"A Philosophy of Consulting" Why? Radio episode with guest Bob Colleran
6:52PM Sep 1, 2021
Jack Russell Weinstein
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The original episode can be found here: https://wp.me/p8pYQY-jcL
Hi, I'm jack Russell Weinstein, host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Today's episode we'll be exploring the philosophy of consulting with Bob collar and there's a famous story about failures, the very first Greek philosopher. One night he was paying so much attention to the stars in the sky that he fell into Uh, well. Needless to say he was ridiculed accused of being concerned with the wrong things and taunted for being useless. Legend tells us he plotted his revenge failures used his studies of nature to predict an early harvest, rented out all of the olive presses on the island engineered a monopoly and charge the farmers exorbitant prices, just to prove that he was smarter than everyone else he could make money if he wanted to failings is reputed to have claimed, but he just wasn't interested. Philosophers use their intelligence for nobler things. The story may be true, or it may not. But whatever its origins, it sums up a message that's been drilled into my head since my first year at college, philosophy and business our enemies. One is about wisdom, the other is about success. One celebrates generosity and is profound the other glorifies greed and is fleeting philosophy is morally superior. Of course, the business world tells its own version of this conflict. Business is constructive and philosophy is an indulgence. Entrepreneurs are innovative philosophers contemplate their own navels business majors get well paying jobs, while philosophy students wallow in unemployment. Why would anyone waste their tuition dollars on something so frivolous? When the whole point of college is to get a job they ask, I can't tell you how often students complain to me that their parents won't support their studying philosophy. The business world looks at what I do with contempt. The thing is, both sides of this debate are wrong and mean spirited. philosophy majors have great employment records, and the discipline is responsible for some of the most revolutionary insights in human history. At the same time, business can be great for the common good and industry lays claim to some of the most amazing inventions, business and philosophy can and do work together. There are a few places where this is clear than in the world of consulting. consultants are hired guns who walk into an unfamiliar situation, use their critical thinking to solve problems pass on their wisdom to their clients, and then move on to the next job. The best ones bring generations of knowledge to those who can't see the bigger picture and aim for the most productive solutions, even when their inquiries lead to the unexpected. consultants are the philosophers of the business world.
I learned this from today's guest. For several years, he and I worked on a curriculum to teach his employees had to be ethical consultants. It was an exciting and challenging task which will no doubt talk about during the show. But what surprised me the most was His revelation that the consulting industry has no uniform standards. There's no professional Code of Conduct or certifying body, there are no agreed upon ethical principles and most oversight happens from within people's own firms. corruption and laziness can plague a company from the top down dooming even the best consultant to reproduce a culture of dysfunction. There is no clear definition of what makes a consultant good. This is an odd thing for philosopher to encounter an entire industry that doesn't have a vision of excellence. Sure, there's a dominant understanding of what successes, but achieving recognition is not the same thing as doing well. The worst consultants might make the most money just like the stupidest movies sell the most tickets. Defining excellence lies at the core of philosophy. It's what motivates Plato, Kant and even the father of capitalism himself, Adam Smith. If making the most money is all a consultant aims for, then the earlier criticism is right business is shallow and greedy, but I don't think it is, and neither does my guest. The task for today's episode is to figure out the characteristics of a good consultant. This will include examining their purpose, behavior, motivations and their ability to be self critical. We're going to talk about the best way to train and educate them. And here's another little preview. Today's guest loves to declare that an MBA is worthless. If he's right, then this puts his profession on a very shaky foundation. Before we begin, though, it's important to be reminded that this is what philosophers do. We take a disorganized field of study and look at its assumptions and create order out of the chaos. We identify long standing practices and discover what gets called normative standards, measures of quality that become obligatory benchmarks to aim for. Once excellence is clearly identified, people have a moral responsibility to shoot for them. This is true Ethics in science and in politics. It's also true in business. There's a catch though. Once we know what a good consultant is, their job becomes harder. They'll no longer exist in the lawless wild west, they'll have to meet expectations and aim for getting better. This is what happens when you add philosophy to the mix. Business is as much a moral enterprise as any other human endeavor. Acting arbitrarily is easy. Being good is the hardest thing there is. And now our guest, Bob colorin, is the founder and CEO of a leafy management consulting. He's worked with numerous other consulting firms along the way, specializing in developing strategy and executing tactics across a wide range of industries, including global philanthropies, media and entertainment, high tech, consumer products, retail, telecommunications, government, and financial institutions. Bob, welcome to y. x. JACK, I'm excited to be here. If you'd like to participate, share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is at why radio show you can always email us at ask why umd.edu and listen to our previous episodes for free at why Radio show.org Alright, so Bob, let's start off with the most basic question. What does a consultant do?
That's an excellent question. And by the way, fantastic introduction. Thank you. That was really fun. Yeah. And so you know, that's a really challenging question. A lot of consultants joke about how it's the thing that their parents never really understand in terms of what they do from day to day. And there are a number of different ways you can look at it. The way that I usually describe it is we try to help organizations do what they do better, faster, more efficiently. We've been described as human Border Collies, which I don't mind, there are lots of things about the work that is about improving, making things more efficient, solving really difficult problems, setting strategy and executing tactics against those, as you mentioned. And it does break down into a number of different categories, which I'm happy to kind of talk you through briefly if that would help.
That might help but I want to ask, you know, this, this, this triad, better faster, more efficiently? Is, is the idea in, in business always to get things done as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible? Or is there ever I don't know like the slow cooking version, the the the meditate on something, the times where you can, where you can sit down and really reflect and not so much worry about the outcomes, but think more about the process?
