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Lessons from Big Five Consulting

I have worked for a global professional services practice where I was a partner and where I was consulting for large and medium sized businesses. After being in that firm for five years I became very disenchanted with what big consulting did for its clients.

Now, I recognise that there are specific experts that you need in specific situations and there will always be a role for those.   But what we were doing in Business Consulting was often doing things the business should have done itself.  We were going to senior leaders in a business and saying ‘you can’t do this yourself’ and ‘we will do it for you’.  It might have been dressed up as ‘we will do it with you’ but we were hollowing out capability they needed on an ongoing basis and ‘doing it to them’.

True too for SME Consulting?

I think this can be true for individual consultants operating in the small and medium sized business market.  These businesses need capability and independent consultants certainly have capability that they can offer.  I believe the way that those consultants operate does not suit their clients and actually does not suit the consultants themselves.

The Problem for Clients

Let us start with the client.   A consultant comes to you and says ‘you have a problem: I am going to help you understand your problem; I am going to help you understand the solution and then you are going to implement that solution.’ Alternatively they will implement the solution for you.   The underlying mental model is that something is broken and it will be fixed.   However, for most clients, they are not in a ‘something is broken; it must be fixed’ situation. Rather they have a core capability in their business that is insufficiently mature to meet their ongoing needs to grow and build the business.

So, let me give you a concrete example: I need to recruit staff, so I go to a consultant and they agree to help recruit staff as I have a problem in recruitment. Now for most businesses, I am always going to need to have a capability to recruit staff and ultimately my business needs to understand how to recruit staff. We need to have a capability to recruit staff. We cannot rely on ad hoc consultants going out and finding staff.  Yes, we may need to do an executive search for a particular type of individual and, yes we may use an executive search agency in that instance.  But my ongoing capability to recruit staff is a core capability for growing my business.

Or think about something else, let us say, marketing. My business has a need to grow my presence in the market. I engage an external market consultant who says what I need is a better website, or better social media or more search engine optimisation, or more prestigious events.   Whatever their particular offer is.They are characterising my business as having a problem that needs to be fixed, but the reality is that we need to have a more effective marketing function, to build up our capability to do marketing. This is not just a one-time fix. We need to build ongoing core capability for the business which will grow, develop and mature over time.

So, I do not think that this is working for the client.

Reframing the Relationship

I believe that for most independent consultants and for most small and medium sized businesses it is much better to reframe the relationship as that of a part-time executive who is a member of their management team on an ongoing basis.

The relationship moves from a ‘problem, fix it’ mindset to a ‘capability development’ mindset.  The part-time or portfolio executive commits to getting the right things done and getting those things done right.


portfolio sustainable independence career future focus change opportunity network relationship

If you are a consultant – wake up! Go and become a portfolio executive.

If you are a client – wake up! Do not see your world as problems that need to be fixed but as capability that needs to be developed.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.