The Accidental Consultant

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My entry into the field of management consulting was like one of those wrong turns that take you into a part of town you never knew existed. At the time, I was just finishing my doctoral dissertation on nineteenth-century German philosophy. My business experience consisted of a miserable summer at a fast-food restaurant, and my acquaintance with management theory was limited to a poster in the restaurant staff room celebrating the virtues of Quality! Service! Cleanliness! I had no clear idea what management consulting was, except that it sounded like the kind of thing that people like me should be prevented from doing. I had no clue what I was getting into.

The adventure began in a pub, over a game of pool. The annual recruiting season had long since come and gone. I was losing badly to a pair of undergraduates who had recently received offers from a prestigious consulting firm. There was something very wrong in the giddy way they talked about their careers in “corporate strategy,” I thought. They were 22 years old or so; I was going on 26. What could they do for the corporations of the world that I couldn’t do better?

The truth is that I badly needed a job. My life savings had dipped into three-digit territory. The only occupation for which I was qualified was teaching academic philosophy; but, on the basis of somewhat obscure philosophical objections, I had developed an aversion to the subject. (To be fair, the feeling appeared to be mutual.) As I gazed at the pool balls ricocheting on their predetermined but unpredictable paths, it occurred to me that, instead of spending the next year watching daytime TV, I, too, could make some ready cash by offering strategy tips to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

On the morning after pool night, I typed up a CV and sent copies to about ten management consulting firms. I was unaware of the custom of writing personalized notes to each firm driving home my passion to work for them and them alone, so my cover letters were limited to three curt sentences announcing my availability for employment. Nine out of ten of my envelopes met with the likely response: a swift rejection, accompanied by insincere assurances that I was bound to find suitable employment elsewhere. One CV, however, happened to intersect with a founding partner of one of the smaller, so-called boutique consulting firms just as a space opened up on his schedule in a planned visit to town. This partner, I was later informed, had embarked on an enlightened program of recruiting “experimental” hires.

That I should have been classified with the laboratory animals seems fair enough. After all, I was in the market for an “experimental” job. The plan, as I formulated it to friends, family, and skeptical professors in those heady days after winning the interview lottery, was to make a tidy sum of money for a year or two and then resume the journey toward my true calling (whatever that might turn out to be). Spinoza polished lenses for a living and Bertrand Russell wrote potboilers, I reasoned, so what could be wrong with moonlighting as a corporate adviser?

Although the probability that I would get the job was at this point vanishingly small, I nonetheless began to entertain some alarming ambitions. Academic philosophy is landlocked in a desert of pedantry and idealism, I told my friends. Management consulting represents a return to the material world from which philosophy must draw its inspiration. I pictured myself standing on the forecastle of a mighty corporation on the hunt for the great white whale of global capitalism. “To the East Asian markets, mateys!” I shouted out in my mind. “Thar blows a profit opportunity!” I was tempted to call myself Ishmael. In short, I was not only unemployable but a potential menace to the working people of the world.

In any case, my competitive instincts had already overwhelmed any merely rational deliberations about the course on which I was set. The interview might as well have been for a position as a tennis instructor; now that I was in the running, I was determined to ace it. Over the next two weeks, I read the Financial Times cover to cover every morning. I set aside my turgid Germans in favor of a copy of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s breezy best seller In Search of Excellence, from which I learned to say things like “hands on/value-driven!” and to extol the virtues of “simultaneous loose-tight properties,” whatever those were. Every night I put myself to sleep (literally) with a textbook on corporate finance.

On a drizzly spring morning in 1988, in a baroque-style hotel conference room littered with recently emptied Louis XV chairs, I squared off against Henry,* a dapper, silver-haired, 50-ish Englishman with an angular head that looked too big for his small frame. I leaned forward in my seat, tugging at the sleeves of a suit that seemed to have grown tighter since its glory days on the high school debate team and awaited the opportunity to deliver my fortnight’s worth of insights on “globalization,” “securitization,” and the driving need of modern corporations to develop those “simultaneous loose-tight” properties in the face of relentless international competition. I was prepared, if necessary, to expound my theory that management consulting is a lot like whale hunting.

After the briefest of greetings, Henry smiled, or perhaps smirked, rubbed his chin, and cocked his head a little sideways. Then he looked straight at me and asked, as though the question had just occurred to him, “How many pubs are there in Great Britain?”

Life is full of surprises. And that’s mostly a good thing. Every surprise is an opportunity for learning. My career as a management consultant was a long list of learning opportunities. Like all other consultants, I owe my education to the extraordinary generosity of clients. With their assistance, I traveled the world and became an expert in several dozen subjects. I helped found a new consulting firm. It shot up like a rocket and then exploded in a fireball of recriminations and lawsuits. Then the stock market, in its inscrutable wisdom, scattered rewards and punishments with benign indifference among the merely undeserving and the viciously incompetent. The experiment that began in my interview with Henry lasted ten years. Frankly, it got a little out of hand. At times it got ugly. But in the end it did yield some interesting and unexpected results.

My experience posed a series of disturbing questions—questions that eventually prompted me to write this book. The trouble began even before my interview on pub life in Great Britain, with a particularly nagging question: Why on earth would anybody hire me as a management consultant? Shortly after receiving my one and only offer, I rephrased the question: Why would anybody hire a firm that would hire me?