Absolutely. And that that triumvirate is not necessarily all the same better, could mean slower, better can mean stopping, because you haven't done the right thinking, or you haven't had the chance to really explore all the options. But when it's important to have it be efficient, for example, like say, if you were trying to figure out a new way to teach introductory level philosophy to a specific group, you'd probably try to think about, okay, what am I trying to accomplish? What's the content that I need to get across? And how can I best make it palatable for this audience? That those kinds of questions are really what consulting is all about? It's what do I want to do? What tools do I have? And how do I need to get it across? in many, many different ways? And so the the reason why I always talk about consulting is the application of common sense is that that really does feel like common sense. Of course, as my grandmother would have said, If sense were so common, more people would have it.
So give us a scenario in which a corporation and let's say a large scale Corporation would want to consultant what when do you go in house? And when do you sort of when are you inspired to say, Hey, we need someone else to come in and work through this thing?
Yeah, so there are a number of different ways reasons why an organization would want to bring consultants in and starting at what we call capital S strategy would be, where is it that this organization wants to go? What's the star that they follow? And how do we define that? What's the purpose for its existence? And then how do we align all the work that's done, the products that are that are manufactured, or the services that are provided around that, that star that they're trying to follow. So that's what we call capital S strategy. And you don't necessarily need to have people who could do that on your payroll every day. That's something that you can bring in when you need that defined and once it's defined, maybe you come back to it every few years to revisit it and make sure that one it still makes sense given changing circumstances and what's happening with your business. But you don't have those on on staff necessarily as full time employees. So that's one Wait,
let me interrupt for a second. I want to hear the other two businesses lose their way. Often I mean it, you know, the way you're describing it, it seems like here's a business or a corporation that suddenly finds themselves floundering without direction. But that from an outsider's perspective, that seems like a crisis. Does that happen very often? And is it the crisis that I would imagine it is?
It's not necessarily the crisis that that you're describing, it could certainly seem that way. You know, but most organizations that you're familiar with, that we're all familiar with, for example, the products that we that we buy, and the services that we consume, or things like, you know, the, the streaming services that we look at, and you know, and all of those things are things that are happening all the time. But if you're an organization, for example, that provides streaming services, you should probably ask yourself a number of questions about, okay, what what is it that we think we're really good at that nobody else can do? How do we focus on that? Who's our who's our intended audience for the for that content? And then how do we get it to people in a way, that's the most cost effective so that we are bottom line benefits? So it's, you can have any organization do some kind of what we would call navel gazing to say, all right, we want to do this thing, but how do we really focus our attention on what exactly it is that we're here to do? And how we can do it better than everybody else?
Does that hope
it does? And I have another question. And then I want to sort of see what the other options are that you that you were about to talk about. But there's a there's a regional chain of restaurants, sort of deli restaurants here called smiling mousse deli, right. And I think they started in Colorado, but I'm not sure. And they had these nice sandwiches and wraps and all this stuff. And then about a month ago, they changed their menu radically. And now half of the good sandwiches are gone. And half of the sandwiches are just burgers. And they never had burgers before. And now all they do is advertise burgers. And it's the same brand, but it's a different restaurant. Is that the kind of thing that happens when you have one of these strategy sessions? when when when you're trying to figure out your mission? Or is that just, you know, Kim, my wife, and I always say, you know, there must be a new Associate Vice President somewhere. is Dr. Baker, who's trying to make their name. Is that the kind of thing that happens or what? Okay, so so you're the consultant and you come in, and they say, we want to start making burgers. We've never made burgers before. We know that lots of people make burgers, but we want to do it anyway. What do you say to them? In the face of such a radical proposal?
Well, if that was why they brought us in, I would ask them immediately why why do you want to make burgers? That's not part of your reason for being your your customers don't know you for burgers at all? What is it that you're trying to accomplish? what problem are you trying to solve? By moving to a burger based menu? Why did they do that? You can assume you know, generally speaking, when I'm going into a client, if it seems strange, and inexplicable, it means I don't have enough information. There's always a reason why people do stuff like that. Probably, if I had to speculate, then something was happening with their revenue. And they weren't making as much as they used to, on their standard menu. So they had to think to themselves, what's something that we can bring in that would bring in more customers more revenue, maybe it's a lower cost working, we do to change something, because probably they didn't, it wasn't that somebody woke up one day and said, burgers, I watched this show. And now I want to make burgers, probably there was something else happening, something exogamous that said, you probably need to change or your business is in danger. And that's when you tend to see these kind of radical changes. And some organizations that you can think of probably, like, you know, a very, very large retail organization that used to do great with these massive catalogs. And then they had stores everywhere. And then all of a sudden, the landscape shifted, and they tried to do a bunch of other things. Sometimes it works, and they can get back on their footing. And sometimes it doesn't. But that those are times when organizations can bring in consultants to ask those questions. What's happening? Why do you think this is changing? What is it that you want to do to address it? What What resources do you have? And then what's likely to happen to your existing customers or clients when you do that?
Bob, I really like the language that you're using the language of problem solving in particular, are our consultants, always an answer to a problem? is is is that the role that consultants play, that there's a problem, and it needs to be solved and that the things aren't business as usual. But rather, we need something new, something different and someone to come up with a solution.
Generally, yes, there's a confusion, honestly, in the industry between consulting and what we call staff augmentation. So I was talking to someone yesterday who I'm actually trying to hire. And she was describing her role at her current client and her with her current consulting firm. And I use that loosely. And I said, Well, what you're actually describing is what's called staff. org, that's where an organization is short, because someone's on leave for some reason, or they're growing really quickly. And they need some temporary help. So they asked for an organization to come in and play someone there for a certain amount of time. And people confuse that with with consulting, but consulting really is what you just described, you bring us in, when there's a problem that needs to be solved, or when there's something that needs to be done that you need help doing. It's not necessarily the consultants know, an organization's business better than they do. But they do know how to ask really good questions and how to uncover the truth. And it's sort of like saying, you know, you don't just say, Oh, I know that because I have this pain in my leg that I have the answer. You go, and you talk to someone, a nurse or a doctor, or some other medical professional, and they ask you questions that try to get at what the actual problem is what but what you're describing is the symptom, what we do is something similar. So with your deli example, it would be what's happening, what's the current situation? What do you want it to be like? And then how can we help you get there? What are the things that need to happen? When decisions need to be made? What resources need to be brought to bear? And then how do we roll it out? Hopefully, in a way that doesn't upset your existing customer base? Like it sounds like this group has done?
