Aspiring to higher standards of accountability and authenticity

In Susan Scott’s excellent works on Radical Transparency¹, she makes a compelling case for greater authenticity and candour in business today. To over-simplify, she attributes much of the 2008 financial crash to a systemic failure in transparency: what were Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and the rest pretending not to know as their businesses came crashing down around them?

Ms Scott does not point the finger explicitly at the management consulting industry, yet their complicity is clear. Many of the highest profile casualties of this period were heavy spenders on consultants, while Arthur Andersen’s well-documented role in Enron’s demise led directly to their own breakup and re-invention. If organisations cannot even trust the so-called independent advisors to hold up the mirror and give truthful advice, who will set the standard for accountable business?

Let there be light

At face value, it’s obvious that in today’s connected world of ubiquitous internet commentary, all organisations are incentivised to be more open, not less. The best way to influence customer and stakeholder opinion it is to be part of the debate – by bravely opening up, not by seeking insulation through evasion or PR. In practice this is more difficult, as it gets right to the heart of organisational culture. A commitment to radical transparency must pervade every facet of the organisation and be role-modelled by every employee, not just the CEO.

A commitment to radical transparency must pervade every facet of the organisation and be role-modelled by every employee

So how can we management consultants stop being part of the problem, and instead become a force for greater corporate authenticity? The answer lies in three factors: how we offer our opinions in service to our clients; how willingly our advice is received and acted on; and taking our own medicine in the internal cultures of our consulting organisations.

See no evil, hear no evil

Clients turn to external advisors because they need expertise or capability that they do not possess in-house. Yet despite the tacit invitation in this contract to re-think their clients’ business challenges, too many consultants are either unwilling or unable to ‘tell it like it is’ – defaulting instead to overcomplicated, conclusion-free analysis or banal statements of the obvious.

Too many consultants are either unwilling or unable to ‘tell it like it is’

I believe the root cause of this lies more in the internal environment of the consultancy than in the calibre of the consultants themselves (though, clearly, ability varies!). In addition to a highly standardised training programme, the typical pyramid structure of large consultancies is the backdrop to a highly competitive, ‘up or out’ model of behaviour in which groupthink prevails over courage (I have written about this topic previously – see link).

Compounding this, the corporate agenda of consultancies on any given client account can easily cloud the advice they provide. This further distorts the consultant’s independence and willingness to give the tough messages the client needs to hear. It follows that more consultants see their role as being clever than being authentic. The result? Clients who are prone to overpay for anodyne advice while convincing themselves they are courting expert opinion.

Procrastination eats opportunity

It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the consultants’ door. Even were all their recommendations to be provided truly independently but with no less analytical rigour, obfuscation on the part of the paying client would persist. Again, the reasons have more to do with human psychology and behaviour than the quality of advice received.

Market-leading organisations, by definition, are used to getting more decisions right than wrong. So it is a paradox that successful clients who commission consulting studies to provide ‘outside in’ perspectives often denigrate that advice on the grounds that ‘it won’t work here’. Part of this is simple pride – masking the hidden motivation of many consultancy buyers to use external advisors to validate, rather than challenge, their own preconceived views. Put simply, the consultants are often hired to make the lead client look better, not worse – another reason for the advisor to sanitise any conclusions that do not support the hypothesis in the project brief.

The hidden motivation of many consultancy buyers is to use external advisors to validate, rather than challenge, their own preconceived views

As for radical transparency, if the C-suite are not used to having frank, challenging debate among themselves and their employees (‘fierce conversations’ as Susan Scott would say), they are even less likely to be receptive to tough messages from an outsider. Consultants are generally hired to advise on new strategies, business models and project execution – not to shine a light on a failing organisational culture. Yet that is so often where the real issues lie.

There’s a difference between transparency in theory and in practice. It’s no good expecting consultants to give more candid, challenging advice if that counsel is not received in kind. Rather like 360-degree feedback, everyone claims to want the unvarnished truth – right up until they hear something they don’t agree with.

Physician, heal thyself

To begin to make a virtuous circle out of the current situation, the most important thing that consultancies can do is hold up the mirror to their own internal culture. Any aspiration to radical transparency must begin with an honest appraisal of the values and behaviours that permeate the consultancy itself – from the willingness of leaders to engage in difficult conversations with their teams, to how consultants are motivated and recognised for their performance, to the commitment of each individual to their own self-improvement.

The most important thing that consultancies can do is hold up the mirror to their own internal culture

At Gate One we are working hard on these aspects. It is our privilege to provide courageous, evidence-based advice to our clients – executed with pragmatism and cultural sensitivity. Internally, our approach has always been to ally our core values of Humility, Candour and Grit (among others) with a personal development philosophy of the ‘growth mindset’ and ‘marginal gains’. Now we are going a step beyond this: carefully introducing a firm-wide coaching programme to further facilitate more frequent/honest conversations and fulfilment of higher individual and collective potential.

Above all, we are seeking to ingrain a culture where difficult conversations are welcomed because we are all invested in each other’s development and constantly receptive to feedback. This only works in a true meritocracy, not one skewed by the economic demands of a target organisational ‘shape’.

Cause for optimism?

As Susan Scott argues, more trust and ‘ferocious integrity’ are needed for this battle to be won – even as these commodities can seem so scarce in the world around us.

The road to salvation for management consultants lies in a willingness to be more ‘human’ and thus fallible and dispensable – alas, not traits commonly associated with our industry. Although we have a long way to go on Gate One’s path to radical transparency, we are certain our clients already benefit from our fierce desire to do the right thing, however difficult the message.

As management consultants, we are all accountable for the advice we give our clients every day. It is up to each and every practitioner to choose whether to provide this out of motivation for the common good (internally and externally) or for narrow self-interest.

This is the micro-battle that will define the role our profession plays in creating a more radically transparent future.

¹ Susan Scott, “Fierce Leadership” (2011), see also “The Case for Radical Transparency” – TEDx, 2011

SIMON DENNIS | FOUNDING PARTNER

Simon Dennis is a founding Partner of Gate One and responsible for people and talent development in the firm.