Soon after I began teaching strategy at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, one of the MBAs came to me. The economic downturn in 2000 had left many students scrambling to find jobs. The student began by describing his work experience: he had served as a general manager in his family business and in another traditional company before deciding to pursue an MBA. The man, in his mid-20s, explained he was having a difficult time finding a job in either a management consulting firm or an investment bank.
My initial response was simple and reasonable, or so I thought. Given the fact that he was a superb general manager, why wasn’t he looking for a challenging job within an industrial firm that would suit his newly acquired Master of Business Administration degree?
The student smiled and indulged my naivety by replying that if he had wanted another job in industry, why would he have spent all that time and money to acquire an MBA? The MBA, after all, is the de facto qualification for an elite position in a professional service firm, and therefore, a job in general management was obviously a waste of his hard-earned degree. Like many Indians, he aspired to work for a global consulting firm such as Infosys (based in Bangalore), Tata Consultancy Services (based in Mumbai), or McKinsey (formerly led by Rajat Gupta, who was born in Kolkata).
I soon recognized how common this perspective is among business school students, and how their faculties persist in deluding themselves that their central purpose is to train MBAs to enter large industrial corporations.
In 1999, just before the expansion in management consulting briefly paused, cultural critic Nicholas Lemann mused in The New Yorker about “an extraordinary development” in history. He argued that society had decided “in effect, to devote its top academic talent to the project of streamlining the operations of big business”. Just as perplexing, in Lemann’s words, was the fact that “if the old disrepute of business in elite universities is now suddenly gone, then why shouldn’t young graduates just go all the way, and work in actual companies instead of consulting firms and investment banks?”
Lemann’s question cut to the heart of my exchange with the graduate student: Just how had it come to pass that nearly one-third of the top MBA graduates and one sixth of all elite undergraduates (whether at Oxford or Harvard) now begin their working lives as management consultants? What explained the remarkable dominance of the world’s newest profession?
One answer was pragmatism. Where law or accounting had once been the way that graduates who were uncertain of what to do next burnished their credentials, management consulting now fulfilled that reputational role. For those students who couldn’t decide what to do with their lives, but did not want to seem directionless, management consulting promised the credentialed path to future glory.
By the late 1990s, surveys showed that throughout the world, management consulting had become the top career choice for graduates, and that a position in McKinsey & Co. was considered the dream job. At the end of the 20th century, an entry-level position in a management consulting firm was not only a safe job to accept, after completing a university degree, but a partnership within one of the elite consultancies had become the preferred path for promotion to the very highest executive positions.
Implicit in this answer, however, is the question of how this group of quasi-professionals—generally less well understood than other business professionals such as lawyers, accountants and investment bankers—had come to command such prominence within such a short period. After all, less than 50 years ago, in 1962, the managing partners of the top management consulting firms felt it necessary to explain to the MBAs at the Harvard Business School just why they would want to join one such firm.
It was no coincidence that Marvin Bower, then the managing director of McKinsey & Co., described management consulting as “one of the newer professions” when he addressed the MBAs at Harvard in 1962. For Bower was a leading advocate of the ongoing professionalization of management consulting, and professional status was a constant topic of concern as consultants gained economic and cultural status. Yet, it never achieved full professional status during the 20th century, despite its influence in both the developed and developing economies.
The double entendre in the title, “the world’s newest profession”, plays off both the long-standing perception that consulting is an emerging profession and also the widespread public apprehension that the advice proffered by consultants constitutes little more than corporate pandering. Both elements, as I argued in my book on the growth of consulting, were long-standing concerns in the evolution of management consulting firms and in consultants’ continuing quest for both autonomy and respect. As long as both insiders and outsiders to consulting continued to accept that the profession was still young, management consultants could dismiss any perceived ethical failings as symptomatic of the profession’s adolescence.
Yet, no credible observer can honestly claim that management consulting still constitutes a young profession. After all, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., which Chicago native Edwin Booz founded in 1914, is now older than the corporate giants Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Google combined. While the global market for consultants has expanded at a double-digit pace over the past two decades, those pounds (and dollars) have been added to a mature frame, not an adolescent skeleton.
The recent scandals in corporate governance, the relative stability of the leading consulting firms, and the renewed emphasis on personal accountability, all suggest that a focus on professional values, and the “old-fashioned” goal of full professional status, may still transform management consulting. All cynicism aside, management consulting may finally become the “world’s newest profession”, but first, consultants will have to accept responsibility for the economic system that they have worked so hard to create during their extraordinary rise to power.
Christopher McKenna, author of the prize-winning book, The World’s Newest Profession, is university lecturer in strategy at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
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