Yeah, I mean, I'm not you know, maybe I'm not their target demographic. Right. But But, but so so is there, I'm not sure how to ask this question. Is there an inherent conflict of interest? I mean, how much of your job is pleasing your client? And how much of your job is specking? Your client? I mean, to what extent yet, what happens if you come to a conclusion, that's the complete opposite they want, like if you went and said, you know, what, burgers are a bad idea. You want them to hire you, again, you want to make money you want them to, you know, give you a good performance review, or whatever. So So is there a conflict of interest there?
So that is a great question. And I honestly think that there's a built in conflict of interest with respect to consulting, because it's just like you described, we make money because we make our clients happy. But sometimes what we have to tell our clients makes them very unhappy. And that can hinder our willingness to maybe give them difficult advice. For example, well, you might like burgers, but you probably should make them out of cows and not this other cheaper option that you're, you know, you're considering. They might not like that, because it may say, Well, you're going to drive our costs up. But that really shouldn't matter to the consultant, the consultant, and I've said this directly to my clients, we are paid to give you the best advice that we can, even when you don't want to hear it even when it makes you really mad. But that's not true for all consultants. And you and I have had some great conversations about this. How do we make that part of the consulting toolkit, the consulting language, how do you bring that ethical conversation into it?
In a few minutes, we'll take a break, and then we'll come back and we'll dive right into into that sort of that structure, the ethical conversation, the language, but are you a hammer? Right? I mean, does a consultant have to come in with a very strong personality and be dominant and assert themselves? Or is the job of a consultant to sort of adopt, you know, to be, you know, like the read and bend with the wind and sort of absorb the culture of the community, right? If I, if I were suddenly in another philosophy department, the first thing I would do is just sort of see how other people around me do their job, and sort of try to mimic that culture. But the cultures sometimes, as I said in the beginning, are dysfunctional. So how much of how much of consulting is coming in as Bob? And that's the package they're asking for and how much of it is to try to echo or sort of mimic what the company wants and to sort of fit in?
Well, getting it's a really good question. It's a lot like what you just described what you're thinking about coming into a new philosophy department. I'm not the right resource for every project because I am a steamroller. I can't help but be right there with what I think is happening and giving the room most candid advice that I can sometimes you need someone who's a little bit better at a more roundabout approach to triggering or engendering change. And it's my job as the leader of my my organization to figure out which of my consultants is right for which client?
How often do you get wrong, or how often do consulting firms get it wrong, where the client comes back and says, you know, this person isn't for us.
I have had that happen, where I was working with a very large national international Consumer Products Company, and we brought somebody in from the firm I was working with at the time, who just wasn't the right fit. And what the client came to me and said was, you know, this person really isn't the right fit, we need someone else. And we need some, we need these different characteristics. So that has happened in the past, generally, the, the more open you are, and the term that we typically use is, the more of a trusted advisor that you that you become, the easier it is to have those conversations. So not have them be catastrophic to just say, Oh, you know, I really don't think that's going to work. But I can tell you that I've had really, really candid conversations with executives at large corporations. And you can see it in their face, when they realize that I am making them angry, I am aware of that. And then I'm putting the revenue that my company brings in at risk. And they come all the way around to they must really keen Bob must really mean what he's saying. Because he's putting his revenue at risk. Therefore, it has more credibility. And what I've had happened over and over again, in the course of my career is that's the moment when you really connect with them. That's the moment when you become that trusted advisor, when they see that, you know, that what you're telling them is upsetting them, and you're telling them anyway?
Yeah, it's so interesting to hear you describe the consulting experience, because in pop culture, in the sort of general understanding of what a consultant is, we have visions, like from office space, and other movies and TV shows where the job of the consultants to come in to fire people to you know, it always signifies a terrifying change. And the employees are terrified of the consulting and the consultant walks in, and they're the enemy. But this phrase, the trusted advisor, really makes it seem like a good company is going to really welcome a consultant and that in the long run, it's in the employees best interest, and that this vision of what a consultant is, is just as distorted as pop culture is about anything else it Do you think that the picture of consultants and pop culture is inaccurate? Or or do you think that there is that aspect of consulting that needs to be acknowledged?
Well, I have to say that there are consultants out there who are who are like that, I usually joke that you know, what I watched something like there's a great show, I think on one of the streaming services that portrays us is, you know, pretty wild. And I always say, Yep, my life is exactly like that. That's what I'm doing every day. But really, the challenge is, what what is a good consultant, this kind of comes back to the original premise of this conversation. I think that the good consultant is the one who gives the best advice that they can, no matter the circumstances, but I've worked with plenty of consultants who don't agree, plenty of consultants who believe that just making the client happy is all that it takes. And I've In fact, had conversations with clients who haven't had those types of consultants in the past, one of them came to me and said, I need you to change the status report from red to green. And I said, Well, I can't do that. And, you know, she said, but you have to, I need it to be green, and I can't have it be red, it's going to be really problematic for me. And I said, I'm really sorry, but I can't do that. Because it actually is red. By the way. That's how we've defined it. And she just looked at me and said, well, that client consultant who was here before me would have made it green. Like Well, you know, that's, that means we're probably not the right firm for you.
It it leads us to to the beginning of the conversation that I'm super excited to have which is the education of the consultant. But before that we'll take a break you're listening to Bob collar and and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions on everyday life We'll be back right after this.
