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Money for telling folks what to do

October 1, 2010

Some of you who follow my twitterings and facebookings will know that I have (fairly) recently made a move to North America. I spent a large portion of this past summer working at the New York branch of my company, and was offered a longer-term position, which, after a certain amount of deliberation, I decided to take. This will not be a permanent move — I welcome the opportunity, but cannot imagine completely uprooting myself from London. While the decision to take the change was not overly stressful, it lead me to spend time thinking about my work in a way that I haven’t done in many years, if ever.

This bout of introspection was partly instigated by an experience I had while still in New York earlier in the summer (please take note that by telling this story I make the post about people watching, and so appropriate for inclusion here on my blog). On one of the last weekends of my summer in the States, I spent time with some family friends. They are a wonderful couple with several small children. I have not seen the kids since the entire family spent a few weeks in Oxford several years ago when they (the children, not the entirely family) were quite literally babies, and so this was my first opportunity to properly meet them as individuals. They are delightfully behaved brats, um, I mean children, and we had a lovely afternoon and early dinner. The oldest child, a nine-year-old boy, was quite involved in the conversation, not speaking much, but obviously following the flow (this is not to say that the other children were not — I am simply focusing on this particular little ankle biter, uh, child). Not surprisingly, the topic of my possible transfer came up, and we discussed pros and cons for a while. The boy (I shall call him William, or Bill) listened for a time, and then asked me what it is that I do. This did not seem to be a particularly extraordinary question, and I replied that I am a consultant. This term did not mean much to him and so I explained in general terms what it is that I do. He nodded, thought for a moment, and then said: “So, people give you money to tell them what you do?” I must admit that this gave me pause. My first reaction was to correct him, wanting to say that there is far more to what I do than simply be bossy for pay, but realised that he had summed up exactly what I do. People give me money, and I tell them what to do — that’s just about it. Of course, I put a lot of thought into what I do, spending large amounts of time doing research, examining protocols, and analysing data, but in the end, it boils down to me telling people what I think they should do, and then collecting my fee. This was not a revelation to me — I am fully aware of what it is I do — I was just surprised by the way little William reacted to my description of my job, and by my own reaction to his response.

After commending him on his insight, I asked wee Bill if there was anything further he might like to know. After some consideration, he surprised me yet again, by asking: “Why are you a consultant?” I have been asked this question before, but typically by a job interviewer or prospective client, and so my usual response is full of vague statements regarding my desire to aid clients with my knowledge, training, and understanding etc. etc. etc. Something told me (what a strange turn of phrase that is!) that this spiel would not be particularly appropriate for this particular situation, and so I actually told the truth — something that would likely not be overly popular with the hiring staff at any typical consulting firm, and definitely not with any client. I told him that I love to be right. I have always felt that there has to be a best way to do everything, and very frequently know exactly what that is. I hate seeing inefficiency or waste, and at the same time am horrified by danger and so have never had to even consider the possibility of compromising safety for efficiency. This is all very well and good and normal for a consultant, but I have always gone one step farther — I not only adore telling people how to do things better, I simply can’t help myself. This trait is not particularly socially acceptable, tending in fact to annoy people rather, and so I was absolutely thrilled as a young person to discover that it was possible to actually make a career out of doing exactly what I love to do! Being paid to be a bossy know-it-all was a very seductive idea, I can tell you (note that I am not attempting a word-for-word transcription of what I told little William, but rather am trying to convey the gist of what I said). I studied a range of topics in school, university, and graduate study, and used this background to land me a position in a consulting firm. I now spend my time working with groups of people who bring me in to tell them just how they are doing their job, or running their company badly. I went on to tell some stories of my experience, and was struck by William’s clear interest in the topic. My description of my interests obviously resonated with him, and I told him that I would be glad to talk to him more in future. I won’t be surprised to see him studying economics 10 years from now when he gets to university.

After saying my goodbyes and returning to my apartment, I couldn’t help but continue to think about the question: “Why did I become a consultant?” I knew the answer — I had just spent 20 minutes discussing it with a nine-year-old — but still, the question bothered me. I knew that this was because I was in the process of deciding whether or not to accept the transfer to New York, but couldn’t come up with any way to set my mind at rest. Thus, I tidied up a bit, packed a few things, and went to bed. The next few days were completely taken up with preparations for my subsequent departure, and the constant activity kept all introspective thoughts buried beneath a mass of other, more pressing matters. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the terminal at JFK, waiting for my flight that I returned to the question of my chosen career. By this point, the question had evolved from “why did I become a consultant?”, to “what does being a consultant mean to me?” I have been working for many years, carried from day to day by my work, but haven’t really stepped out of it all to address why I do what I do — it is simply what I do. This may sound like a line from Doctor Seuss, but it is very true — when you fall into a routine, you tend to simply fallow it without too much question. It is very healthy to be reminded of why it is that you do what you do. This line of thought became very important to me, as I realised that I didn’t simply want to move on with my career because of stale momentum, I wanted to have a clear desire to continue.

