Management consultants come in for a lot of stick, varying from the jocular 'A consultant is someone who borrows your watch to tell you the time' to rather more pointed assaults. An altogether more interesting charge is that if they were any good, consultants would be out starting businesses themselves: 'those who can, do; those who can't, consult'. But do the qualities that make a good consultant make a good business creator?
'Advising people is very different from making things happen,' says Adrian Atkinson, founder of business psychologist Human Factors International. He divides money-makers into four groups: technical/professional, corporate, enterprisers and entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs, he says, are usually lone players, the kind of people who get out there and do it, and often are not particularly well educated – in other words, not a bit like most consultants.What's more, he says, consultants may be able to write a great business plan, but that represents only about 5% of what running a business is about. 'We coach McKinsey and Accenture consultants, and very few of them could run their own business – they just don't have that entrepreneurial flair. They're good on corporations and harnessing the power of the organisation. A much more natural route for them would be to go in to a large business.'
John Bates, professor of entrepreneurship at London Business School, takes a broadly similar view: 'Consultants can look at an awful lot of opportunities and do good analysis on opportunities – it's a great helicopter position to be in and I never discourage my students from becoming consultants.'But, he warns, life on the ground is differ- ent from life in the helicopter: entrepreneurial life is very uncertain, and consultancy can engender arrogance. 'Consultants like to come up with theories and try to fit the world around them, but they don't like it when the market turns round and says "your theory sucks".'
It's not just the mindset either: it's running a company in a practical and social sense too. Let's say you go from a strategy consultancy to running a tool-hire business: you will not be working with the best and brightest of your generation any more. Says Andrew Wileman, a consultant and former MT columnist: 'Often you're dealing with people who are not as interesting and are not of the same intellectual calibre – you have to be interested in managing them and getting the best out of them.'