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Back with wide philosophical discussions at FDA live from your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we're talking with Bob Collin about the philosophy of consulting. And this makes me think of a story that I'm pretty sure I told on the show before, but I love telling it, and the person who I am talking about, she actually has never told me to stop. So I'm even gonna use her her name. Many, many years ago, I had a student named Katie, who I think the world of, and she was a double major of business and philosophy. And she was involved in like, the pageant scene and all that kind of stuff. And so she was apparently very, very good at doing people's hair, right? Not a concern of mine, obviously. But and, and so she would always talk about that she was in a sorority, that she would she would do her sorority sisters hair, while they would read her philosophy homework out to her, and I have these great visions of them reading Hegel, and having absolutely no idea what's going on. But anyway, she graduates and about five years after she sends me the email, and the email is great. The email, the five year email is is is the wonderful email that that Professor sometimes get that say, hey, I've lived my life. And here are the things that you've taught me. And what she talked about was the fact that she was doing all of this consulting, and she was working with people who needed to use Google better. And she did all these webinars. And she said that what she discovered was that all consulting is asking questions, and all consulting is is trying to help people figure out problems, and that she got a much better education for consulting on what she did from her philosophy classes than she did from her management classes. And so Bob, I guess the first question I have for you is, is Katie's experience uncommon? Or do you find that the people who you think are the best consultants have really learned their skills outside of business school, outside of the business major, and that it's the humanities skills, it's the philosophy skills, it's the general purpose problem solving skills, that that people really bring to the table?
I would definitely agree with that. And, you know, to your your former students comment that it's about asking questions, it almost has to be, you have to ask the questions to get to the root of the issue or why they've got you there. And then you have to ask them questions in a way that leads them to the solution. Because if you just come to them with a solution and say, This is what you need to do, they'll reject it like a bad kidney, because it's the consultant solution. It's not theirs. And so you, you do have to become very good at asking really good questions that help leave their thinking. And I would say that, yes, my experience in the liberal arts was more helpful, I think, than my experience at business school for that.
Do you find yourself in the position of teaching your consultants how to ask questions? I mean, I know that at this point, now, aletha, your consulting firm is is a fairly high powered firm, I'm willing to, you know, I'll give you the credit that you won't take yourself. But it's a very, very high powered firm. So I know that you're only going to hire the people who are best but but you've gone through the your career at various different levels. And, and you've had to teach skills, how much training for consulting is done from scratch, and how much of it is built on the education that people come with?
I'd say most of it is it comes from the education that people come to consulting with. But even more than that, it's there's a natural curiosity that I think is really required. And also, I think, a really strong internal ethical compass. I think those two things are really vital to be a really good consultant. And to really provide that value as the trusted adviser that our clients need.
And you don't think that the MBA is that path you've set to be I had another student who I set up with you, because she was asking some questions. And she was interested in some advice and, and and you were trying to discourage her from from taking that route. What's wrong with the NBA and why doesn't it lead to the solution or the skills that you want them to?
Yes, so we've talked about this before and how if I ever write a book about That experience that will be called the lowest hurdle. But it's not necessarily that the NBA isn't useful writ large. It's the purpose of it is not what I think most people hope it is, it's not going to teach you those critical thinking skills necessarily, you need to come to the table with that, the that, you know, my experience was that it was more of an endurance test. And that the simultaneous master's degree that I was pursuing, at the same time was much more aligned with that critical thinking, how do you approach business type questions? How do you do the type of research that's necessary to help bring the right information in such a fashion that the client can can digest it, make it their own, and then use it as we help them make, you know, key decisions around how their business operates?
You are getting a master's in international relations. Right. Is that right? Yeah. international study. Yeah, International Studies. So talk for a little bit about the difference in experience between taking MBA classes and taking international studies classes. Was it a different climate where the students I had had those to contrast?
Well, you know, this, of course, is my own experience, which was only at one school. But the difference was pretty stark. I remember in the the MBA course, that being asked to do what's a relatively traditional lease versus buy analysis, where you have a couple of options, and how do you analyze the costs and benefits associated with buying a solution versus leasing it for a temporary amount of time? And, you know, we did all this research and, and I realized that at no point, were they asking us to actually make a recommendation that was just can you use Excel in this way that we want to, that they wanted us to try? And then the contrast with that would be in the international studies team, where we were reading about all these different theories about capitalism and how it developed and in different cultures, and what that meant in terms of an individual's experience in the workforce. And one of the there were three of us who were in the dual program where we were doing the master's degrees at the same time. And one of them just out of frustration, at one point in the class just said, Well, what is the answer? Which is it, which is the right one, as though there were an answer in the back of the book, and the teacher had the teacher's edition? And could just say, Oh, yeah, this is the right one. And that, to me sort of highlighted a fundamental difference in the way that those problems were approached.
You've also talked to me about the fact that the larger consulting firms, like the sort of the big, heavy names, they they don't hire people with MBAs, right? They hire people right out of college and train them themselves. Right. So So why do they do that? And what's the goal of of taking someone before that level, and having your own in house training?
Well, actually, so a lot of the big x, which is what we call those large management consulting firms, they do hire directly out of an MBA, because they're hoping for a scope of understanding about the different pieces of a business, like how human resources relates to finance relates to marketing really relates to manufacturing or operations. But they do want to mold those people at a certain level, into an effective consultant. And a lot of the best ones start that journey earlier, they started right out of undergrad, and they really want to, they want to shape you very early on. I went to consulting right out of business school, you know, right after I finished both of those master's degrees, I went into consulting, and that was my first experience there. And they did a great job of training me in terms of what what it means to be a consultant and the different types of projects are likely to experience and I needed that before I went on to do my own firm.
