Leadership, Democracy, Control

Leadership, Democracy, Control

There is stirring in the corridors of every consultancy, all the advisories and each individual boardroom on the peremptory dismissal from office of Kevin Sneder, the man who for the last four years has headed McKinsey, perhaps the most universally acknowledged and widely known business of its kind in the world. In the 1960s McKinsey’s London office guided me through the business of company planning with a light but firm hand. McKinsey’s success has been a world phenomenon. Members of my family started their working life in McKinsey.

Most of us have something to thank McKinsey for. Sometimes it is lifting our eyes above the horizon to take a more strategic view of business and to risk forecasts for the future. Occasionally it is to bore down into data and learn more about our business than we dreamt possible. Either way McKinsey and fellow consultancies increasingly help businesses mitigate the bias of personal management, and correct – insofar as it is possible – for exigencies of luck and pestilence.

The difficulty for worldwide consultancies – and super-big banks and outsize insurance companies – is that they more or less inevitably become franchises, like Starbucks or Pizza Hut, when they ought to remain under strong head office control, like Waitrose. Franchising food and beverage operations requires attention to detail and the very strictest of disciplines. The family fish and chip shop may operate on the skill of one or two members who “know” when the fish is off, “sense” when the oil needs refreshing. You will only be able to run a chain of entrepreneurs like that when your staff selection and monitoring can tell you a great deal more – and minute by minute – than today’s primitive processes.

“Experience – it lends precision to the craftsman’s tool, and confidence; but leaves a fool, a fool.”

It behoves everyone to remember this nifty definition every time they read a Curriculum Vitae.

Head office control is not helpful even for who gets the best carpark lot. It is useless if the demand for the limited braintime is seriously exceeded. Then it becomes a competition by the franchisees to get the most for their buck – not dangerous up to a point, not very dangerous in the F&B business but fatal if it means the PNG franchisee is the last to get thinking and brain service, Indeed, he might even be the one who needs it most urgently.

So big gets bigger – as measured by turnover and profits. Some managements seem to be obsessed with ‘big’. From an initial competence rating where skill mattered more than size, a famous beauty ad, maybe five or six decades ago, got us all thinking that ‘size matters’. Its sexual undertones imprinted its message on the heart of, well, everyone, I think. It is one of the things we are going to have to get over if we want our great grandchildren to enjoy a life on this planet. Quality is what matters, regardless of size.

So what does a conglomerate, franchising business like McKinsey have to offer. Top salaries get top people and some of the world’s best business brains perform a passage of rite through McKinsey. Enormous data collection allows algorithmic analysis of the minutiae of shift in habit or perception. When analysed, such data is at the mercy of over-simplification unless there are highly intelligent people around to interpret what is still not completely grasped by our limited language and crude understanding of the human mind.

“98% of people die in bed; therefore bed is a dangerous place.”

I always recite this rifle-range warning before I conclude what some data mean.

Do I have an answer to the complexities of growing consultancies. If I did they would have got there long ago. But perhaps I do have a clue they might like to consider. The world is recognising the advantages of what used to be called the apprenticeship system. Today it is called mentoring, coaching and training. It works differently for people than the apprentices schemes did. Then you were more or less attached to your master. What we’ve learnt from Covid is that attachment is largely – though not totally – a figment of the imagination. Zoom has opened our eyes. You can now connect with anyone who is willing to connect with you and in sufficiently close enough ways to learn and for them to teach.

I do it all the time. If I were to give acknowledgement to all the people who have helped and still do help me with my thinking about mentor-coaching it would fill three pages. The top McKinsey consultants could become mentor-coaches for their most complex clients and make just as much money as they do now. Much the same is true of directors of a big business. Strange that it doesn’t occur to them all that the fundamentals of teaching are for the top people, not to be shuffled off to people who can be – historically and wickedly- paid less.

What we do with our time is for us to decide.

As long as it’s for the good of others.