Leadership consulting is usually more 'feel good' than 'do good'

by Dorian Minors

August 17, 2023

Analects  |  Newsletter

Excerpt

Leadership transformation is obviously where the best money is to be made. It’s very easy to maximise profit margin on “making executives less fucked somehow”. Let me show you how, drawing on my own three year adventure in sustainability leadership transformation. Then let me show you how you actually could have an impact, instead.

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Leadership consulting proposes to fix leaders, but because we can confuse 'making leaders feel good' with 'making leaders better' it usually fails. It doesn't have to though: just take the extra step from 'collective vision' to 'collective norms'.

There are three kinds of management consulting, more-or-less:

  1. Operations consulting, which is very technical. You might say “I don’t have enough money to run my company” and ops consultants might say things like “well fire these 50 people” or “refinance these assets” and then they’ll smile and point out that your cash-flow is much better and then you’ll pay them.
  2. Strategic consulting, which is more abstract. You might say “my product isn’t selling very well any more” and strat consultants might say things like “well market your product in this new way to this different market segment” or “rebrand so you become relevant again” and then they’ll smile and point out that now you’re making money from a bunch more people and then you’ll pay them.
  3. And then there’s leadership transformation/development consulting, which seems like a scam. You might say “my executive team is a bit fucked” and these people will say things like “we will make them less fucked” I guess? And then they’ll smile and point out nothing at all, and for some reason you will still pay them.

Of course, leadership transformation is obviously where the best money is to be made. It’s very easy to maximise profit margin on “making executives less fucked somehow”.1 Let me show you how, drawing on my own three year adventure in sustainability leadership transformation.

Selling leadership transformation is easy

Leadership transformation actually has a pretty clear value proposition in the sustainability space. The pitch decks are really easy to make. Let’s ignore, for the moment, any kind of business case for change. These exist, but are so obviously puffy that they’re not worth describing.

More pressing is the fact that even the most skeptical business leaders are experiencing enormous pressure from their stakeholders to make sustainable change. Everyone cares about this now—governments, special interest groups, consumers, and shareholders. Even to recruit and maintain top talent internally requires some kind of sustainability narrative. So, for financial, pragmatic, or personal reasons, business leaders increasingly feel the need to engage in sustainable transformation.

But there are two major obstacles to harnessing this appetite for change. Firstly, working out what sustainable changes businesses could make that would actually have an impact is something that no one really has a good idea about. The features contributing to the climate crisis and the facets of social inequality are both complex dynamical systems that are still poorly understood at the level of business intervention. There are few good questions in this space, never mind good answers.

Secondly, the expectations of any multi-stakeholder group will often be in tension, and meeting these successfully can be challenging at the best of times. This is no different for all the groups that want business leaders to do stuff. Governments are at odds with industry groups. Consumers are pitted against shareholders. Suppliers are at loggerheads with retailers. And top-talent want whatever random thing they’ve decided is important because of the Economist article they read last week.

These two obstacles—the lack of direction, and the troublesome desires of stakeholders—often mean that, even if business leaders try to implement some package of sustainable change, it’s lightweight and unsatisfactory.

Now, leadership transformation consultants can’t really solve the ‘sustainability is hard’ problem. Indeed, few people seem to be doing a good job of this. But they can help leaders get a handle on some kind of narrative that gives them a starting point on the issues, even with an imperfect knowledge of the desired outcomes. And with enough finesse, this very same narrative can be the tool leaders need to manage the whims of all their stakeholders.

This situation is a fantastic moneymaking proposition. Unlike operations and strategy consulting, no one here is expected to achieve any kind of technical change—adjusting procedures, systems, or tools. We’re not trying to change existing structures—brand identities, working groups, or incentive schemes. No. What we set out to do is tweak the mindsets of the leaders. We need to change people, not process. This very fact is actually often used as one of the main selling points—we just call it ‘adaptive change’ and somehow make it sound sexier than technical change and we get paid a lot of money.

Making change should be easy

Let me give you the most charitable case of this. We’re going to position ourselves as ethical consultants. And we’re still going to discover a fairly critical failure condition that makes the enterprise useless.

This kind of thing—helping leaders discover a mindset that gives them both a foothold to address change and also to address the stakeholders that want change—is actually an excellent product to direct at leaders. Leaders are decision-makers, not the people who do the work. This is more true, the more senior the leaders are. Trying to implement technical change at the level of leadership, particularly given the complexity of sustainability challenges, is extremely difficult.

This doesn’t stop people trying to implement technical change at the level of leadership though. Indeed, operations and strategy consultants will do their very best to sell packages of technical change to leaders. It’s what they know how to do. But in the case we’re describing here, it’s a wasted effort. Package after package will fail, and leaders are often frustrated as a result. Instead, what we want to do is give leaders the tools to direct technical change at the levels at which that kind of change occurs.

