In the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the 5th book of the insanely popular series by J. K. Rowling, a new teacher is introduced. Professor Umbridge becomes a formidable antagonist in the story.
She is appointed by Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge, initially as a teacher of Defense against the Dark Arts. She later becomes Headmaster of Hogwarts. During her tenure, she was known to hold a clipboard as she observed the students’ behavior, taking notes, but not revealing any of her thoughts.
The students quickly developed a distrust for her. She was an unknown outsider, given unjustified authority, who gave every indication that she was observing and evaluating them.
I enjoyed the entire series of books and their subsequent movies. While initially reading about Professor Umbridge in the Order of the Phoenix, I couldn’t help thinking that she sounded like a consultant.
Consultants are also appointed by higher-ups that don’t necessarily have credibility, or the trust of their internal stakeholders. The consultants come in and initially spend their time “learning the business.”
They do that by observing, working side by side with the existing employees, and taking notes. From the consultant’s perspective, all they want to do is learn the business.
It’s an entirely different scene from the employee’s perspective:
I was just sitting here doing my job and one day, the boss brought in these outsiders who he labeled experts. They came in and wanted to know every aspect of what I do every day. They asked me questions about why I do things. I don’t know. It’s just how we’ve always done it, I guess.
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Employees begin to distrust these question-asking, note-taking intruders. What are they really here for? Did the boss plant them here to find out what we really do? I heard from Bill in accounting that they want to sell the company and need to reduce headcount in order to do it.
Any time management makes any type of significant change, or a decision that affects the daily routines of their employees, rumors start flying. People assume the worst and each irrational fear exceeds the previous one.
The fear is not always irrational. Consultants are usually tasked with making things more efficient. If they see the employees doing a lot of manual work that can be made more efficient with a new software application, the company might be able to do the same amount of work with fewer employees. It won’t be long until they start eliminating jobs.
The consulting firm’s goal
Bringing in consultants can be a costly effort. They come in with their fancy MBAs and high hourly rates. They have to find a way to justify those rates. Why wouldn’t the consultants be motivated to justify that cost by showing the company how much they can save by cutting their full-time employees? Why wouldn’t the consultants be assigned to identify the best candidates to remove?
I won’t argue that that scenario does not happen, but I know from experience that it is rare. Companies hire consultants to either identify ways to make the company more efficient, or to implement one of those ways that have already been identified.
Consultants justify their cost by completing their contract successfully, which is rarely based on reducing the company’s headcount, directly or indirectly.
When companies recognize efficiencies from a consulting firm’s efforts, they often increase their sales, resulting in more business. And with more business comes the need for more people to do other tasks. The existing employees know the business and are the best candidates to be assigned to new positions.
Employees may not like their routines being disrupted and complain that the consultants really messed things up. But consultants are change agents and change can be good.
The ones left behind
When people do end up losing their jobs as a result of consultant-initiated changes, it is often because of their lack of cooperation. When a company makes a major investment for a new effort, they want their employees to get on-board. Some will be leaders and some will be followers. Both are needed. But those who fight the system, point out every stumble along the way, and even practice subtle acts of sabotage, become undesirable and dispensable.
Many companies identify these people and give them the boot. Those that are asked to leave spin the story that they were right all along. The company was just trying to cut their staff. And it’s all the fault of that damn consultant spy.
Consultants are tasked with helping a business improve their operations and profitability. If their efforts result in reducing headcount, it is a sign that the client company had too many people to begin with.
Consultants are rarely given the direct task of reducing headcount or even to identify who amongst the team should be removed. If management needs to make that difficult decision, they usually know the names already.
Have you ever been made to feel like a consultant spy?
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.