Being a consultant really is a strange occupation. I get paid to be bossy, inquisitive, and manipulative. I think that what began to bother me in particular after speaking with wee William is that I so enjoy these traits that would be clearly undesirable in most situations. It forces me to wonder what this says about me? Am I really so unpleasant that I take pleasure in this sort of control? I do love manipulating people — this is not a trait I developed for my job, it is a part of me. I learned quite early that people are in many ways an open book. Every look, comment, gesture, and action means something about the person involved. Understanding these behavioural cues is really a matter of empathy — of feeling what it is that makes a person so act. Once you understand the motivation for an action you have an important piece of information about the person involved. With understanding comes power — if you know why a person does something you can very often use that knowledge to direct their behaviour.

Not everyone is easily readable. Some people are so very aware of the face they present to the world (for example, highly trained and talented actors) that you the observer can only see directly what they want you to see. These people are not necessarily unreadable — they are just not as easily read as others — the face that people decide to present to the world can actually tell you a lot about what a person thinks about him or herself. I do not claim mind reading abilities, just a definite and cultivated sense how people think and act.

Having consciously thought about all of this I come to the realisation that while the underlying ideas are perhaps not entirely pleasant or socially receptacle, I have channelled them into a constructive end, namely consulting. That is, I took what could be unpleasant character traits, and instead of trying to suppress or alter them, I used them and thereby made them positive traits. I do not claim that I am particularly special — I am not — I am simply pleased to note that my decision to further my consulting career can be seen as both something I want, and something that is good. I have managed to find what suits my particular personality, and that is a lovely thing. Now, as I start out on a slightly new path here in the US I will approach my work with more awareness, more gratefulness for what it means to me, and for the opportunities that have been, and are available to me.

From → America, Goodbyes, Work

  1. hello!This was a really magnificentsuper subject!
    I come from milan, I was luck to find your Topics in google
    Also I obtain a lot in your Topics really thank your very much i will come daily

  2. ‘Out of the mouths of babes’…

    You’re fortunate to be able to use your talents to help people (and get paid for it). All the best for your stay in New York.

    • Thank you very much!
      It truly is a fascinating profession. Although there are definitely some unpleasant aspects that I did not mention in this post, overall I do believe it to be rewarding work, and I am very grateful to have it.

  3. From the mouths of babes…

  4. Oh, sorry, I didn’t see Anji’s comment. Still, the sentiment remains.

    • So very true. Childhood sometimes seems so very far in the past that it is difficult to remember what it is to have a child’s perspective. I wonder if this is one of the reasons people long to have children — to regain a bit of that child’s eye view of the world? Maybe a topic of a future post…

  5. I think you’re on to something. My father also set up as a consultant having had trouble with corporate issues, and I’m kind of running into similar problems myself. As part of an organisation, you cannot just speak your mind about a “best” solution because everyone else’s opinion gets in the way. A consultant sits outside of the office politics and can jolly well say what he likes.

    Consultants on the other hand are rarely able to define the best human solution, especially in Europe where labour protection is harder to get around. Employees have to suffer fools and help the less bright. Consultants connect directly to directors usually, or upper management at least. Their plans aren’t always fully implemented of course.

    Well done for not citing the joke (a consultant gets paid to take your watch and tell you the time).

    It’s a difficult choice though. Hope it goes well for you. The financial insecurity is a bit outside of my own risk parameters for me to jump into it.

    • Thanks for the comment Simon!
      I have been in management consulting for some time now — I actually started out as a bit of an academic, but sort of got recruited. It’s a long story. Anyway, I have done all sorts of different sorts of work, but yes, I primarily only work with upper management. I enjoy this greatly, but honestly, a majority of what I do is complete BS… That is one of the reasons I why it sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable. But I really do enjoy what I do.
      Being a member of a large international company I spend plenty of time dealing with my own office politics — that’s just part of any job.
      I’m enjoying working in the USA. I have a lot of family here. I actually spent my summers in America as a child.

      Stay tuned for later updates — I am hoping to be able to share some anonymous stories of some of the crazier things I see while doing my job…

  6. Hope that you’ll come back to blogging soon.

    • Thank you so much for thinking of me!
      I have been quite literally drowning in work this entire spring, and simply had to let blogging drop. I am wrapping up several major projects this month, so look for new posts beginning then!

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