Success in this kind of work seems to require at least two things.

Firstly we have to take leaders as individuals and develop some sense of personal connection with the question of sustainability. Leaders are rarely motivated by sustainable concerns. More often they’re bending to the pressure of stakeholders. Even in the best possible case only one or two influential leaders in the group will have some kind of personal motivation to care. So, for those that haven’t we need to develop some kind of personal insight into the fact that the systems these leaders are a part of and feel responsible for—their leadership teams; their organisations; even their families and friends—are all quite arbitrary. We want to help them discover that there are other systems they could pay attention to; that they can take responsibility for more of the world. In this personal connection to the issue they will ideally find the purpose to engage. It’s not even particularly difficult. This can be as simple as connecting with their child’s passion for recycling, as pragmatic as emphasising the space for competition with their peers; or as complex as igniting their own passion for the natural world that supports whatever hobby they’re into.

We then want to take some subset of these leaders—the most influential in the system we’re trying to influence—and use these personal insights to create some kind of collective vision: a ‘north star’, so-to-speak.2 This north star becomes the core of any sustainable transformation work that follows—something to aim for, and something to evaluate success against. Importantly, a successful north star seems to:

  1. have features that link clearly back to the personal connection that drives the purpose for influential leaders to engage;
  2. be informed by the best available research at a level that allows leaders to confidently direct down-stream technical change; and
  3. be PR-managed to strike at the needs of any influential stakeholder interests.

With these three things, leaders walk away feeling like they’re able to satisfy themselves, their technical teams, and any other important stakeholders, and so the transformation work feels like it had value.

Straightforward enough, right? Any educator with a bit of experience under their belt could get a group of people to this point. And therein lies the failure state.

The extra step that would make it all come together

Most leadership transformation interventions stop after achieving these two things—personal insight and collective vision.3 Once leaders feel like transformation is possible everyone just sort of forgets that they have to go on to plan implementation. You’ll often find this is everyone’s fault. For leaders, it’s hard to justify paying for something the leaders should be able to do themselves. For the consultants, it’s hard to justify offering some kind of difficult to deliver implementation service when payment can already be collected.

And this is in the charitable case. In the less charitable case, the consultants never cared about doing the set up for an implementation that some unspecified other party could do. They just relied on the fact that education which makes people feel smart is an extremely popular product. To quote myself there:

interlaced with the useless powerpoints and the occasionally useful project, there is heavy entertainment value. In the consulting world, the best facts are the most interesting, not so much the most useful … The incentives here mean that the packages with the interesting theories aren’t just the packages that sell in the first place, but are the packages that succeed in convincing the leadership that something the consultants did was worthwhile. That make everyone involved feel good.

… I’ve given plenty of examples of this in my own time as a consultant. Those articles come directly out of attempts to improve the quality of content in a leadership development firm. Here, anywhere between 20-50 year old research is presented as current and relevant. Not because it is, but because it’s interesting … And despite the fact that all these outdated pet theories about how to improve performance; reduce work stress; shape behaviour and so on can be easily updated in a way that both maintains their entertainment value and improves their education value, they won’t be. Because the need these facts fill isn’t education, but entertainment. Management consulting is just the company theatre pass.

However, in any behavioural intervention, implementation is the most difficult step. There is a straightforward reason for this—the behaviour of any system is created to suit the environment. The environment will encourage the dominance of old behaviours, and eliminate new ones. In my experience, almost no substantive sustainable changes have been made following a programme of leadership transformation when we have personal insight and collective vision, but implementation has been left to the leadership team. Successful leadership transformation, then, provides two more features that promote action:

  1. a clear how: often working with technical teams and sustainability officers, producing a series of plausible workstreams to begin prosecuting; and
  2. a motivation to implement: highlighting to the leadership team the personal and social rewards available to them in implementing change. This is most successful with the creation of new social norms that enforce target behaviours within the leadership team doing the transformation work. Accountability from the inside.

It doesn’t seem to me like there’s any reason we can’t build this into the way we go about shaping a collective vision. We’re already doing the work of creating a collective, centred around sustainable values. Surely, we can also do the work of encouraging social norms that will actually make this happen.

But hey. What do I know. They just hire me to hit them with brain words sometimes. Get out of the amygdala guys. It’ll fix your company, I promise.


  1. Particularly since every single consultant in this space will say “measuing impact is very difficult” instead of coming up with a plan to measure this. 

  2. In particular, it helps join together these new personal purposes. The reasons individuals might come to be engaged are likely to be quite different, and we need to pull them all onto the same page. 

  3. Indeed, many stop after just doing the collective vision stuff. There’s often no need to get personal buy-in to the vision if the leaders are willing to just say they bought in. 


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