There’s a common saying in business: ‘Good guys finish last.’ Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert tells the story of a decent junior executive whose worthy virtues were the cause of his undoing.
Back in 1962, director Sergio Leone created his ‘Dollars Trilogy’ – three classic Western films that established the ‘Spaghetti Western’ subgenre. I’ve spent the last two weeks suggesting that Leone’s iconic character – the Man With No Name, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood – represents an idealized business consultant. That is, Eastwood’s character is enigmatic; you really don’t get to know who he is. He’s utterly and ruthlessly focused on his goal of making money off of others’ misfortunes. He seems to have little, if any, compassion. Also, he drifts in and out of other people’s lives strictly out of opportunism, and always leaves his victims the worse for wear.
The last film in the trilogy fits this model the best. Leone’s 1966 hit The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is a tale of three criminals who grudgingly cooperate with one another (and often betray one another) in order to secure another thief’s fortune in purloined gold. That setup sounds like (almost) every ambitious consultant that I’ve ever worked with… with a few notable exceptions.
One exception in particular is worth introducing. We’ll call him Luis (not his real name, obviously). Luis was a junior partner in a large consulting firm. When I first met him, he appeared to be in his late 40s or early 50s – about the right age to have ascended from senior manager to partner after ten or more years delivering in the trenches. Luis made a strong first impression because of how he consistently approached his role. He didn’t act like a typical partner, in that he wasn’t stuffy or cold, he didn’t condescend to the junior staff and he made it a point to remember the names of everyone on his staff. All in all, he was a likeable fellow and that came across when you met him.
He was, however, still a capital-p Partner in the firm. That meant that his entire purpose in life was to generate new business. He didn’t provide anything resembling leadership to his consulting staff. He didn’t mentor his people at all. He didn’t invest in training or professional development. His interaction with his subordinates was limited to quarterly meetings concerning how effectively his troops were billing his client. That wasn’t a personal failing; that was completely normal conduct for how the firm operated. He did his job the way that his superiors demanded, and in their image.
I actually got to meet Luis about a year before I started working with him. Luis and I both reported to the same senior partner. Luis managed a cadre of consultants, and I was an independent duty troubleshooter. My peculiar duties included being my boss’s chauffer whenever he came to town, and I happened to be driving the boss around to an event where Luis was celebrating his employees’ accomplishments. As the chauffer, I got to sit in the back and watch. Luis’s people seemed happy, and Luis seemed to genuinely enjoy their company. I was impressed; I’d never seen a executive quite like him in the firm.
A little less than a year later, I was seconded to Luis’s team as an emergency replacement for a consultant who went a bit mad and quit the night before a project launch. Since I was the closest asset to the stricken team, my boss told me where to go and instructed me to pretend like I knew what was going on. A few hours later, I found myself in a ballroom downtown listening to some executives from a major transportation company talk about their urgent Y2K mitigation project. I asked Luis what our firm’s role in the initiative was. He whispered that we were the client’s lead software integrator… and that I was the team’s replacement database engineer. ‘Sure,’ I said. 
Later that afternoon, I visited Luis’s office at the client’s headquarters site. That’s when the pieces started to fall into place: unlike all of our other executives, Luis’s nine-to-five office was located at a client’s facility – not in one of our many office buildings. I learned that Luis only had the one client, and that he was enthusiastically loyal to that one client’s mission.
I did some nosing around with his staff. The consensus was that Luis had been promoted to partner specifically because of his extraordinarily good relationship with this client. The client’s executives apparently adored him. In turn, Luis lived with them full-time sort of like a distinguished expert-in-residence, and provided the client’s staff with expert advice and strategic guidance free of charge. The client then offered contract extensions to Luis to provide some or all of the experts needed to implement his suggestions. It all seemed a bit anti-competitive, but it was (as far as I could tell) perfectly legal. 
I saw this process first-hand about a year after I joined the giant Y2K project. Luis asked me to help him pitch the client on a satnav-based asset tracking solution. Luis had worked out how to solve the client’s problem of disappearing vehicles by using satellite data connectivity to send telemetry and maintenance status information back to the client’s command centre in order to dispatch replacement vehicles within seconds of a breakdown in the field. All in all, it was a darned ambitious plan – especially for 1999. The client loved the concept, but their proof-of-concept attempt had failed abysmally. It seemed that line-of-sight-based satellite feeds simply didn’t work amidst all the downtown office towers. The client’s maintenance staff wasn’t willing to invest six figures of scarce investment dollars in expanding the tests. I couldn’t blame them; the tech wasn’t ready. Luis wholeheartedly agreed, and promised to keep the stakeholders apprised as the technology matured.
That’s how Luis lived his life: he hung out with the client’s bigwigs, heard them talk about their problems and privately crafted solutions for them. He pitched the client on ways to make things better, and sometimes earned more work. No matter what, Luis was always charming, polite, supportive and eager to help. I know that the client appreciated his enthusiasm because I asked one of their executives about it. The fellow told me that he greatly appreciated Luis’s conviviality, and the fact that Luis never pulled the ‘hard sell’ approach on them. When they said ‘no’ to one of Luis’s proposals, he dropped it without any drama. That made him an excellent strategic partner. It also made him a failure as a consulting partner.
Doesn’t seem likely, does it? The man was beloved and trusted by his client, did great work solving problems that the client’s boffins couldn’t solve on their own and had a stable of eager and loyal workers ready to tackle any new challenge that came up. These factors (along with a track record of projects completed) inspired the client to reward him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in work every year. It seemed like Luis should have been a model partner by every objective and subjective measurement of success… if you defined ‘success’ as delighting one client.
