Tread softly

The next time you stop for a coffee, go and look at the home pages of the world’s leading consulting firms. What do you see? Thought leadership. Right up there, above all else. The first thing the firm wants to show you. What is it about? COVID-19. Everywhere, virtually everything is about the crisis. What does it offer? Supply chain solutions. Ideas about workforce planning. Ideas about how you can reimagine your business in the post-COVID era. Descriptions of the new normal. Opinions from business leaders. Surveys. Data. More surveys. More data.

Hope. It offers hope.

It always has. Why? Because consulting firms, like advertisers, have something to sell, and hope—of a way through, of a solution, of a brighter, better future—is a powerful way to sell it. There’s a moment in Episode 1, Season 1 of Mad Men, when Don Draper, one of the main protagonists, stands up and declares: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness.” He’s right. And hope is to thought leadership as happiness is to advertising.

But hope just became an even more powerful thing. Mainstream media is offering up a relentless and fetid slurry of doom—partly because, as a formula for selling news, negativity is so entrenched that it’s persisting even when one of its key tenets (that the bad news should be about stuff happening to other people) is broken, and partly because there really is a lot of bad stuff happening at the moment—and the result is a desperate, clawing hunger for good news. It’s also a precious moment during which lingering cynicism about the motives of thought leadership is being replaced by a willingness, on the part of its embattled readers, to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves in a captivating story about the better days to come. They might not do so for long.

Don Draper may have been right about advertising, but he also knew he was pedalling an illusion. He knew that advertisers’ promises of happiness were vacuous, and even that they needed to be: The last thing advertisers want is a consumer who’s happy with what they’ve already got. “What is happiness?” Draper asks in a later episode. “It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” Thankfully, for them, consumers have bought into this illusion for decades, and are still in thrall to it. Your clients will be less forgiving if they’re sold false hope, however.

Which isn’t to suggest that any firm is deliberately pedalling the same lie as Don Draper. But it is to suggest that promises of hope need to be fulfilled. And the answer to doing so is not only to sell clients a vision of a better tomorrow, it’s to treat the hope you create with a profound respect, and engage properly, meaningfully, with the question of how they go about making it a reality. Not once you get in the room to pitch for their business, but right at the point where you’re selling them hope in the first place. In your thought leadership. Tell them how. Oh, and by the way, explaining how in ways that sound redolent of the approaches of the past probably won’t cut it. This isn’t the past. This hasn’t happened since management consulting was invented as a concept. There’s never been this kind of need. For most people working today there’s never been this hunger for hope. In one of his memorable TED talks, the writer, speaker, and former government advisor on education, Sir Ken Robinson, said: “Every day, everywhere, our children spread their dreams beneath our feet, and we should tread softly.” Your clients will be doing the same when they read your thought leadership today.

Tread softly.