What's the advantage of starting that process from the undergraduate though? What I understood it and maybe I just misunderstand, but the way that I understood it was that a lot of them will hire people right out of undergraduate, train them, and then when they get to a certain point, they will pay for their MBA education, they'll pay for their advanced education, and so that they're actually a lot of them are sort of targeting people before Business School. Do I just remember that incorrectly?
No, it's it's that it's both that those large organizations those big general management consulting firms do both. They do hire directly out of undergrad, and then they mold and shape and then when they get to a certain point They will usually fund master's degree and you know something or other it could be an MBA could be a public health, it could be any number of different master's degrees to help increase their credibility with the clients. There are may also at the same time will hire people directly out of business school a lot. And they're looking for things beyond the NBA, although the NBA can be considered sort of a ticket for entry to a certain level at those consulting firms.
So what would be the argument, right, let's say there's a meeting between two vice presidents and one is Pro, a hiring people straight out of undergraduate and one is pro hiring people at the Masters level, what's the argument for and against for each of them?
Well, when you when you get them at inception, when they're just coming out there, they they're blank slates, you can work so clearly with teaching them the specific methodology and approach that your firm has, that you're likely to drive, not only greater consistency in terms of the services that you're providing to your, to your clients, as well as loyalty, they're, they've been with you all along. And you know, it's, you want your consultants to be with you long term if you can, because then they're able to generate higher rates because they have more expertise. And we also talk about the fact that consulting can be a relatively high burnout industry. In fact, it's described as the consultants HalfLife, you know, two years after you start at any given big x firm, probably half of the year cohort that you join with will be gone. Why is that? So that would be for the undergraduate? Oh, because it's hard. You do, it's, it can be very intense. And you're changing all the time, it's like getting a new job, every time you have a new client or a new engagement at it is at the same client, because you're basically having to start a job fresh. And some people really like that, like I learned a long time ago that I can't be bored, even for money. So I need to be learning constantly. I really like the fact that you do have to go into something new and learn and it can be scary. The some people don't like that, and that's okay. Like, I've worked with people who have spent 35 years doing the exact same thing on a hospital billing system. And we need those two, because talking to her, see, there was nothing about that, that she didn't know. And so you need both. But with consulting, you need that that flexibility, that ability to adjust and adapt. And some people just don't like it, because you're basically having to prove yourself over and over again. I mean, I've been doing this for over 20 years. And every time it's a new client, I have to, you know, justify their love. Why would we, why are we working with you why why you versus someone else. And a lot of folks don't like that they want to be established, they want to be like, you know, being a one year Professor over and over again, at every, every college that you ran across. That's not for everybody. Some people want to spend time at a given institution to help shape it and do the research. That sort of approach. When we talk about the ones who hire the more advanced, you'll there are a couple of reasons why you want to do that, like out of an MBA or different kind of a masters or a PhD program. Sometimes you really need that credibility, like you need a physicist with condensed matter experience, because you're going to be working with a company that does thin materials manufacturing. So you have to have that kind of credibility with us. And something sometimes it's necessary that you hire somebody who's more mature and further along in their, in their career. It's like having a toolkit with a bunch of different tools. You don't want to have only hammers in there, you're going to need a lot of other things if you're going to do a number of different types of projects.
So it sounds like to my philosophers mind that we're dealing with at least two different standards of expertise. But you have the content expertise, which is the person who worked in the hospital billing for her entire career, who knows everything who is just a repository of history and information and she has a very, very specific content, expertise, but it sounds like other than specific projects, that a consultants expertise is a more process expertise than a content expertise. And that process involves problem solving, asking questions, developing strategies, am I getting this right that that we really have different conceptions of what it means to be an expert and That's going to help define what kind of employee or consultant you want.
Yes, you're right that that, that you just described, basically two of the key types of consulting, you know, sometimes I'm on a project, and I need an expert to come in and back up what I'm suggesting, because maybe I'm not personally an expert in that field. So sometimes you do need what we call subject matter expertise. And sometimes, you know, for the for the daily blocking and tackling in the daily work, you need somebody who's really good at identifying questions, identifying issues, asking really good questions, and then help helping to lead the client to the right decision.
Is there always a right decision?
Well, the challenge is you don't get to do what we call a B tests, you don't get one part of our company, generally, you can try one path and the other one to try the other. Way. Hope so. And again, it's we're giving the best advice that we can and we the way that my organization describes it is to take the voltage out of decisions and hard challenges like that, what we try to do is say, here's the situation. So we can all agree on that. These are the implications of a given situation. These are the options that we have. And here's our recommendation and why. But now it's up to you to really choose what it is you want to do. We can go back to the to the deli example where I would be hopeful that whether it was internal or with a consultant, that they went through that exact method, they said, here's the situation, your business is suffering. And the implications are, you either need to change something or you're going to go out of business in X number of years. Here are options, one of which is burgers, burgers, burgers, we recommend that you actually stick with your sandwiches, but that maybe you do you add on breakfast sandwiches, but for some reason, they were like, Nope, it's burgers all the way in my perspective, that's all we can do is like we gave you the best advices we could we tried to explain it as clearly as possible. But at the end of the day, it's your choice.
By the way, if I get a nasty email from the folks at smiling moose, I will let everyone because you know, I don't want to undermine their success if burger is the right way to go. But so, are there this is this is a little bit of a jump, but it's not. Are there ethics consultants? And what I mean is, are there situations where a company is facing some sort of moral dilemma where they're going to whether they're going to come to you or another consulting firm? Or is that always just the lawyers job? And and it's more about liability than than it is about ethical decision making? How much do your consultants have to be concerned with the morally right decision?
