Contrary to popular belief, the world’s oldest profession is consulting. The first consultant was the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, who – with the encouragement of top management –– assumed an advisory role with Eve. When Eve followed his advice and picked the low-hanging fruit, the consequences were grave and long-lasting. So in addition to what some have called Original Sin, we now have the concept of Original Advice. We still feel the chill of this ancestral shadow cast over our work.
There is a vague ambiguity in calling ourselves consultants. Once, on an airplane, I answered the question of what I did by saying I was a tabletop photographer. Nice conversation stopper. When people ask you what you do for a living, and you decide to answer truthfully, as soon as you say “consultant,” it is hard to know what is coming. Whatever response I get, I usually make light of the profession, thinking that if I can tell the jokes about consultants first, I will finesse any discomfort and ward off the other’s cynical comments.
Many years ago, I began writing Flawless Consulting with my usual jokes about consulting. See above. I left the jokes in later editions because the consulting industry has experienced enormous growth in the past two decades, partly the result of jobs disappearing so rapidly. Humor is a good defense against criticism that contains some truth in it. I think the shadow of this profession is about our ethics and the complexities of the role; it is not about our competence or contribution. This shadow is about questions of who we are here to serve, and whether is our work a low-risk way to downsize some more, in the name of change management and efficiency.
Although most of the heat about the profession is about external consultants, the same conflicts exist with internal consultants and staff groups. Staff groups are under great pressure to do the bidding of top management and often find it difficult to hold to their own values and beliefs. In this way, they carry much the same burdens as external consultants. It is not accidental that internal staff groups are labeled “overhead items” or that staff groups are an early target of cost reductions and outsourcing.
Many internal staff groups also operate as virtual consulting businesses: They are self-funding, bill out their services, and experience the same tension between serving their own interests and doing what is best for their clients. And with the increasing cost pressure on most organizations, many are even free to extend their services to outside clients.
Part of the problem is that the promise of consulting is a commitment to care and to serve. We promise to act in the interest of another, the client. When we can hold to that promise, we probably add real value and become legitimate. It is just hard to meet such a standard.
To be effective in our work we have to explore what might be deserved in the world’s skepticism about whether consulting really brings the value that it promises. When consultants deny their own questions about both the value and the legitimacy of our stances in working with clients, we are feeding the cynicism and making the next generation of work more difficult.