Business Consultants: The Good, Bad & Hilarious

This week saw the official launch of our partner program here at Cascade. We’ve been blown away by the number of business consultants we’ve met, who share our view that strategy is first and foremost about people.  The program allows consultants (from one-man bands to the big guys) to add our strategy execution suite to their services as a highly customized, white-label solution. It got me thinking about some of the best experiences I’ve had with business consultants – and some of the worst.

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Business consultants are part of a massive $250bn a year industry. Not only that, but it’s an industry that’s growing quickly – and one that is surprisingly resilient to economic downturns. Like any industry, there are tons of awesome people out there who can absolutely make the difference between success and failure for your company. And there are the minority who should really go back to their day jobs! For a bit of fun, I wanted to share with you a selection of my own experiences with business consultants – starting with a few shocking experiences, and finishing up with 3 amazing experiences that have given me a tremendous amount of respect for the industry.

The worst experiences I’ve had with business consultants:

1) “A little too much inspiration”

I once attended a full day strategic planning session hosted by a business consultant. The idea was that at the end of the day, we would come out with a brand new vision, mission and set of strategic objectives. As is often the case, the sessions centered around a series of PowerPoint slides that walked us through a planning framework the consultant had prepared. The problem was that every slide was pre-filled with the information of the last company that consultant had worked with! Now, I get it – these things can happen. But what made this really bad, was that the guy didn’t apologize for the error, but rather left the other company’s information on the slides to help ‘inspire us’.

Why it was so bad: Consultants are sometimes accused of over-using PowerPoint templates for all their clients, rather than preparing customized approaches to meet the needs of the situation. This played so much into this stereotype it hurt. Not to mention the issues of data confidentiality.

2) “The consultant and the ponzi scheme”

Years ago, my company hired consultants from one of the ‘Big 4’ to revamp our digital strategy. They were led by a partner, who spent 2 weeks in the business interviewing staff members and eventually presented a large transformation program back to the senior management team, which was hastily pushed into action. It was an expensive exercise, likely costing in the millions of dollars.

A couple of months after the program started, the partner who led the work was arrested for tax evasion and fraud (he was running what basically amounted to a ponzi scheme on the side of his main work as a consultant). Sufficed to say, the news took the steam away from the change program pretty quickly, and before long the whole exercise became the stuff of folklore and legend.

Why it was so bad: Even if the work was solid, the credibility of a consultant is paramount to their being effective. No-one wanted to attach their name to a program of work associated with someone who had so publicly fallen from grace.

3) “The mandate”

At a smaller company in which I worked, the CEO hired a business consultant to help us identify high-growth opportunities to expand into new markets. The guy they hired was charismatic and confident, and initially we were all really positive about the work and what it could do for the company. Then the calls started. 8am on a Saturday morning, the phone would ring. It was the consultant with an urgent question about one of our products. 9.30pm on a Friday night – he wanted to know my thoughts on our risk appetite. And it got worse. I’d be running a team meeting, only to have him barge in and start talking to me in front of the entire team about the list of urgent questions he’d compiled from our previous discussion.

Every time anyone challenged him on how pushy he was being, he would reply with the phrase: “Look, I have a mandate from the CEO to shake up this business, and that’s what I’m going to do.”. The phrase “I have a mandate…” become the in-joke of the year among the senior management team.

Why was it so bad: The biggest asset a consultant has when they come into a business is its people. They’re filled with knowledge, ideas, and insights that are critical to the success of the project. The moment you start to get a significant number of them offside through your actions, is the moment your project is doomed to fail.

The best experiences I’ve had with business consultants:

Ok, so those experiences were pretty ridiculous, and thankfully not at all representative of the vast majority of business consultants out there in the world. Let’s move on to looking at some of the best experiences I’ve had:

1) “The dog with a bone”

One of the best consultants I ever worked with was on a project to launch a new payment product into the Australian market. He was convinced that we had a huge opportunity to do something truly innovative and disruptive and came up with a new product idea that no-one had even seen before in banking. He presented it to the team, and the general reaction was…..mixed. Actually it was worse than mixed – it was almost entirely negative. People liked the idea, but they were convinced that we as a company didn’t have the resources to pull it off, so they asked him to go away and come up with a different solution.