Well, I think we had to be considering that all the time. And it's, it's really fundamental to how you're actually helping the clients solve their problems. If you don't have that, that sort of internal compass, it becomes really easy to start saying wrong. And I'm just going to tell them what, what makes them happy so that they'll buy something else from me. And you know, the classic example in the consulting space is an organization needs to put in place some very large technology system,
would that be like a new human resources system or a new financial system? What do you mean, it's just so abstract? I'm not sure what that means a large technology system?
Sure. So typically, they're called enterprise resource planning tools. And what they are, they're all of those things. There's an HR module, there's an inventory module, there's a finance and accounting module, there are all these different modules. And organizations can benefit when all those things are talking to each other, if there's okay. And there are a lot of different ones out there big, small, expensive, inexpensive, and, in my previous experience, working some other places, that they didn't really care which one the organization picked, as long as they picked the firm I was working for at the time to implement it, because that's where all the money is. And what, you know, one of the things that started me down the path of, you know, working with you to try to put together an actual ethical consulting course, was that I could tell that, you know, on a gut level that that was wrong. But that was because what I was thinking was we really should help them understand the best option for them, not the easiest option that makes them happy now, and then hopefully leads to a ton of billing down the road as they do as they figure out what's what's going on. And I actually if I remember correctly, that's when that was right around the time when you and I started working on that because How do you frame that up in a way that isn't just my gut tells me that this isn't the right way to approach it, what kinds of structures and toolkits and language can be put in place to really help consultants, you know, work from that, that gut feeling into a conversation that's actually relevant and helpful to the client.
So let's talk about that a little bit. And I don't want to put you in a position where you're talking about your own previous firm and naming anybody or naming any, any any client, I understand that, that we can't do that. But what's the general reaction? The general cultural reaction? If you say, Hey, I think we need a course in ethics, I think our consultants need more ethics trainings. because historically, right business ethics is a single course, in a degree, and students tend not to take it very seriously. And someone like i a philosophy professor, right will take no every link, every single course should have some ethics in it. And they're like, No, no, no, no, let's, let's just put it in this place. And let's forget about it. So what would be the typical reaction? When you go to them and say, Hey, I'm working with this philosopher? I think that consultants need ethics training, we'd like to put this course together.
So I've had two strong polar opposite reactions. One is, absolutely, you know, that actually sounds great. Why don't you go ahead and research it, then come back and pitch the idea to us in terms of what it would take and what it would cost and how we would actually roll it out. And at the time, the organization that I was working with, didn't, that didn't surprise me, because I had been in a very, very difficult situation with an international client working with their international technology partner and finding out that things actually, that one of them was not telling the truth. And I could easily have gone the path of, I bring this up to my leadership, and they say, don't say a word about it. Because if you do, you're gonna make everybody angry, and we're gonna lose all this revenue, which is what I was sort of expecting. But instead, what I got was, we trust you, let's go forward with the messaging will back you up. And that was also where you and I started working on that course, they were open to it. Other places that I've been would not have been open to it. Because the, you know, the fundamentals were different. The fundamentals were, you know, this is about generating revenue and profits. And we don't want anything to actually get in the way of that. And, of course, fundamentally, I think that, that having an ethical underpinning to all the work you do, is actually a competitive advantage. Because in my experience, having those really difficult conversations is what got my clients to think of me as their trusted adviser, because I was willing to risk my own revenue to tell them something that was really hard for them to hear.
Do you think that you can teach your consultants to be ethical? Or do you think that there has to be some sort of screening process and for you to make the best judgment you can to pick people who you think would be ethical employees?
I think that it's really the latter. I really, when I do the interviews, it's, I'm looking very, very consciously for how they answer specific questions. I provide scenario based situations, that from my own experience, and I like to see how they respond on what what would you do in this situation? And that's very revealing. I think that, you know, it's not that I think that there's anybody, you know, twisting their mustache and thinking about how they can tie the Maidan to the railroad tracks. But I do think that there is a real temptation to take, you know, maybe just this one incremental start cut, because that would make so and so a little bit happier and increase the odds, but I'm not really, you know, making a bad ethical call. It's just questionable. And, of course, what you find out is that it's, it's all gray, you have to be thinking about that all the time. And I don't mean to say in any way, shape or form, that I'm perfect at that. What I mean to say is you have to have that framework and that structure of an ethical examination, live all the time. It can't just be Oh, I think I had a textbook on that. Let me go to my library and see, because you're constantly confronted with these types of decisions, and you hope that you are making the quote right decision and at each stage.
How much of the ethical life of a consultant is the individual decisions that any one person makes at any one time and how much of it is the culture of the company, the overall permissiveness or strictness, the the ability to talk openly with your superiors How much of it is is the individual? And how much of it is the culture?
Boy, that's a great question. The, I'm sure you've found this in your career in academia that organizations will have a stated set of behaviors and capacities that they expect you to operate under. And it's really quick, you're really easy unable to understand rapidly when the leadership doesn't follow any of that. And there's a real dissonance in those situations. You either Yeah, you're picturing all of those
various very long history of it as a matter of fact.
Right. And, you know, there's this idea somehow that, that the leadership believes that the folks that work for them aren't going to sense that dissonance, which I think is ludicrous, because you particularly in the consulting world, you've hired us because you think we have excellent critical faculties. And those critical faculties are not going to evaporate just because I'm talking to somebody internal. And when I'm talking to my actual client, so I mean, I remember having this conversation when I was agreeing, being in the in the industry, and they were changing the travel model, and they and they actually said in the midst of it, well, it's not like you're going to be traveling automatically, it just means you might have somebody sitting next to you who's new. And all of us are thinking, Well, I mean, somebody is on a plane, you know, just to, it's disingenuous to think that we're not going to be able to figure that out. So when the leadership is aligned to those kinds of ethical standards, then you get a lot, I think you get a lot of loyalty and you get people working harder. The people who like that type of situation and that type of environment, in that type of culture, when you've got people who don't like that, who are very comfortable in much murkier waters, and they're probably going to leave and go find a much murkier, you know, operating consulting firm,
and good. Is it harder to be ethical in a larger multinational corporation than it is to be in a small regional one? Or is it easier because things are more compartmentalised? I mean, I would imagine, the cult consulting experience of those things are different, too. But with such, you know, and I'm, you know, I'm randomly picking companies, not in terms of you know, who you work with, or anything, but let's say Exxon Mobil, right, if you were to work with Exxon Mobil. How much leeway does a person have? Does a consultant have to be an ethical agent, and even to affect the ethical culture of the company? Or is it just such a monolith, and so, so big, that really all you can do is just deal with your, your immediate peers?
