. But one of the obvious, of course, is that managers don’t know what to do. Not knowing what to do is not a crime. We all read. We all go on courses. We are learning all the time.

But when consultants aren’t specialists being hired to do specialist tasks, there is often a very specific malaise in the organization. And the malaise may be this.  The managers are doing work one level below their appointment.

The senior managers, for example, are planning budgets and developing working procedures and checking efficiencies. They are supposed to be looking ahead and anticipating the obstacles of 5 years time that we need to start solving now.  The middle managers will plan the actual work and review its efficiency.  The junior managers will make sure the work is done and tweak procedures to fit the specifics of the moment.

In military terms, senior managers don’t go to war; they don’t necessarily plan this war. They plan the next war.

In turn, the top managers  might be solving the problems of tomorrow when they should be deciding what business to be in and what kind of organizational structure and business model is required to succeed in that business.

In military terms, they assess which of our allies of today will be our enemies of tomorrow.  They anticipate innovation in weaponry and have the right research and development going on at military universities.  They look into the future that we cannot see.

Of course, senior managers should understand how middle managers draw up budgets just as generals must know what is happening to colonels and troops on the ground.  They should know how well things are going. When they walk into a work site, they should understand what is happening as a general should be able to comfortably go out on patrol.   They need to understand the organization from bottom to top, but they must do their own jobs not someone elses.  If no one is steering the ship of the organization, we will go to sea without maps, food, fuel and skills.

The sad reality of consulting

When we hire consultants, the excuse that we often give is that our subordinates are not up to their jobs. Let’s do some thought experiments.

  • In a well-run organization, when the boss is away, (when we are away) can somebody sit in our chair and makes the decisions we would ordinarily make.  If not, its not surprising we think our subordinates are incompetent.  We don’t let them see the world from where we see it.
  • When we are away, are our subordinates able to do more work and make better decisions than when we are around?
  • When our  incompetent subordinate is away, do things run better or worse?
  • When our incompetent subordinate is away, is one of his or her subordinates automatically taking over his or her responsibilities?  And if not, why not?

Specialist work that occurs rarely is legitimate work for a consultant.  Doing a senior managers job is not.  And the test is whether the senior manager can state whether they have assessed the obstacles the organization will face over the next five years and what they are doing to ameliorate the difficulties.

They may be more comfortable doing month-to-month management, or even day-to-day management, but while they are doing their juniors work for them, the work of leadership is not happening.  A simple solution is to move the senior managers to another building where they cannot interfere quite so readily.  Limit the email and telephone contact upwards with daily meetings at a set time.

Very soon they won’t need  a consultant at all.

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