Consultants ≠ Nihilists

In the spirit of Festivus, I will now commence with the Airing of Grievances. In the wise words of Frank Costanza, “I got a lotta problems with you people, and now you’re going to hear about it!”

Over the holidays, I mostly spent my time reading; Marc Benioff’s Trailblazer, Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovators Dilemma, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots, and Marc Randolph’s That Will Never Work. The final book I read over the break, and the subject of my ire, is Peter Thiel’s Zero to One.

Peter is a well-known doyen of the technology industry and rightly so. He co-founded Paypal, Palantir, Founders Fund, and Mithril Capital. He was an early investor in Facebook and Linkedin and is worth approx $2.5 billion. While I give him points for his LOTR-named VC funds and I do agree with his points about capitalism vs competition, I found some of his statements in his book about consultants vs product engineers/designers to be almost an inchoate comparison of the “Proletariat vs. Bourgeoisie”.

On a scale between Nihilism and Dogmatism, he places consultants squarely in the Nihilism range and makes reference to consultants “dropping in and out of companies to which they have no long-term connection whatsoever”. He denigrates professional services businesses and consulting firms in a way that suggests they have zero purpose beyond short-term goals and increasing minor efficiencies in their customer’s organisations. He also aligns consultants solely with low-growth environments.

I find this type of one-sided coruscating analysis to be completely unhelpful. His grandiose image of himself and his up-turned nose at the services industry smacks of naivety. In my experience, product-based technology companies, particularly startups, often desperately need the assistance of strategy/management consultants to help founder/CEOs with little-to-no business experience navigate long-term strategy, finance, risk management, and the tying together of disparate business units while scaling. Not every company can achieve a monopoly and those who face competition often differentiate through more efficient processes, risk reduction, enhanced branding, and competitive pricing models. This is exactly what consultants can provide to businesses, both low and HIGH growth. For Thiel to suggest that consultants are nihilists who care little for the long-term success of their customers is utter nonsense.

While I do agree that some large professional services firms and consultancies do have a surface-level commitment to values and a lack of a purpose that goes beyond profits, I do not believe the entire consulting industry can be painted with that brush. Despite a public “fatigue” with certain large players of the consulting industry and their opaque business practices, there are consulting service providers who provide specialist advice that add a great deal of value to their customers in the long-term and give back to their community along the way. In fact, many consultants go on to start their own successful businesses, using the lessons they learned during their time working with clients. Innovation in technology may change the way we live and work but consultants help make those changes sustainable for the long-term. Whether your career is in services or products, you can build or help build a high-growth successful business and be a respected leader in your industry.

When choosing a career direction or pivoting from your current role, I often suggest to people The Hedgehog Concept from Jim Collin’s book Good to Great. The Hedgehog Concept is based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Ask yourself the three questions in the diagram below and if one of your responses overlaps with all three circles, you have your direction.

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In my opinion, specificity is the key to success in a landscape flooded with companies attempting to be everything to everyone, and thus, are nothing to no-one.

Ignore Peter Thiel’s gallimaufry of Blue Ocean Strategy rip-offs and biased rants. Do what you love and what you could be the best at, even if that path is consulting, you Nihilist, you.

Shannon Sedgwick GAICD – ssedgwick.com