The organizations of the future are changing — so why aren’t management consultancies following suit?

Why Consulting is Broken — and Four Ways to Fix It

Natalya Sverjensky
Feb 10, 2016 · 6 min read

The organizations designed for growth in the 20th century excelled in efficiency and hierarchy. It’s increasingly clear that the organizations succeeding in this century will be different in pretty much every way. From structure and decision-making, to skillsets and how value is created, the organizations of the future are changing because the world is changing — and it is changing fast.

So why aren’t most management consultancies following suit? After all, it is their job to help companies thrive in a changing world, or at least survive. You’d think one of the best ways to do this would be to change their own organizations first.

The reality is, just as today’s large managerial organizations are no longer fit for purpose, neither are most of the major consultancies. The key is in the word ‘management’. We don’t need more management. We need leadership. The traditional model of consulting just won’t cut it anymore given the complex problems companies are facing that demand leadership — from climate change to the reality that the global financial system is probably broken, to the dark side of technological change, and of course, black swans.

We need a new kind of consultancy. And it has to be about more than smart answers to tough problems — it has to be grounded in the empathy to help the leaders who run organizations in this VUCA world.

I believe at the heart of this new way of consulting is a key question:

How can we empower leaders to build cultures that are made to last?

I joined Within People as a partner last year because it was founded with this question in mind. Here are four features of the way we work that I think are worth sharing. They won’t solve all the problems with the current management consulting model — but I believe they’re a start.

1. Start with purpose

We’re all searching for meaning in our lives, and purpose is a way of bringing it — personally and professionally. As the old adage goes, having a strong sense of purpose is the difference between laying the stone and building the cathedral. That’s why it is an enduring reason for the people who work for you to get out of bed every day. Just try hiring a Millennial without it.

Purpose is more than a nicely copywritten tagline for your brand. It is the anchor for every decision an organization will ever make. And increasingly, the world’s CEOs agree. So why do so many consultancies treat it as a fluffy communications exercise? Or worse, ignore it entirely?

Within’s purpose is to help people find purpose and grow. Purpose is a fundamental starting point that builds the conditions for growth. Every organization I’ve worked with or for has needed purpose, whether it is a start-up, a multinational or a nonprofit.

The new consultancy takes purpose seriously — to guide the organization itself, and to help guide its clients.

2. Walk the talk

Consultancies are great at what they call ‘thought leadership’. Reports on new business models, innovation, governance and leadership are a dime a dozen. But how many of the consultancies that write them are actually following their own advice? And if they aren’t, why should any of us believe what they say?

The truth is, the only way to be a truly authentic consultancy is to practice what you preach. Your business model must reflect the change you are trying to help your clients understand and embed in their own organizations.

Within’s vision is one of the reasons I joined. It is to make the Within Way the blueprint for 21st century business. This is a big ambition. But I believe it is the only kind of vision worth having if we want to make a lasting impact for and through our clients. I can’t expect the leaders I work with to take the risk of creating a new way of doing business if my own company does not follow suit.

3. Help people to help themselves

Consultants are smart (for the most part). The core skillset of a consultant has traditionally been in quickly grasping the context of any problem and solving for it. But it’s all too easy for a group of consultants to come up with the perfect solution on paper in an afternoon. That’s an expensive PowerPoint that looks great on the shelf — and tends to stay there.

Funnily enough, the consultants seem to stay there too. McKinsey is probably the most infamous in brazenly leveraging staying power as their business model. Once McKinsey walks through the door, they’re known to stick around for years, even decades. One of the reasons is because McKinsey’s approach is designed to solve problems on the client’s behalf. The side effect is that the clients never seem to build the skills to fix issues themselves. (Note that McKinsey is far from the only management consultancy that does this).

The real work in the new model of consultancy is in supporting organizations to embed change for the long term — in other words, helping people to help themselves. This requires a different kind of skillset to smart problem-solving. Let me be clear, it is also not change management.

The new skillset is grounded in coaching. Listening, asking the right questions, and managing people’s energy so they can stay focused on what matters most. Ironically Peter Drucker, the inventor of consultancy, understood this very well.

When I work with leaders this way I can see it builds their confidence in change — giving them the experience to tackle perceived barriers to growth. And it is logical that when people grow, organizations will grow too.

4. Experiment — yes, actually take risks

Plenty of successful investors, leaders and entrepreneurs write about the importance of failure. There’s even a conference in Silicon Valley dedicated to it (of course). But few people, particularly those in large managerial organizations, are willing to take on the risk of failure. The status quo, and the inertia attached to it, is hard to overcome. Yet we all know that at the current churn rate, 75% of the companies currently on the S&P 500 will disappear by 2027.

That’s why every one of the Fortune 500 and FTSE100 companies I have ever consulted has shared the same ambition — to become more dynamic, nimble and adaptive to change, like the start-ups they admire and fear in equal measure.

Unfortunately, the major consultancies tend to suffer from the same problem. Innovation tends to happen incrementally, and failure is considered an embarrassment to hide from clients. I have seen it happen over and over again. Yet how can a consultancy help its clients embrace risks if they aren’t willing to take any themselves?

At Within I am part of a tough series of conversations about how ownership of the business will be structured. It can be painful at times. But I believe it is worth it to try to find the approach that helps us live up to our purpose and fits with our values — even if it fails. I know that if we went with the traditional approach, I could lose the credibility to inspire my clients to experiment with an essential lever for leading with purpose.

We can only expect one outcome from consultancies that continue their traditional focus on management — more of the status quo. My hope is that consultancies become fit for purpose in this changing world — and empower more leaders to build cultures that are truly made to last.

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Want to know more about Within People? Find us on You can also us reach out to me by email via I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments and questions if you’re in the consulting world (or have been on the other side of the table)!

Within People

Stories of purposeful business cultures, leadership and growth

Natalya Sverjensky

Written by

Helping leaders grow cultures that are built to last. Partner @WithinPeople and Director of our US business in New York.

Within People

Stories of purposeful business cultures, leadership and growth

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