Money for telling folks what to do
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.