Our firm did not. In fact our firm had a very different standard of success. By listening from the fringes between meetings, I learned that our partners needed to maintain the revenue streams that they had, and also needed to constantly grow new revenue streams. It wasn’t enough to secure a single profitable client, because that client could always turn on you. A successful partner needed to diversify to preemptively control risk… and Luis hadn’t.
Worse than that, I’d been around Luis’s boss when he talked about the firm’s evolving strategic plan. We were adept at outmaneuvering our peers for the $10 million deals, but we weren’t making enough profit on those. Our top executives decided that it was time to go after the $100 million-plus deals as well. I also learned that the company was considering going public and wanted to post some really impressive long-term numbers to wow Wall Street ahead of the IPO. From a growth and competitiveness standpoint, all of these ideas made sense. For someone like Luis, it was devastating.
Luis’s entire shtick was to sustain a long-term, high-engagement, mutually respectful relationship with one influential client. He could leverage that relationship to maintain a certain level of revenue, and he could probably grow his revenue stream incrementally, but he wouldn’t be able to increase his business tenfold the way the executives wanted him to. He could try, but the act of pressuring his client to give him a huge increase in business would likely both alienate his allies and jeopardize the work that his people was already delivering. He declined. Throwing all of that hard work and investment away would be madness, even if it was mandatory.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a feel-good story about a plucky, principled underdog whose virtue pays off in the end. Two things degraded Luis’s professional relationship with his client, like hammer blows to his kneecaps: first, the senior partner that we both reported up to won one of the massive contracts that the firm wanted to pivot towards. The prime would net something like $5 billion over 15 years; our boss’s team would get something like $400 million over that period. This was such a huge win that our boss shut down his entire Texas operation and moved lock, stock and barrel to the capitol. In the interests of efficiency, he didn’t take any of us with him. Instead, operations like Luis’s were transferred to other senior partners like a divested franchise store. As for us individual consultants, well… as the boss’s troubleshooter, I was the only consultant out of 100 men and women who wasn’t terminated.
Luis was darned lucky. Another senior partner absorbed his practice, so he got to keep his operation intact. He also got to snag a number of terminated consultants before they hit the open market. On the other hand, getting ‘sold off’ meant that he lost his executive patron. He no longer had a senior person looking out for him that appreciated his unique value proposition. Given the firm’s insistence on going after large contracts, that made Luis’s client-maintenance strategy even more risky. There were rumblings that he’d be recalled from the client site and be forced to start pursuing other business.
Then, to add insult to injury, the huge software project that I’d been involved with went sour. This was emergency Y2K mitigation work, and the replacement solution… didn’t work. The team blew the 1st January 2000 deadline because the product just didn’t meet its minimum functional requirements – to say nothing of its supposed ‘advanced features’. The fault wasn’t Luis’s or the integration team’s by any means; the product itself didn’t work because it was still under development when the team started deploying it. You can’t build a rocket with just a pile of iron ore and a few barrels of crude oil. Still, the client was furious. I dropped by the site one afternoon to check on my old teammates and found them all locked in an acrimonious meeting. It was clear from the few minutes of banter that I overheard that Luis’s team had suffered a huge credibility loss.
The writing was on the wall. Luis’s consultants started jumping ship to other practices and other firms. I can only assume that things snowballed from there. As for Luis himself, I have no idea what happened to him. I suspect that he eventually left the firm for greener pastures. I hope, for his sake, that he landed somewhere where his honourable approach to client relationship management allowed him to prosper. Luis was a decent and pleasant fellow. He wasn’t a grand strategic leader by any means, but he also wasn’t cruel, malevolent, corrupt or condescending like some of his peers.
Somewhere along the line, the firm’s needs had changed. Luis probably represented the ideal leadership dynamic from a previous iteration of the company, which is why he’d made it up the ladder to junior partner. Unfortunately, as the firm grew and changed, Luis’s approach became noncompetitive. When he failed to adapt to changing times, the firm left him behind. Colder, sterner and more aggressive men pushed him aside on the firm’s path to significantly higher revenues.
I felt bad for Luis. I still do, if I’m honest. I respected his decision to protect his relationship with his client, even at great personal and professional cost. It was the morally and culturally right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the optimal business tactic.
In a way, Luis’s sense of commitment reminds me of one of the ancillary characters from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Father Pablo Ramírez (played by Luigi Pistilli), is a Catholic friar, and the brother of one of the three bounty hunters that the main story revolves around. In one of my favourite sequences in the film, we learn that Pablo despises the evil man that his brother Tuco (played by Eli Wallach) has become… but he still loves him, both as his brother and as a man of the cloth. Father Pablo is a man who chose to devote himself to higher principles, even as his more successful sibling took up a life of banditry, fraud and murder. In the end of the story, the evil brother walks away with a fortune due to his willingness to commit evil acts, while the virtuous brother is left struggling in poverty due to his own equally-fervent unwillingness to commit evil acts.
In that sense, Sergio Leone’s trilogy wasn’t so much an entertaining spectacle of a bygone era as it was a prescient allegory for modern business life. The gritty kill-of-be-killed nature of modern business means that virtue is often an impediment to success. In sectors like mercenary work consulting, a selfish man who is unburdened by conscience will always have an overwhelming competitive edge over his selfless and ethical rival. We may not like the hand we’ve been dealt, but we can’t deny the cards we’re holding.
That being said, I’d rather hire a man of good character like Luis than a cold-blooded opportunist every damned time. You can’t quantify personal honour, and you can’t sustain a business without it, either.
 This was pretty much how my life went as an executive troubleshooter. I never knew where I was going or what I’d be doing. Nearly everything I did was improvised, and often a bit frantic.
 This all took place in Texas, where government regulation is considered more of a suggestion than a requirement.
Title Allusion: Sergio Leone (et al), Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo (a.k.a., The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) (1966 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.