House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Timeby Martin Kihn
When Martin Kihn
Once upon a time Corporate America paid certain people huge fees to tell organizations what they were doing wrong. These men and women really knew next to nothing. They trashed businesses, destroyed careers, and wasted time and money. They called themselves Management Consultants. I know them well. I was one of them. Welcome to the... HOUSE OF LIES.
When Martin Kihn joined a powerhouse New York consulting firm, he thought his job was to help organizations. In reality, the consultants spent precious work hours prowling for new clients, and offered little or no useful information. From power breakfasts with mind games to the screaming indignity of "Feedback Camp" in New Jersey, HOUSE OF LIES reveals the truth about a "profession" that could threaten your job, your career, and your life...and even throws you some lifelines should the suits start circling your company.
A more entertaining book about business is unlikely to appear for a long time.Economist.com
Exceedingly smart and funny ... Kihn's breezy, Jay McInerney-inspired writing renders the damnable daily life of the management consultant precisely, often hilariously.Salon.com
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House of Lies
By Martin Kihn
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Martin Kihn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Gentle Art of Feeding Back-or, a New Way to Grow & Hate Yourself
It's very difficult to tell if you're serious or not," says the woman, feeding back. "I'm always serious," you say. "See what I mean?"
After a year you are sent to Feedback Camp. It is in the woods in New Jersey and, like most woods in New Jersey, right next to a large highway. Cars hurtle past your talk circles; they infiltrate the corners of your bed. The purpose of Feedback Camp is never quite clear, but you suspect it has something to do with teaching you to work well with other people. It is a mandatory week in the woods for all (surviving) associates ... and it is by far your worst week with the firm.
By far. "My name is important to me," says the man in the military reserves, suppressing a quiet rage. "Of course it is, Jim." "My name is Jason."
The title of this week is "Consulting Team Skills," and you were supposed to have taken it shortly after joining the firm. In fact, it's supposed to be completed within six months of your start date, but things occurred. For instance, half the firm was fired. And all training programs were suspended. Morale among the lower ranks inexplicably began to plummet and so the partners decided to do what they presumed everybody did in moments of self-doubt: They hired a consultant. That consultant haunted the halls for a few weeks talking to the war-wounded and the battle-weary ... and she reported back that what everybody needed was not an end to the madness, no, what they all needed was a week in the woods of New Jersey with their top-tier colleagues from around the world telling one another in excruciating detail just exactly what it is about them that makes them so difficult to work with.
What they needed was Feedback Camp. "What I wish," says the woman who talks too much, "is that you would talk more."
"About what?" "I just want to let you know that I'm feeling that you're not exactly hearing what I'm saying." "I'm hearing you." "What I'm feeling is I doubt it." "Can I give you some feedback now?" "It's not your turn."
"Well one of my feedbacks is you're hung up on whose turn it is-"
"Guys," says the moderator, a Mormon who makes you want to avoid Salt Lake City, "take a step back. Breathe. Center." There's a moment-just a moment-when nobody talks. Ah ...
It's inculcated in the business school-bound that industry is all about "team work." In fact, it's so often used it's elevated to a single word: teamwork. You've got to work as a team. It's all about the team. You're only as good as your team. The team is more important than the individual. What's your role in the team? Which team are you on? You've got to report to the team; check in with the team; have team dinner, team lunch, team debriefing in the airport lounge.
It sounds strange to you, the first time you hear it: "We." A partner said it in a meeting your first or second week at the firm. He was walking past the team room, on his way to a different team meeting, and he steps in and gets to asking what your team is up to; so your team leader briefs him, and the partner asks a question about the client, which goes something like, "Do we have any capacity in Asia ...?"
He means, of course, we, the client, the company that hired us. We are we. It's routine by now-this convenient linguistic fiction that we are actually employees of the companies we serve. There is no us and them; there's only us and us. The team. So ingrained is this usage, top-tier consultants even slip into it with the client.
"What we need to focus on," your principal says to a client in Dearborn one time, "is getting more value-added content onto the handsets."
The VP looks unmoved. "I'll focus on that," she says. "Why don't you focus on getting the numbers right." We are amused.
So it is to build the narrative we that you are put into a cluster at Columbia Business School, and broken down into an independent project team, with a specific team role. It is in service of the we that you are on a home team at your top-tier firm, and a mentoring team, not to mention your actual work teams and subteams. When you see your friends from business school, always on a Friday night, you all refer to it as "team dinner." For that's what you are now-a team player. The problem is-it's all a lie.
There are no teams. Teams accomplish nothing. Good work is done in a cone of real quiet. Truth comes from the silence alone. Is this true? We don't know.
All we know is-right now-we hate other people. They're all so critical. Feedback Camp starts with an online questionnaire. It asks you to rate yourself along a number of dimensions supposedly correlated with the skills you are thought to need to do your job well, and it's sent to a dozen or so people who have worked with you. Your co-workers are asked the same questions, and they can jot down anonymous comments about what they like and don't like about your unruly personality. Most team members wisely choose to comment very little, but those that do give themselves away immediately. It is amazing how few words it takes to ferret out a voice.