Well, I think that consultants have the responsibility to be that ethical agent all the time. And that's, that's part and parcel with giving the best advice that you can, even when it makes people unhappy, in it in a large organization like that, and I've certainly done work at global corporations. In it, you can get a sense pretty quickly about whether or not there's that dissonance, you know, between what the leadership says you should be doing and how they actually behave. And then that will usually filter down. But any given particular project that you're working on or engagement, it's going to rely on the people around you, because you're not going to see everybody in an organization. That's, that's that large. So all you can do is your best to influence the people that you're actually working with on that project.
Do you think that your understanding of what it means to be ethical has changed? Because of your experiences? Or is grown because of your experiences in consulting and in the corporate world? Or do you think that you pretty much had a core ethical idea, and that it's just been confirmed over time, what I'm trying to figure out is, is is how a person's ethics grows over time in a company, because the vision again, we have in our pop culture, is that the longer you spend in the business world, the less ethical you become. And I can't believe that that's inherently true. So to what extent does your exposure to this add nuance and subtlety and make you feel better about your ethical compass, rather than challenging? Does that make sense?
It does make sense. And what I can say is that in situations where I feel like I've gone too far in terms of providing really candid advice, you know, at one point, I actually threw somebody out of a room and said, You know, that's your biggest risk, and I thought, oh, there's no way they're gonna fire me, because you can't be that candid. And what happened instead was the Leader Call me later and said, You know, I really want to apologize, that person was behaving what you know. And I thought, Oh, this. So I've had positive reinforcement in a number of different situations that doing what I thought was the right thing didn't in fact lead to a financial hit, in fact, lead to a longer term relationship. So what what I would say in answer to your question is my work long term and consulting has really refined and tailored my sense of how ethics actually applies. And working with people like you, I've been able to develop the right sort of language and toolkit to help others understand why I might take one approach versus another, and how that is underpinned with what I hope is a solid, ethical compass.
For those folks who are listening, when we worked on this course, together, it wasn't one of these courses where Oh, look, here's Kant's theory of ethics. Here's utilitarianism. Here's how to make, you know, here's an ethical principle practice. It was really about, as you said, the language and the terminology and developing a structure of conversation and deliberation amongst peoples that there could be honest and clear communication about ethical decisions. Do you think that corporate culture is designed for clear communication? Or do you think corporate culture is designed to obfuscate and impair it? And one of the things that motivates me to ask this question is that I know that when I have a customer service problem, there are a couple companies that are absolutely flawless with customer service. But there are a lot of companies that every interaction makes me furious. And it makes me feel like all those systems are designed is to stop me from getting my problem solved and stop me from interacting with people. And I would imagine that that that if that's an external experience, it's also going to be an internal experience, that they're going to be these same barriers to communication in those companies as well. So to what extent is the corporate bureaucratic model allow for these kind of hard conversations? And to what extent is free communication impaired in the modern global bureaucracy so to speak?
Well, it's an interesting question. And it makes me think that, you know, when we were describing what it is that we were working on, it's in some ways, the application of consulting to ethics and philosophy, it's what consultants do, what we do a lot of the time is we try to take amorphous complicated problems and put them into some sort of framework so that they can be addressed, like, you know, software development as a classic example. And, you know, well, wait a minute, how does that actually work? Not a lot of people know? Well, you know, it's, you have to think about what it is you're trying to accomplish. What's your strategy? Well, then how would you design something to address that strategy? Well, once you've designed it, how would you actually, you know, hands on keyboards coded? And then how would you test it? And then how would you roll it out? And then how would you look at the strategy again, in this cycle? And that's not necessarily something that the that the industry had the de novo came from examination of, well, what does it What does it mean to do software development or product development. And it felt like what we were doing was trying to apply the same kinds of techniques to a body of knowledge and wisdom in a way that could make conversations about ethics, or philosophy in a business situation easier, clearer, providing that structure, providing that framework, providing that language where we can all agree that this is what we mean by good. This is what we mean by excellence. And how do we actually ask those questions? Or how do we give consultants the ability to ask those questions in a way that doesn't make people defensive? It doesn't make them, you know, shut down, it actually hopefully pulls them into the conversation so that you can start to work with them on whatever that that juicy nugget is you're trying to solve?
Or I'm gonna ask a question, and it may be an unfair question. But you know, it's my show, right? Trent? The huge conversation right now in our in our political culture is about global capitalism. And the ethical questions are about large scale justice questions and inequality, and economic inequality and climate change, and all this sort of stuff. But in the business world, and in the global business world, this notion of global capitalism is at the foundation of the future of all these companies. So being a consultant for all these years and having all of the experiences that you've had, and here's the unfair bit of the question. Are you optimistic about the future of global capitalism, or are you pessimistic about the future of global capitalism?
