It sometimes seems like the most successful consultants are utterly amoral opportunists. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that this is often true… when you only define ‘successful’ in terms of generating short-term revenue.
I’m a consultant (among other things), and I usually enjoy what I do. Not always; it can be a strange profession. Fortunately, there are lessons to be learned from some of my misadventures. Us consultants are sort of like the Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s famous cowboy movie trilogy, in that we drift in and out of a lot random client sites during a career, and we see some pretty appalling things done in the pursuit of more billable hours. This week, I want to tell the tale of a consulting manager that I worked under who would have been considered equally preposterous if he was cast as a villain or as a hero in a piece of fiction. That’s why Clint Eastwood’s ambiguous anti-hero character is a more accurate and more appropriate analogue for what we do and how we live.
The setting for this story was a major defence post in the industrial Midwest. I was part of a consulting firm that focused exclusively on public sector clients. The first engagement I was assigned to turned out to be a sham; I discovered that our firm’s senior advisor had been in cahoots with the government’s project manager and the supplier’s sales rep to overcharge the client for unnecessary and unwanted upgrades. When I brought it up with the client’s oversight board, the project was terminated… and I found myself internally exiled. Not fired; that wouldn’t make economic sense.
Instead, I found myself idling 40 hours a week in an empty cubicle in a deserted part of an old government office block. I’d been assigned a space three empty cubicle rows away from everyone else on the floor. I was nowhere near the team that I was supposedly ‘supporting’ in my notional role as a project manager. My function, every day, was to sit by my phone just in case the client wanted something done. That’s it. As you’d expect, the client didn’t want anything, because the project I was ‘supporting’ was winding down… and I suspect that they didn’t know that I was there. My presence on the project roster was completely unnecessary; the only value that I brought was that my firm could bill the client for every hour that I sat in that empty cubicle farm, week after week after week.
I suspected that that I had no future with the practice I was in, so I started applying for other jobs in order to escape the mess I’d gotten myself into. One afternoon, I was so busy trying to customize a cover letter that I didn’t realize that my manager – we’ll call him Bob, of course – had snuck in behind me until he cleared his throat. I jumped and reflexively alt-tabbed my screen from Word back to Outlook. Bob didn’t seem to notice what I’d been up to; he seemed troubled by something. He just told me to follow him. I smiled, grabbed my notebook, and dutifully trailed after him.
Bob led me up a floor and over to a different wing of the complex. He stopped in a busy corridor and nonchalantly pointed to a generic cluster of cubicles. ‘I have a problem,’ he said. ‘And you’re going to help me fix it.’
I nodded, saying nothing. Bob assumed that I was all-in. ‘So, I’ve sold myself as a full-time resource for this project group for the year. That’s my desk…’ He pointed to a narrow space between two large cubicles that had probably been built to hold a network printer rather than a person. ‘The thing is, I’ve also sold myself as a full-time resource to a project upstairs, and I have a desk there, too.’
I winced. Bob was admitting to me that he was engaging in contract fraud with the US government. I wanted out of the conversation as swiftly as possible. Bob, however, was not done.
‘I’ve been able to convince each group that I’m totally dedicated to their project because I’m clever,’ he crowed. ‘I spend half of my time on each floor. When I need to change groups, I tell them that I’m going to a meeting or that I need to retrieve documents from the shared printer. Then I dash up or down the fire stairs and join the other group as if I’d just come from the printer.’
On the one hand, I loathed his actions. On the other hand, I admired the sheer chutzpah of the man’s scheme. It seemed preposterous to think that he could get away with such a clumsy charade for long, so I asked him if he realized how precarious his position was.
Bob smiled. ‘That’s the problem. This group here is getting suspicious and is demanding that I spend more time in my cubicle.’
I nodded, fearing where the conversation was going to go next.
‘So … what is it that you want from me?’ I asked.
‘Well, you’re blonde…’ Bob said.
‘Yes, I am,’ I said, confused.
‘And I’m blonde…’
‘Yes, you are.’
‘So, I want you to sit in my cubicle with your back to the entrance and pretend to be me while I’m upstairs.’
I groaned. I did not want to be an accessory to Bob’s fraud. He probably picked up on my reluctance, because his tone turned icy.
‘Don’t turn around and don’t make it clear who you are,’ he said. ‘If people ask you a question, answer it but don’t show them your face. Just sit there and type things. Wait until everyone leaves for lunch before you get up for a bathroom break. Wait until they all go home before you do.’
Bob clapped me on the shoulder, waited until there were no observers and then pushed me towards his decoy cube. I sat down and dutifully got to ‘work’.
Bob’s ruse didn’t last very long. Less than a day later, an angry government employee stepped into Bob’s ‘office’ and angrily demanded to know why he hadn’t attended her meeting. I tried to dodge the issue; I said that I hadn’t received a meeting request. The woman chided me that her event was a standing meeting that everyone was required to attend. I apologized for missing it, and that’s what tripped the woman’s suspicions. She squeezed into the space to get a good look at me and I froze, eyes locked on the CRT, trying to pretend that I she wasn’t there.
There was a long moment of silence before she hissed: ‘You’re not Bob’.
I figured that the jig was up and swiveled around to half-face her. She recoiled a bit and demanded to know why I was sitting in her team’s area.
‘Er, no. Bob moved me here yesterday,’ I said.