"Marty has a magnetic, disarming personality," one says, and you immediately picture the job manager on the secret government project33 down in Baltimore. It is the word disarming, a favorite of his in many contexts, most of them not related to the U.S. military.
"Marty needs to make sure he takes team members to meetings with the senior staff"-you know this guy at once, the reedy, picky fellow in Stamford who was obsessed with his free box of pears at the Hyatt. He walked past a room once when you were in there with the senior team members talking about what you should think about ordering for dinner, and the look on his face betrayed such abandonment ...
The single biggest problem with Feedback Camp is that it used to take place in Brazil. There was training in the morning and beaches and Brazilians in the afternoon, and from what you hear the training was optional. They are becoming almost unbelievable-these stories of the past. There was a cruise the firm sponsored every year in August for the summer associates; an entire Carnival cruise liner was rented for a week so the kids and their spouses could spend tropical time with the partners in an informal setting of heaving waves and salt spray. Abruptly canceled last year, of course, these cruises have gained in debauched reputation since. An associate passed out in a stairwell. An associate threw up on a partner. An associate hosted a "train" in her cabin. There were castles rented in Scotland for the operations practice annual dinner, and there were strippers and worse charged to American Express with a wink. These stories of the "go-go '90s" always reminded you of something, and then you realized what it was. The "go-go '80s."
You'd like to go-go home right now. You're sitting around a conference room table in a windowless hutch in New Jersey, hearing what people think of you. There are four of you, including the Mormon moderator. You have spent a week together already and there are strong opinions in the room. The comments are supposed to be structured as one good thing (capability area), one bad thing (room for improvement), but it all sounds the same. Very bad.
"The thing I like about you," says the woman with the troubled teeth, "is ... oh God, I knew I wrote this down somewhere." She fumbles with her index cards. "I'm sorry," she says at last, "I have to pass."
"Can-can you paraphrase what you were going to say?" prompts the Mormon. "I just can't remember."
The first day you were handed back the results of the online survey, including the anonymous responses of your coworkers and your own self-ratings. Your self-ratings were consistently lower than those of the others, and this depressed you.
You're supposed to go through the prefeedback, looking for patterns, then come up with a goal for the week around repairing your most glaring capability gap. Fixing what's most obviously wrong.
Once you've decided what your goal is, you gather in the windowless conference room that is to be your home with your three core team members and the moderator, and you do what hordes of businesspeople have done for decades in Basking Ridge, New Jersey-namely, you share. You tell these previous strangers your major fault and what you're going to do about it.
When you realize what you're going to have to tell them, you want to cry. It's just too perfect, as if you made it up. It turns this week in the woods into a magnificent postmodern business experiment.
Can you guess what your major fault turns out to be? Can you even imagine? It's this: You don't like feedback. Well.
Think about the irony of it-the sublime ridiculousness. The firm's considered feedback to you is you need to go to a camp to get feedback about yourself, and that feedback is: You don't want any feedback.
There's a lot of feedback in here. Your wife is, sadly, a musician; to her this word has other connotations. To her this word is repellent.
"Okay," says the Mormon, considering. "So what's your goal going to be for the week?"
"I'm going to ask for feedback." "Solicit it." "Yeah-solicit feedback. All week." "And on the job?"
"I'm going to ask for feedback from my co-workers. And my team leaders."
"And?" "And what?" "Anything else?" You think about it. "Not really." "What are you going to do with the feedback?"
Ah-that is the real question, isn't it? What are you going to do with the feedback. You suspect the truth-ignore it-is not, in the circumstances, acceptable.
"Listen to it." "And?" "Take it in." "And?" "Really listen."
"Hear it." "Yes-hear it." "Hear the feedback and act on the feedback, right? And how are you going to do that-"
"Can I say something," interrupts the woman who talks too much, the one with the eating disorder and the terrible skin. She has been wanting to talk this whole time, and now she is going to talk.
You all turn to her. "I feel that Marty is mocking us."
Beginning consultants are always afraid of confronting this scene: The grizzled old VP of sales puts down his 7-Eleven carafe and hooks his thumbs into the ring of blubber at his belt. "Now what," he spits out, "do you know about my business? I've been forty years selling tires and you think you can come in here and tell me how to sell tires? How old are you, anyway? I've got shirts that're older than you, boy!"
Trouble is, that scene never happens. It's more common, as we have said, to have friends and parents question exactly what it is that you know about selling tires and how old are you, anyway? This kind of second-guessing of skill levels never happens for the simple reason that the clients know the answer. You're probably not that old, and you probably don't know that much about their business. You're a consultant, for God's sake. You don't work anywhere for forty years.