Well, you know, I do believe that there is the possibility to actually be financially very successful and do the right thing. My experience in the business world is that that is not only possible, but it can be you can be very successful with that approach. I think that can be applied writ large, I think that there's a, there's a way to frame the conversation in a way that makes it clear why it's in everyone's interest to think about diversity, inclusion and equity. I think that there are also people out there who are like, wow, that just seems like a lot of heat loss. Why don't we just do what we've been doing, because it's cheaper and easier. But, again, the type of consulting that I hope that I do, and that I want people in my firm to do is really around asking the hard questions and and to understand what it is that we actually want to get out of this long term. Just like my relationships with my clients tend to be long term, they're not what we would call turn and burn. There are long term relationships, where as a trusted advisor, where they'll they'll call me when they have questions, even when it's not necessarily something that that I can help with that directly, I can probably point them in the right direction. So I would say that I'm, I'm optimistic. I do think that there are plenty of examples in history that we can look at where, you know, people didn't take that approach, and they got away with it. And you kind of hope that there's more justice, but often there isn't. But it doesn't really change, I think how we have to behave in the world.
You've started in the last five years or so to work with philanthropic organizations to work with nonprofits as well as larger corporate clients? Is the consulting experience the same? Is it the same people doing different jobs, or the different spheres really attract different types of people, and the business type is going to go into the corporate world? And the sort of more you know, justice, charitable kind of person is going to go into the nonprofit world? How much? how similar? And how different are those two worlds, from your experience, and from the perspective of consultant?
Well, both worlds are literally littered with former consultants. What my, my, my dad actually talked about how consulting is great, because it's basically like, you're in the industry shopping mall, and you can do a bunch of different, you know, go into a bunch of different stores. And then when you find one you like, you can start working there. And a lot of a lot of people do that. And in the philanthropy world, the social impact world, we're I'm happy to say we are doing most of our work. It's it's a similar mix. The, the, the differences, outcomes are measured. success is measured differently, you know, for profit organizations are all about, you know, what was the profit? What happened? You know, did we make a lot of money on that product? Or didn't we, with the social impact? It's about impact. I mean, you can look at the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals and say, Okay, well, this particular organization is working on these two, how are they doing? I know how many beaches, dogs children did they save. So it's a it's a different, different outcome, but you get a lot of the same behaviors.
Okay, so so to sort of wrap up, you've given some hints as to some characteristics as to what makes a good consultant. Someone who is naturally curious, someone who's comfortable with with changing contexts. A lot of my students and a lot of recent graduates listen to this show. I'm sure some of them are very intrigued by this conversation, very intrigued by the life of a consultant. How does a person prepare themselves to be a consultant and to be competitive for a job in consulting? How do you wrap all this up and say, Okay, here are some things that you can do to be a good, ethical, valuable consultant that you or someone else reliable would want to hire.
Man is that that's a, that's a softball, because I'm gonna take your class, obviously. I mean,
I really didn't mean it like that.
I know you didn't intentionally maybe the subconscious is speaking right now. But you know that what you've just described is, you know, what I would say is, how do you person who's thinking about becoming a consultant? How do you look at the world? How do you ask questions? How do you solve problems? Are there techniques from philosophy or ethics that you can apply? And, you know, does this sound appealing does the idea of you know are you genuinely generally curious about the world and about how things work? Those are the kinds of things that are probably lead to a successful career in the type of consulting that I do.
I was fine with it until that last phrase, and the type of consulting that you do.
And by that, I mean, I don't do I don't typically do expertise consulting, like I don't have a lot of I do have some PhDs on my team, that are experts in their field, and then I use them for specific things. But what we've been discussing really is what's called general management consulting, and that is how do you go in to, you know, in any given situation, and help, and the the way that you do that is what we've been talking about all along, you asked good questions, you aren't afraid to challenge assumptions, you are comfortable in situations where maybe you're giving advice or recommendations that they may not like want to hear. But again, my experiences doing those things leads to long term success in this business.
Well, that is among the most optimistic visions of the business world that I've encountered in a really long time. And that makes me happy. Because it really does give me a sense both of that. There can be constructive benefits from all of this, but also that there are places for good people in the business and places for good people in consulting. So Bob, thank you so much for joining us on why i've you know, you and I have been friends a long time we've done these projects, but you know, the ability to just sit down for this long and really have a sustained conversation. I've been looking forward to it so much. Thank you so much for joining us. You're so welcome. This was a lot of fun. You have been listening to Bob collar and jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussion about everyday life. I'll be back with a few thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions but everyday life. I'm your host, jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Bob collar and about the philosophy of consulting. You know, Bob ended the discussion using this phrase that actually took me by surprise, he said, You should be a consultant if you want to help. And maybe it's naive of me, or maybe it's just my lack of business experience. But I tend not to think about the business world. And I certainly don't think about the consulting world, in terms of just people who want to help. But of course, that's what makes it so interesting. And that's what makes it so exciting, that you walk into a situation and you try to solve a problem for the betterment of the people for the betterment of the organization, for the betterment of the end user, for the betterment of everybody. And if you are an ethical consultant, if you are a thoughtful, creative, attentive moral person, then you can affect change from the inside out. And in this world right now, with such injustice and such skepticism about global capitalism, and such alienation from the big companies and the inability to get in touch with anyone who will help you the idea that there are people who are trying to better the system from the inside out. It warms my heart. It gives me tremendous optimism. And it also makes me happy that I got to bring this conversation to you because I'm sure most of my listeners have had as little experience with consulting as I've had, and that we've all had this vision of the consultant as a hard gun for hire, who's really there just to do someone's bidding. But the idea that there are real people who are the philosophers of the business world who are there to gauge their critical thinking and their widespread knowledge and who learn how to interact with people in a way that in the end, the people they interact with are gonna thank them and be better for it. What more could you ask for? What more could you ask for from an ethical consultant and from a good consultant and I In the end, Bob and I, and all of you have started to answer that question that we started with what is a good consultant? A good consultant is a person who helps and makes things better in the process. And if our business world was made of lots of people, or even the majority of people like that, I think we'd all be better off. You've been listening to jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions with everyday life Thank you for listening. As always, it's an honor to be with you.
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