Consultants who show flair

Running English Heritage is one of the trickier jobs in the quangocrat's universe.

by Matthew Gwyther, MT editor
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Management consultants have not enjoyed a good press down the years.

Their popular image is fixed in a deadly triangle somewhere between a squadron of dodgy double-glazing salesmen, a longship of marauding Vikings and MBA-equipped peddlers of the Emperor's New Clothes. Press coverage, when it occurs, usually centres on the colossal amount of money they charge for advice that any managers worth their salt ought to have been fully conversant with in the first place. If ever a film were to be made about consultants, its title would have to be Natural Born Billers.

The consultancy industry does little to address its terrible image problem: it just takes the flak and flies on - Business Class, naturally. One of the principal causes of this is that many of its number won't or can't talk in detail about the work they do. The highly confidential nature of many projects means that clients are often reluctant to go public because it would give away competitive advantage (or disadvantage) to rivals.

This is a shame, because consultancies are filled with many extremely able and quick-witted individuals. But their collective silence leads to another popular misconception about consultants; namely, that 'those who can, do; those who can't, consult'. This suggests that they have no entrepreneurial flair; that they have no desire or courage actually to go out and practise what they preach by running businesses themselves.

Well, that is not true. Our cover feature this month tells the stories of a handful of consultants who have broken free, crossed the line and gone into business on their own.

I'd be fascinated to see what Bain or McKinsey would make of English Heritage if they were offered a seven-figure sum to run their slide-rules over its workings. We Brits trade heavily on our past and running the organisation to which a large slice of the nation's old stuff or 'historic environment' is entrusted is one of the trickier jobs in the quangocrat's universe. The present holder of this ornate poisoned chalice is the highly organised Simon Thurley, profiled by MT this month.

People always assume that Thurley runs the National Trust, which takes on buildings with nice rich endowments - 'We take sites that are economically and financially stuffed. We are the social security system of heritage,' he protests. But his far bigger problem is that EH has three different government masters to which it must answer, and the New Labour administration is for ever nagging about inclusion. Just try selling the Art Deco splendours of Eltham Palace to a load of 14-year-olds from Tottenham or keeping the militant druids happy at Stonehenge each summer solstice.

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