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Magic Consultants

Why does management consulting have such a bad reputation? (And what we can do about it.)

Compared with healthcare workers, train drivers, politicians, lawyers and almost any other profession you care to mention, management consultants don’t get an awful lot of coverage in the media. So, when the BBC announced a five-part series on Radio 4 that promised to “peek behind the curtain of the consultancy industry” my interest was piqued. Entitled Magic Consultants, it covered the craft of consulting, its history, consultants’ impact on world affairs and governments and finished by questioning whether consulting had a future.

But the key question you’re asking is: was it any good?

And the short answer is no.

I listened to every episode and recorded my thoughts about them on LinkedIn but in summary, the series felt very superficial and almost completely obsessed with McKinsey – some of whose dealings are, admittedly, worthy of critical scrutiny – and peddled the worst clichés about management consultancy: mainly that we’re overpaid conmen who don’t add any real value. The “magic” in the title appeared to be the trickery of the Wizard of Oz (if you haven’t seen the film or read the book then that’s a spoiler) rather than attributing special powers to consultants.

To be honest, a series eulogising consultants as corporate magicians would have been equally hard to stomach but it annoyed me that it danced around the subject rather than really getting stuck into it. Anyone listening to the series with no prior experience of consultancy would probably have formed the impression that it was a cabal of secretive firms trying to force their pernicious points of view on an innocent world. It would have been nice to have some actual stories of client success – the MCA’s Tamzen Isacsson made a spirited attempt to redress the balance but, like many of the contributors, I suspect a more substantive contribution suffered from being edited down to fit into a 14-minute episode.

But why do consultants have such a bad reputation? OK, some high-profile cases of frankly unethical behaviour don’t help (yes, McKinsey I’m talking about you – you may have paid up but it still stinks) but there aren’t enough stories around about the good work that consultants do. That may be the reason why clients don’t want to admit that they brought in outside help to address their business problems – for all kinds of good commercial reasons.

Redressing this balance is one of CMCE’s main aims. We’re a network for sharing new and emerging practices in management consulting – i.e. the stuff that works and that delivers real value for clients. Sharing thoughts and experiences won’t break client confidence but will help to raise awareness of success stories showcasing that any “magic” that consultants are capable of is down to hard-won experience and a commitment to continuously developing our way of helping companies change for the better.

You can support the work we do at CMCE by sharing your own stories via this newsletter or, for more interactive discussions, becoming a CMCE Associate via our LinkedIn page. We can’t guarantee you a slot on a radio show any time soon but we are sure that you, and the consulting industry, will benefit from sharing more.

Nick Bush, Director, CMCE

Tuesday 8th August 2023
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