But what he actually did was rather different. Instead, he went away and pulled together a detailed, 100+ page analysis of exactly why we did have the resources to pull this thing off. He’d done the numbers, spoken to suppliers and even done some basic market research, all on his own initiative, and all because he was passionate about the idea, and our ability to deliver. He was convinced that the only thing holding us back was fear. His second presentation was so persuasive, the team ended up agreeing to the product launch, and it went on to become one of the fastest growing payment products in Australia. Out of interest, I asked him whether he had in-fact put together any backup plans for if the team still didn’t want to go ahead. He winked at me, and to this day I don’t know whether he did or not.

Why was it so good: Business consultants are often faced with a dilemma – challenge the status quo and risk upsetting their employer and jeopardizing future work, or acquiesce to please the people who are paying their bills. Great business consultants have the strength of conviction to stand behind their ideas, and do what it takes to give their clients the best advice they can muster – even if that means going the extra mile, and taking some risks.

2) “The worrier”

We once worked with a consultant to help us to benchmark our bad debt (write-offs). We poured through reams of data together and she went away to compile a report full of insights and suggestions for changes we could make to our lending criteria and collections processes. It went well – but that’s not the impressive bit. 18 months later, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize. It was the consultant – and she’d just finished working with another client on a project similar to ours. She’d noticed something in the other client’s data that had her worried about one of the conclusions she’d formed for us nearly two years prior. They had a tranche of customers who were failing to pay back their loans at a rate far higher than expected, and she was worried that we might have the same group of customers on our books too.

When we investigated, we discovered that we had been targeted by a sophisticated fraud attack with a slow burn rate where the fraudsters would keep their accounts in good standing for years, build up their credit limits and then hit us for thousands of dollars each, all in one go. The worries of the consultant saved us millions of dollars – and she wasn’t even working for us at the time!

Why was it so good: Not only was she invested in our success beyond the scope of her assignment, but by using her unique position of working across different clients, she managed to save all of us money. And she did it in a way that breached no confidentiality agreements or trust. We hired her many more times over the next few years.

3) “The Angus MacGyver”

Good business consultants know when to say “I don’t know”. But the best business consultants don’t say that – they say “I don’t know, but I know someone who does”.

One of my earliest experiences of working with a business consultant, was in my first proper job after university. I was tasked with launching a new breed of payment cards called ‘Prepaid Cards’ at a bank in the UK. I was full of pride in my new job title, and my shiny new BlackBerry phone – but after a few weeks on the job, I started to feel more and more out of my depth. My boss knew this, and in a very respectful way, decided that he would bring on board a business consultant to help me ‘bed in’ for a few months. The lady that he hired was incredible.

We’d be sitting in a meeting room together, trying to figure out how to forecast the write-offs on a new breed of product that hardly anyone in the world had worked on before. Just as I was about to give up and start making guesstimates, she’d pull out her little black book and make a phone call. Minutes later, we’d somehow be speaking to an expert about the exact topic that we were struggling with. She’d met him at a conference. Or they’d worked together once. Or she knew her through a friend. No matter the problem, she had a connection who was not only an expert, but also willing to help us out at the drop of a hat. Those people must have had tremendous respect for her to have been willing to do that. And without her and them, I don’t think my career in banking would have gotten very far at all!

Why was it so good: It takes strength to admit that you don’t know something, especially when you’re the person to whom everyone is looking for answers. But good business consultants do just that. By calling on their network of trusted confidants, you end up feeling like you’ve hired an army of business consultants rather than just the one. That’s an awesome way to give the client a return on their investment.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the real-life examples above. If you’re a consultant, I’d love to hear from you to explore working together on merging our technology with your skills. And if you’re not a consultant, maybe some of the examples above have inspired you to hire one. Drop me a line – I know a few really good ones that I can put you in touch with 😉

Claim your FREE 14 day trial of Cascade

Cascade is the complete strategy execution platform and will help you to create your strategic plan and much more. Easy to use, incredibly powerful and trusted by some of the largest (and smallest) brands in the world. Pricing starts at $29 per month

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