Consultants are not hired as experts. This is a misconception common among nonconsultants: that they are hired for their knowledge. They are not. They are hired to accomplish in very rapid order a daunting, discreet piece of fact-finding and analysis that they are then required to present in exceedingly clear and convincing form to their client. There may or may not be an element of strategic thinking in the presentation; there may or may not be a series of recommendations. These recommendations might seem to an outsider suspiciously like telling the old guy how to sell tires-but they are not. The recommendations are there, in the end, to make the consultant feel more like a manager and less like the hired help, but they are generally entirely ignored. The client knows where they came from, after all.
So consultants are not hired as experts, but they can never appear to be anything less than expertlike. The critical part of that word is -like. It's an act, a charade, a delightful pas de deux. But it is absolutely essential.
Your fourth or fifth month with the firm, you find yourself in a position that would be terrifying were it not so dirt common. You are working for a happy client, a beer and hard liquor manfacturer in the midst of trying to restructure the way it deals with its distributors. As you have heard, alcohol is a great business to be in; since the days of moonshine, it has a large and avid customer base that will risk something like death to be served. And it has evolved over the years since Prohibition into a bewildering web of factors and third parties and state rent-a-cops that do nothing but sit and watch the cash wash in. It's extraordinary-the amount of money these people soak up for nothing.
Your particular client contact is a woman you've been warned about-a rather squat little person with a puzzled look who is draped in gray sweaters. It is the middle of summer. Her name is Cate, with a C. She's young, too, maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine, and makes two times your salary for no reason at all. She used to work at McKinsey, but they fired her. Now she's head of something to do with realigning the organization or whatever.
And she always says, "Uh-huh ..." She nods and says, "Uhhuh ..." Hers is speech minus content; she's a human agreement machine.
So you are rather alarmed when, on the morning of your second day at the client site, she waddles up and says, "What are you doing right now?" "I was-" "Can you come to a meeting?"
The rule in these situations is to say: Yes. Whatever the client asks, you say: Yes. This much you know. "Yes."
As you enter the meeting room, she hands you a stack of pages not stapled together. They feel kind of wet, like a runner had strapped them to her body. They're out of order- you try to order them, absently, as you sit. Then it's quiet, and you notice something ...
Everyone is looking at you. And there are a lot of them- maybe fifteen or eighteen. Some of them you recognize from yesterday, the get-acquainted meeting. These are senior people; actually, now that you reminisce, rather senior senior people. There's a tanned Welshman who is president of something. There's the client himself, the VP of sales. The HR woman, who has a distinctly VP-like aura and a colorful scarf. They're senior senior people and you're fumbling with a wet stack of pages and you're in the middle of the room and suddenly, suddenly it hits you-
You are alone. There are no other consultants in the room. Where are they? You turn to the woman who led you in, but she's talking. "Do you all know Marty?" she asks.
"We met yesterday," says the Welshman, and the bright light flashes off his teeth.
"He's with [your top-tier firm], as you know," she continues. "I thought I'd ask him to take us through some pages." Everyone is sitting. She turns to you and smiles. There is silence. Extended.
You start to talk-then stop.
Excerpted from House of Lies by Martin Kihn Copyright © 2005 by Martin Kihn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Martin Kihn was nominated for an Emmy Award for his work as head writer for MTV's Pop-Up Video, and was also a staff writer for New York magazine. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, GQ, Spy, and numerous other national publications. He is a graduate of the Columbia Business School and Yale University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Marty's witty review of life after B-school for consultants is soooo true! This is a must read for b-school grads interested in consulting. It also relates to other fields occupied by many s-school grads. Laugh out loud funny!
Must reading for anyone in business, hoping to be in business or who used to be in business! For aspiring consultants, the dictionary alone is worth the price of the book. Let the client beware!
Having been a client, it's refreshing to have someone "open the kimono" on this business. This is a very breezy, smart read - which gives credence to his revelations. It would be just too difficult to write like this and not have most (all?) of it be true in some way.
This unusual, entertaining business book covers one man¿s experience working for an unnamed, but top-line consulting firm. Author Martin Kihn tells unvarnished stories about working with clients who mix ambiguous problems with political infighting. The consulting firms he describes come off as unbalanced organizations with barely functioning teams and aged political hierarchies. Then there are the bleak working conditions and long weeks of travel, described in ways that completely dispel the glamorous myth of the globetrotting consultant. Throughout, Kihn keeps the story moving and funny, even though he sometimes gets too caught up in his own cleverness. Now and then, he seems to restrain his real opinion and the resulting conclusion seems flimsy compared to his other material, but soon he gets back to deflating jargon and popping myths. Even though it is an additional rock being hurled in the hailstorm of consultant bashing, we recommend this funny, informative book to anyone working with consultants or considering a consulting career.
Interesting read, but Kihn's sweeping generalizations of McKinsey and other big consulting firms at times sound more like bitter jealousy than true fact. Hopefully, I'll find out for myself in the next few years whether he's right or not.
Absolute junk book! Written by a charlatan who learned just enough about business to write a "book" and con some producers into turning it into a bad, bad television show. Biggest waste of money that I recall - really.