A Consultant’s Consultant

It’s a wonderful time to be alive, what with all the pollsters and statisticians and retired this-and-that’s turned “talking head” experts, all these consultant-types surrounding us with their  non-stop, very expert advice. In the olden days, when I was building a company, a consultant was someone who, months later, returned a difficult problem unsolved and worse off (and accompanied by a steep bill). Today, we’re steeped in advice from people who’ve studied all there is to study and know everything there is to know about a subject. And instead of being unhelpful, it’s of immense utility, or is it?

Wanting to be one of these people, namely someone with a special expertise, mine being the world of consulting (sort of a consulting expert), I conducted my own little study to establish my consulting consultant bone fides. To be able to speak authoritatively about this ubiquitous phenomena, I collected a few weeks of New York Times articles presenting the results of consulting and studying. Burnishing my consulting reputation, my own anecdotal study suggested that the common expectation — that we’re deriving great benefits from all this — may just be wrong.

On April 14th, for example, I found out that some doctors studying mice are warning pregnant women that, if they don’t exercise, their offspring may have heart problems (Mothers’ Exercise May Lower Heart Risks in Newborns). I know it was big when, years ago, women were warned about drinking or smoking while pregnant. Now, beyond complaining about being itchy and desperate for a martini and a joint, pregnant women apparently have to bounce around on a treadmill, or else live with the guilt of causing, not only the emotional holes in their children’s hearts, but also the physical ones. This study followed on the heels of learning that short people have a taller risk of heart disease (Shorter Stature May Pose Higher Risk of Heart Disease); being a “night owl” risks metabolic disease like diabetes (Being a Night Owl May be Bad for Your Health); being downbeat risks inflammatory-related disease (An Upbeat Emotion That’s Surprisingly Good for You); and that the tests that might help the short, moody, insomniac offspring of sedentary mothers diagnose their wounded hearts, sugar intolerances and inflammatory diseases might not be a good idea (Quantifying Tests, Instead of Good Care).

All this advice, while very scientifically based, is no more valuable than what I received from the public relations consultant whom the investment bankers who bought my company insisted I train with. A legend in his own field (though he’d never run anything, except perhaps his mouth), the gist of his training session was encapsulated in a story he told in a tone of biblical awe. Seems that another student of his, one named Henry Kissinger, when Secretary of State, would begin press conferences in a very unusual way. From the podium, after plunking down his briefing books, he’d look up at the assembled press corps and ask “So who has questions for my answers?”, the “advice” being don’t give a shit what customers or anyone else asks. Like most politicians today, ignore the questions and just spout what you want people to hear. Ironically, this was the exact opposite of the behavior I’d used to obtain and retain the trust of my customers: answering their questions as directly and honestly as I could.

With a nod to Jonathan Swift, whose essay A Modest Proposal proposed solving the twin problems of overpopulation and hunger by eating a set number of newborns, I’d like to make my own modest proposal: that consultants study subjects that have been overlooked and as to which we really need good data.

Take, for example, panhandling. People reduced to begging for money obviously need all the help they can get. But none of the studies that could help them have been done. Imagine how helpful it would be to know whether begging with a dog increases revenues and, if so, what breed works best?  (That study might increase employment by spawning an industry leasing dogs to beg with.) What revenue effects do infirmities like blindness and/or missing limbs have?   What of neighborhoods and times of day? Being seated or standing? Is giving something in return — a pencil, a card explaining sign language, a car-window-washing — revenue-positive? What of using infants and/or children?  Playing an instrument? Claiming to be a war veteran?  An HIV victim?  And Madison Avenue, why haven’t you weighed in on what the most effective cardboard sign should say?

To those who feel buffeted by often conflicting, mostly meaningless-seeming studies — like the recently dueling statistics over whether parents spending time with their children matters — I say, take heart. Most of what’s studied and opined on is absolutely useless. And, anyway, can you imagine how boring it would be to live in a world bereft of short, moody, inflamed, poorly-parented, diabetes-riven night prowlers?

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