The woman’s eyes narrowed to angry slits. She told me to *#&% off back to wherever I’d come from. I cheerfully did as I was told.
A senior consultant later told me that the client’s project managers called out Bob for his duplicity right after that discovery. Supposedly, Bob managed to weasel his way out of any real consequences. He glibly redirected a pair of unqualified and unprepared junior consultants from our practice to take over the two project manager roles that he’d sold as ‘his’ full-time contracted assignments. He justified this by claiming that he, as a manager, was only learning about the projects so that he could adequately supervise his workers for the remainder of the contract and that had always been the plan. Bob was slick enough that the clients bought it.
As a reward for my faithful service (Bob said), I was transferred internally to back-fill one of the two project managers that Bob had tossed into the fray to cover his own tail. I wound up working in a gutted supply closet in the basement that had no ventilation. It was stuffy in winter, and stifling in summer, and thereby counted as a ‘safe’ place to hide us undesirable parasites since none of the client’s personnel wanted to loiter in the complex’s crap-tastic dungeons.
Bob, meanwhile, re-sold himself to a new project as a full-time management resource, and started his scam programme all over again on a new group of befuddled civil servants. All the while, cash flowed out of the client’s coffers into ours at a steady and nourishing rate.
I said at the beginning of this column that Bob was simply unbelievable as a fictional villain, and couldn’t be confused with a hero under any circumstances. Bob was a crap manager. He didn’t provide any actual leadership, guidance, mentoring, prioritization, direction or support. His only value seemed to be finding new fiscal veins to tap for the benefit of the practice partner’s financial ledger. The rest of us found him to be a useless git.
Oddly, the work that Bob performed directly for his clients seemed to be perfectly adequate (when he actually did some work) because the various government project managers that Bob hoodwinked all spoke highly of him. Further, even though double-billing a client was fraud, Bob wasn’t the person signing and billing for those contracts – the partner that Bob worked for owned all responsibility for the fraud, leaving Bob as the ‘innocent victim’ of ‘forces beyond his control’ whenever he got found out. Bob got away with scheme after scheme by claiming that he was just following policy. Even screwing us workers out of the financial rewards that we’d earned was never Bob’s fault, since the partner supposedly made compensation and rewards decisions for him.
That’s where the comparison to Eastwood’s grim gunslinger character comes in. At the very end of For A Few Dollars More (if you haven’t seen it), the villain lies vanquished and the hero has ridden off, leaving Clint Eastwood’s character behind, collecting the corpses of the villain’s henchmen for their bounty value. As he works out his fee for delivering the bodies of the wanted men, he realizes that he’s going to come up short against the maximum potential value of the posted reward… so he turns to the last of the wounded bandits and guns the man down in cold blood. He might have earned some coin for delivering the wounded man alive, but it was easier to just execute him (and, thereby, to maximize his profits on the job).
In simplest terms, that was Our Bob. The man wasn’t malevolent. He didn’t display any sadistic glee at our condition. If anything, he seemed completely indifferent to the lives and fortunes of his minions. We were all disposable, interchangeable and faceless assets to him. He bore us no ill-will, just as he owed us no loyalty or compassion. We weren’t his co-workers. Hell, we weren’t even people to him.
Bob was, I believe, an utterly amoral and vampiric business predator… but he wasn’t a villain per se. He didn’t go out of his way looking for opportunities to inflict evil. Instead, he was strictly opportunistic. If evil was the most effective way to get paid, then he’d take the evil option without a second thought. If virtue had a higher payoff, he’d take the virtuous option. Morality and professional ethics never entered the equation.
That made Bob a highly successful businessperson and a perfect fit for the consulting industry since he never allowed his conscience or relationships to interfere with his insatiable appetite for billable hours. His passive neglect made the consultants despise him for being a loathsome human being, but he was tolerated since he wasn’t a bully. At the same time, Bob’s stunts made him the darling of the management team since he kept the almighty revenue flowing, and that was all that mattered to the old white men in the thousand-quid suits.
The irony of Bob’s story is that he never realized that he was valuable but was never valued. Bob thoughtlessly used us consultants and his clients as disposable means to an end. At the same time, the partners were using Bob exactly the same way. They had no loyalty to him personally. Based on the partners that I later worked with and for, they probably all held Bob in contempt for his gullibility and lack of vision.
Right before the scene in For A Few Dollars More where Eastwood casually murders the last bandit, we viewers learn that the protagonist – Lee Van Cleef’s bounty hunter – never cared about the bounty. He’d only cooperated with Eastwood’s character in order to pursue his revenge against the antagonist. He used Eastwood as a valuable tool and then abandoned him once he’d secured his objectives. That’s the way it played out with Bob, too: the partners used Bob for his short-term utility, and then abandoned him once they’d achieved their enigmatic goals.
In the end, it didn’t really matter. At the end of the year, the client was poorer and the consulting partner was richer. Us consultants either transferred to other practices or quit. As for Bob… I have no doubt at all that he walked away from the messes he’d made with his own fistful of dollars and a new mark to fleece. The two things that I’m confident Bob never had were a functioning conscience and a trace of self-awareness. As far as I’m concerned, Bob may have been the perfect consultant but he was no hero. Not even close.
Title Allusion: Sergio Leone (et al), Per Qualche Dollaro in Più (a.k.a., For a Few Dollars More) (1965 Film)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.