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The God Complex of Consulting

To provide you with an insight about what is to follow, this piece is about everything consulting should NOT be…and yet is! Atleast in my limited experience working for a Consulting firm in India, but yet having a reasonable say in the matter having experienced it in 2 geographies – India and a much better form of it in Australia.

Depending on the level you are at – if you’re starting out and wish to get a peek into the prevalent culture & working styles, this may serve as an orientation, or be a guide telling you clearly what not to do, if you are a consultant or senior consultant and find yourself or your peers guilty of doing the same. If you are a client of a consultant, it gives you an eye-opening peak into the other side of affairs and might just help you plug the wastage & get more value out of assignments. While if you are not associated to consulting in any way, it is just a fun ‘behind-the-scenes’ ride through the unnecessarily glorified & mythical world of consulting.

The major draws normally for getting into Consulting are quite superficial - based on the impression, reputation, social standing, supposed intellectual levels, perceived perks & benefits and suave portrayals in TV shows or movies. Despite the times and styles of work changing, demands of the job increasing manifold, the legend passed on is still the same, circling around the swashbuckling lifestyle, extensive travel, spotless professional attire, comforts in the form of premium food, lavish accommodation and other freebies - all covered by clients. Add to this the ridiculously flashy jargons thrown around like pocket change, like – transformation projects, deep dives, blue sky thinking, boiling the ocean etc and there, you have the perfect recipe to rope in the brightest minds hoping to live this life.

Far from the exquisite picture painted above, the ground reality is so murky, hollow and painstaking, that it leaves no option but to either burn out under the beck and call of some seniors who are too full of themselves or sell your soul and work through this system, risk yourself become another one of the dubious lot and climb up the ladder, continuing the same toxic culture and maybe even adding to it. Summarized hereunder, are just some of the things horribly wrong with the consulting scene here in India as experienced first-hand:

The billables system of payment to these professionals spurs the mindset of putting in the hours, on most occasions beyond what is ideally needed for a project. Having people or as they prefer to call them – resources, stationed at the office or at the client’s place, maybe due to the fear of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, and charging the unassuming clients for all the hours clocked in, even if in many cases, it involves simply sitting around, or waiting for data, munching at all the free snacks on offer or gulping down shots of coffee to be the night owl and get in higher billings for your firm.

In a profession that goes around displaying a holier than thou attitude, the bare minimum one would expect would be a righteous underlying principle of working, brutally honest, sincere and genuinely value adding and not with a poaching mindset, just out to grab the business and then fall short on promises. On a personal level, I have always followed the maxim of under promise and over deliver, but the few months of working with some wolves in a sheep’s over coat just exposed the exact opposite strategy of work, that of over promising, getting the cat in the bag and then under delivering. It was a baffling experience each time to look at my immediate senior becoming the client’s puppet, a total Yes Man to each of his whims and fancies, not having a spine to nip a few wrongs in the bud and do justice to the assignment at hand. If that was not bad enough, further losing the plot and going ahead to butter up the client and making promises that he is sure of failing at. In principle, promising the ocean but serving a fishbowl in the end.

If the usual day in the working life of a consultant wasn’t stressful enough, due to the insane working hours, unending deadlines, the stress and pressure reaches disproportionate levels in times of a client presentation. The irony of the situation is that this stress is not even due to the demands of the meeting or lack of preparation or fear of criticism, but due to the emphasis by our own team heads focusing on quantity over quality. The sheer stupidity of this move can be understood by this anecdote, wherein an already understaffed team of 2, for a project that needed twice the strength, struggling with meeting deadlines in an ever changing, ever expanding project, is asked to not focus on the most pressing issues, but rather to duplicate the work already done, change headlines, add half-baked slides to the presentation and mark most of them as “work-in progress”, to simply create the illusion of an ongoing multi-pronged effort and to showcase a padded deck of 50+ slides instead of a tightly drafted 5-10 slides that would not just save the client’s precious time, but also reduce the effort on part of the team working tirelessly & aimlessly for 16-17 hours a day, 7 days a week for weeks on end!

Oh and guess what, we eventually ended up presenting just 5 slides over thrice the planned meeting duration, further confusing & overwhelming the client instead of gaining their trust in our abilities.

This is not a rant against working in inhuman conditions, I assure you, it is not, and I am well aware of other people having it worse, but so does this bubble about Consulting need to be popped! It is about putting in this quantum of work, blood, tears and sweat, sacrificing on not just sleep, social life, family, health, but life in general and in the end still be thrown under the bus at any given moment’s notice, only to make the senior look good and save face in case of an error. A month’s worth of work, without a proper night’s sleep, constant ridicule, insults, innumerable changes to the project, artificially created pressure and stress, micromanagement, barely a break through the day, skipping meals to work – all of this repaid back by being made the scapegoat of an error in the presentation in the most crucial meeting, on a point that was one of the barely few responsibilities the senior was entrusted with.

I have known a few pompous people in my life, some rightly so and backing the self-appreciation with enviable achievements and others just borderline delusional - so consumed in their own self-created glory, that they cannot differentiate night from day. The God Complex of Consulting as I came to call it midway through the journey, by observing the behaviour of the consultants I refer to above, came from their exhibited cockiness and irritating false sense of superiority. Not just to their subordinates but to employees of the client and even the clients themselves, foolishly thinking it is charming their socks off, but instead becoming a laughing stock. I implore you to believe me when I quote just some of the trash talk that I’ve heard in this stint:

· This is the pecking order of importance - Consultants > Gods > Humans

· Consultants do not get injured (after I cut my finger accidentally and asked for a First Aid Kit)

· Consultants do not feel hungry (Having not eaten breakfast, lunch or had any form of snacks and asking for a break to eat dinner)

· The top 4 Consulting houses are shit. We, a boutique firm do a drastically better job, they are buffoons, who call our work as theirs and put their brand name on it (referring to a slide directly “inspired” from a top consulting house’s format)

· This is how we handle a client, he should fear us, he cannot mess with us (ironically after getting his ass kicked for 2 hours straight in the CFO’s cabin and like a stenographer making the changes asked for, instead of having a stand as a consultant and the courage to stick to it)

· Clients should fear us; once we enter the room, they should feel that we are Gods and work to serve us, as we will show them how stupid they are and how they should be doing their work

Health impacts of this consulting lifestyle arise more from having a pain in the neck mentor/immediate senior, out to make a name for himself, than by the actual clients who on most occasions seem to understand your plight way more than your own firm does or at least should. Ranging from not having a roof over my head and shelling money from my own pocket, to reporting to work boiling in fever; from a grumbling stomach, to practically bleeding eyes; cracking bones and joints to aching hearts and minds…none of it matters, counts or is a valid, human reason to be cut some slack. Such an irony that these insensitive, inhuman ‘consultants’ walk through the doors of big MNCs to teach them and take on – Human Resource Transformation Projects, when they themselves first need a lesson in Human Resource 101.

In the name of competition, rat races, survival of the fittest, we are not just letting these toxic behaviours sustain, but are in fact encouraging it without realizing and thereby glorifying the grind, the hustle, which is only being subjected to a snowballing effect and growing in a compounding fashion over time. Fascinating how something so rotten from within gets portrayed in such a spotless, flawless and even desirable fashion and affords the people part of the system the audacity to have that cockiness, hyperinflated ego and undue power over others whom they consider mere mortals or degenerates. About time the veil is lifted, to show the reality of this messed up, hollow and damaging niche, soaked in sophistication, hiding in plain sight. Much akin to removing the frosting off a cupcake to discover, its nothing but a muffin underneath! Food for thought…quite literally!

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