Brett Graham: Pick doing, not consulting

Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 6:16pm

As a senior, sometimes it seems like talking about plans has become as mundane as talking about the weather. The question “Remind me, what are you thinking of doing after graduation?” with all its monumentally stressful implications, seems to weasel its way into conversations on a near-daily basis. To this point, one response has made me furrow my brow every time: “Consulting.”

Based purely on specs, its appeal is understandable. According to best estimates, the industry’s profits totaled over $71 billion in 2016, with projections promising even more growth this year. In terms of experience gained, salaries for recent graduates, job security and esteem, few other industries can compete. But work of this sort in one’s 20s or 30s is the ultimate case of putting the cart before the horse. In the end, its rise is taking some of the most talented young minds graduating from this university and others away from making actual change in the world.

First and foremost, the idea that the thousands of young people who enter this industry each year are all experts in business, politics, public health, finance, strategy or management is far-fetched, verging on absurd. Platitudes aside, the difference in educational value between the classroom and the real world is substantial. Of course, they have something to contribute after four years of learning, but why would a client pay for advice from someone with absolutely no practical experience? Where do newly minted graduates fit into a field centered on connecting experts with companies and campaigns in need? The senior members of these firms did not become experts from years as junior researchers — they did so by doing first and then finding a platform to share their knowledge. Trial and error, not apprenticeships.

Some of the country’s best and brightest choose, oddly enough, not to set themselves up to start a business or run a campaign of their own, but to help someone else make change in the world. And why not? It’s not as though each of them lacks a potential million-dollar venture they toss around in the back of their minds as they fall asleep, a cause they’d like to champion or lend their voice to. 

Instead, it can be ascribed to the sense of security that accompanies continued achievement. Success is much easier to process when it is measured by “U.S. News and World Report,” or when you know that McKinsey, Bain, BCG and Deloitte will look phenomenal on a résumé and that your tenure there will be the envy of friends and relatives. Some have said these groups, nearly all of which began their consulting in the 1970s and have experienced a meteoric rise from there, have succeeded in branding “themselves as a kind of Ivy League of adulthood.”

What no one has been able to explain to me to this point is what is all that exciting about consulting. Granted, there’s the opportunity to learn from an array of clients, and there is value in variety. But when thousands of companies are all going to the same five or 10 firms to inform their decisions, that must eventually preclude variety. Not long ago, the chief executives of Boeing, General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, Morgan Stanley and PepsiCo were all alumni of the same three firms. It is a structure that seems reminiscent of the type of home improvement shows one might see on HGTV: a cookie-cutter formula for change, but instead of open floor plans, wood finishes and rustic accents, it has to do with networking, PowerPoints and social media strategies. Ultimately, the final products look decently similar to one another.

So why not come up with a product that’s entirely your own while you’re young and have the chance to make mistakes? My guess is that in five, 10, 20 years, as these minds are moving into nicer offices and starting families, these bright, young professionals will be significantly less likely to leave their world and take risks. Furthermore, if you are the type of person who honestly sees themselves with a career in consulting and nothing else, isn’t the more beneficial experience out there in the world? You might not settle down at McKinsey before you’re 30, but by the time you do, you won’t be starting at entry level.

Meanwhile, the true innovators, the names that people will remember as the titans of their industries in the 21st century — Jobs, Gates, Buffett, Zuckerberg — have no experience in, and often distaste for, the world of consulting. In fact, Warren Buffett, the second-wealthiest man in the world, railed against the profession just a few months ago. At a shareholders’ meeting, the 84-year-old made a joke about the fact that "If the board hires a compensation consultant after I (die), I will come back — mad."

Make no mistake. Consulting work is an excellent career choice by almost every metric. Taking one of those jobs is not mutually exclusive with doing good in the world. But it’s not a job for a recent graduate — it’s a job for an old veteran. We should think about whether some of our best minds are being lured away from the real high-risk, high-reward work of truly changing the world around us by steadier salaries and the guarantee of prestige. Doing will never be as easy a path as consulting, and students who have huge potential should take this as a welcome challenge rather than something to shy away from.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.