Why the Consultants to the Professions are Whipping us into Irrelevance

The following is from one of our latest Practicing Fellows, Matthew Tol, from Australia.

Apparently, the 50 Shades trilogy is one of the fastest selling books (for those with matching chromosomes) ever. Quite a feat when you see that all “serious” reviewers describe it as appallingly written. It must have something to do with the escapism that the books engender—something a lot of writers apparently strive for.

In many respects, the consultants to the professions (and I”m mainly talking about accounting and legal professions here), fall into the same mould as that adopted by E. L. James in her books. They offer up a fantasy, some escapism and possibly a somewhat removed from reality view of what a “normal” firm should look like. Although, I do think that a large number of firms out there have a number of “Red Rooms of Pain”—they’re known as Partners’ Offices at review time!

Having endured a range of sessions with consultants to the accounting profession over the past 20 plus years, it appears that they have a view of the world which is based largely on some experience they had many years ago. They have leveraged off this to create a story which they sell to everyone in an attempt to enable them to believe that they are able to do what the Consultant had done. Similar to Anastasia Steele, in the book, the submissives are taken on a journey for which they are unprepared and are convinced to adopt certain behaviours even if they are outside their comfort zone.

Whilst there are some things that the consultants to the professions do well—mainly cause people to think, their approach is possibly not relevant in the current environment. They have updated their stories based on stories they have been told rather than learnings they have experienced.

Take the younger staff engaged in professional firms. They are very different to where I and my colleagues were when we started out! They have a greater focus on results, less need to be measured and a greater desire to “make a difference.” They don’t like being managed with a stick and they have been taught that they are good enough.

How do we then reconcile that with the command and control processes that are promoted by the consultants? How do they “fit” with their performance being measured by productivity rather than results? Do they feel like Ana who is satisfied after received 20 whacks on the bum because that is what makes her “owner” feel good?

For the consultants to the profession to be truly effective and act as the catalyst they should be, they need to assist the firms they work with to develop new and innovative strategies to manage and inspire their staff. Sorry, but a goal of 80% productivity just doesn’t do it!

A large part of this revolves around being aware of the “soft” skills needed in developing people. Most of us have been trained to be technically very competent and have further developed that with many years of practice. When you get good enough technically, you get to a senior or ownership position and you are often simply not aware of the methods that need to be adopted to mentor and develop younger staff.

“When your only tool is a hammer, the rest of the world looks like a nail” is an old adage. Lots of firms base their existence around timesheets. This is a measurement tool that is so subjective as to be fictional and which bears no connection to quality or creativity in problem solving by the people on the job.

Senior people in firms have been managed and developed using the blunt object that is the timesheet and are now passing this insanity on to the next generation. The trouble is the next generation is not buying it.

I received an email the other day from one of the consulting groups to the profession talking about concepts like “value billing” and the like. Great. But then they go on to discuss the need to measure the time spent on the job to see whether it is profitable.

Taking this the other way—you agree a price with the customer based on the results you’re going to deliver. You then spend time recording the time you spend so that you can get to the end of the job to spend more time determining whether it was profitable? At what hourly rate were you working? This is like driving your car in the rear vision mirror.

Don’t get me wrong, there are significant benefits from doing after-action reviews at the completion of a job. If it’s done based on time spent, you’re losing the value you can get from these. You need to look at the qualitative factors instead. This is what the younger people in professional firms want.

We also need to remember that the younger people entering our professions have spent a large part of their developmental years playing computer games. These games teach them strategy and process and help them to understand that there are ways around things for those “in the know.” How good would it be if we were to utilise these skills in problem solving for our customers (or, heaven help, our own firms!)?

I must admit that I have not read any of E. L. James’ books—and probably won’t. The information I have used in here has come as per a consultant—I have spoken to people who have read it. Hence, I am not an expert on that topic.

However, the message that is in those books about consensual agreement to being flogged bears a striking (couldn’t resist the pun) resemblance to the way the professions are going and the perpetuation of this silliness by the consultants to the professions.

At some point in the not too distant future, the 50 Shades trilogy will be consigned to the discount bins. I can only hope that the focus of the consultants on timesheets and forgetting about the new generation is also remaindered. For the sake of the future of our professions, we need to move from the Greyness that leads to Darkness and be Freed.

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