House of lies: how management consultants steal your watch and then tell you the time

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Copyright Page

for Julia

When Thales was asked what was difficult, he said, “To know one’s self.” And what was easy, “To advise another.”

—DIOGENES LAERTIUS, Thales

Management Consultants: They waste time, cost money, demoralize and distract your best people, and don’t solve problems. They are people who borrow your watch to tell you what time it is and then walk off with it.

—ROBERT TOWNSEND, Up the Organization

Author’s Note

House of Lies is not a lie. I only wish that it were. Management consulting is a notoriously secretive industry, for reasons both good (protecting clients) and bad (avoiding blame)—and it is not without its vindictive revenge monkeys. So I have changed every name, disguised every client, and guarded sensitive information. That said, all of the people, companies, and horrors recounted in these pages are real and have been re-created to the best of my ability.

—M. K.

Prologue

My Story: Your Story: Her Story: History

I will not use that pronoun again. If you have ever been in group therapy, you will know why. “Own the feeling,” they say, and “Don’t say you.” Using you is a way to distance oneself from the first person—from oneself, in fact. After you have spent two years and more in consulting, that is exactly what you want to do.

So here you are, avoiding the truth. Every word that follows is the truth, by the way, though in the manner of good truth it will seem preposterous. You hope it seems preposterous, since that is much more entertaining than the alternative.

Now, let us start with a little story. This is not a Liar’s Poker for consulting; this is a little story about consulting. Think of it like that.

Here is the story: It starts in a meeting.

“One hundred thousand… one hundred ten…”

You are sitting across a table from two of the more powerful people—for the moment—in nonnetwork television.1 You know they are two of the more powerful people—for the moment—in nonnetwork television because, well, because they told you that they were. Plus, you have worked for them for more than two years now and have become used to that phenomenon known as the show-business ego. In truth, you have developed a bit of one yourself.

Which brings you to this conversation.

“One hundred fifteen… eighteen…”

You are sitting at Twenty-ninth Street and Broadway in Manhattan, close enough to Madison Square Garden to be afraid of it. Nine floors down, past the bubbling piranha-filled fish tank, the Internet porn empire on the eighth floor complete with working first-aid station, the sad-looking family watchmaking company with its superannuated helpmeets, the absent-present doorman and his wrestling magazines—nine floors down is a store with a block-letter sign saying: NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. DEALERS ONLY. This store sells the world’s cheapest tuxedo shirts and gaudy pimp costumes and socks and underwear. You are not a dealer. You shop there all the time.

One of the two more powerful people on Twenty-ninth Street looks up from his calculator. (He has been tapping for a while now.)

“One hundred nineteen… one-twenty…”

This is your boss, the man who hired you. He was two years behind you at Yale, yet he is much more famous, powerful, and outgoing than you. Let’s call him Nosering. His success does not really bother you, however, because he is a cable addict and a mess and has been fired from every job he has ever had. He has a kind of nasty habit of hitting on female superiors and then getting sued for harassment. And anyway, you really like him.

Next to him is his partner, Cereal Boy, so named because he appeared on a box of cereal as a kid (great smile, golden curls) and still looks as he did then.

Nosering looks up from his frantic calculations, gives a freighted nod to CB, then says, “We can offer you one-twenty… one-thirty… if you stay.”

What he appears to be saying—$125,000, on average, per year, plus the same benefits—would double your current salary as head writer on the program Nosering dreamed up two years ago in a methadone stupor: the program you and your staff of four have written since the beginning: the program that more than tripled the (admittedly pathetic) ratings of its predecessor and was called “beguiling” by the New York Times, “addictive” by the New York Post, and “snarky” by the New Yorker. It got you personally onto the Today show, which your mother watches, and she has treated you differently ever since.

You have no intention of staying. “What would that—what would I have to do?” you ask.

“Just what you’re doing now—”

“And,” adds Cereal Boy in his disconcertingly boyish voice, “you’d have to help out with Pop Quiz.”

“What’s that?”

Pop Quiz,” says Nosering, “is a show; this pilot we did, just got picked up by VH1. We have a one-season commitment from them.”

“Starting when?”

“Starting last week.”

“Do you have a staff? Have you hired anybody?”

“We’re trying to hire you.”

You are no math genius, but you’ve always been facile with numbers. So you calculate… one season, which is thirteen episodes, 22 minutes each, say 260 or so minutes of original material in maybe three months… something isn’t working here…

“How big is the budget? For writers?”

“Don’t worry about that,” says Cereal, who actually never seemed to like or appreciate you. (He went to Colgate.)

“What I’m saying is—would I have to do this show alone?”

“Uh, yeah. But you can do it.”

“What’s the concept?”

This is where Nosering really excels: the pitch. He jumps forward, feeling you slip away, knowing, in fact, you have already slipped. You slipped six months ago when you asked him to write you a recommendation for business school; you slipped when he did it. He lays out the concept with an enthusiasm for the truly mediocre that fills you with a kind of awe. His continuous torrent of hideous, unthinkable ideas—a show where nuns are hooked up to lie detector machines and asked if they’re attracted to pro wrestlers, a show where a real small town is filled with hidden cameras and a fake gang of terrorists pretends to take it over—is either pure genius or, perhaps, something else.

Nosering’s pitch doesn’t really make any sense: None of them do. His point is that, somehow, it will be easier to write Pop Quiz than it is to write your current show (which you will continue running, by the way). You know something he doesn’t. You know that he thinks Pop Quiz will be easier to write than your current show not because it will be easier to write than your current show, but because Nosering is like all powerful people in this industry in having very little firsthand knowledge of, and almost no respect for, writing.

You wait a moment, looking at the walls covered with eight-by-tens of pop culture icons from the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. T. Angie Dickinson. Flock of Seagulls. The Fix. Tattoo. Ed Asner. Pamela Sue Martin. They were not hung in irony. This is the late 1990s, and irony has been dead since 1991.2

Without irony, you say, “What you’re asking is impossible.”

“One hundred thirty, Marty,” says Nosering, already saying good-bye. “What else do you need?”

“If this were ten years ago, it’d be different. But now I’m”—here you state your age. “I want to go to business school.”

“But why?”

“I’m interested in business.”

“You can do business here. We do a lot of business. You can help Bob with the books.”

“I don’t want to be an accountant.”

“Do you even know,” asks Cereal with some belligerence, “what you want to do?”

You’ve thought of this, of course. You are getting way too old to be working for guys like this. You don’t take drugs, are married, live in Queens. You are tired of being broke, of working with kids who want to go to L.A. and think your show is stupid and beneath them, kids with no discernible talent whatsoever whose every single word has to be rewritten late, late at night and yet who somehow from the depths of their pot-fueled pea brains find a method to look down upon you.

You say, “I want to be a management consultant.”

Cereal looks like you stole his favorite bowl.

Nosering just exhales and stands.

“What the hell,” he asks, “is that?”

Part I

Top-Tier Management Consulting for Absolute Blithering Idiots

Part I opens the kimono with a hairy entrée into the global megaverse of top-tier management consulting, with these observations:

1. A bloodcurdling litany of betray ...

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