Arrogance versus modesty in consulting

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge fan of The Life Scientific, in which physics professor Jim Al-Khalili interviews leading scientists about their life and work. Now in its nth series, almost every episode is a gem, revealing aspects of scientific discovery that I, for one, wasn’t familiar with. However, one thing stands out among all the stories: Despite their often extraordinary achievements, scientists are a humble bunch. Most recently, I was listening to Richard Peto, who resisted every attempt from Al-Khalili to say that his work had been pioneering (others had been there, it wasn’t just his work but the fruit of collaboration, etc.). When Sir Isaac Newton described himself as “standing on the shoulders of giants” he set the tone for generations of modest scientists who recognised that progress is only possible through teamwork.

All that stands in sad contrast to an unfortunately not atypical comment I heard from a client recently: “The consultant claimed all the credit. Everything was him. None of it was us.” This I-know-best arrogance is rife in the industry: When we asked clients a couple of years ago what they’d most like to change about consultants, half of the senior executives we spoke to said they’d like consultants to listen properly and not jump to instant conclusions. Which prompts the question: Why? Why do our foremost scientists fall over themselves in their desire to distribute credit so generously, while consultants apparently want to hoard it?

I suspect the first part of the answer lies in acknowledging that not all scientists behave like The Life Scientific’s very selective sample. Lower down the research echelons there are probably countless mid-ranking, up-and-coming, ambitious researchers who aren’t averse to staking claims not rightfully theirs. Competition is clearly as intense here as it is anywhere in the private sector. Scientists who are unequivocally at the top of their professions don’t have to fight for recognition and thus can be liberal in distributing the excess. A second issue is that it’s much harder for consultants to reach the equivalent heights, largely because the type of knowledge they deal with is very different: Management ideas are fluid and not subject to the same degree of rigorous proof, they very rarely yield insights that could revolutionise our understanding of how business works, and very, very few articles in the Harvard Business Review acquire iconic status. Third, most consulting work isn’t public, and even if it were, it wouldn’t capture the imagination of the general public in a way that a medical advance might.

Let’s be honest: Too often forced to opine on subjects they don’t specialise in, consultants substitute insecurity with arrogance. Sounding confident takes precedence over being competent. And this, I think, lies at the heart of why consultants can be so competitively egotistical while scientists tend to be more self-effacing: It’s not that they’re different types of people, but their work—the whole nature of consulting perhaps—means that they rarely have the depth of knowledge that scientists have. As Shakespeare said, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

Solving this problem doesn’t mean recruiting more humble people: They’d inevitably be forced into the same behaviour by the expectation that they have to look like experts even when they’re not. It might instead mean distinguishing more explicitly between different levels/types of knowledge. We don’t expect nurses to know everything about medicine: Their role, we understand, is to care, treat, and monitor in general terms. Similarly, we wouldn’t expect a general physician to understand a specific heart problem in depth, but we would expect a cardiologist to. So, let’s be clear about who the real experts are in consulting; let’s invest in those people, not only to nurture that knowledge, but to encourage them to collaborate with other experts in their field inside as well as outside the consulting industry. Let’s be clear, too, about what the role of consultants who aren’t experts is: They’re the swift-responding paramedics of the industry, able to diagnose issues and prescribe immediate treatment. But their role isn’t, and never should be, to be experts when they’re not.