Each year, thousands of the country's most promising future professionals graduate with M.B.A.s and clamor for positions at élite consulting firms. They could do much better things with their time, argues Matthew Stewart, and, as a former consultant, he should know. After earning a Ph.D. in German philosophy, Stewart stumbled into the consulting field and spent eight years as a high-priced business expert even helping to found a consulting firm before becoming disillusioned with the industry. He chronicles his corporate misadventures in a new book, The Management Myth, and explained to TIME why the philosophers of yesterday offer better business advice than anyone wearing a suit.
You earned a doctorate in 19th century German philosophy and had no business experience beyond fast-food work. How in the world did you end up as a consultant?
It was all pretty much an accident. I fired off a few letters, and had the luck of finding a partner with strange ideas about who to hire. I didn't think it was very plausible, but I needed a job.
The way consulting firms work, young graduates with little experience give advice to executives about running their business. Is it not obvious that these consultants often don't know very much?
Most people in the business world know there's a lot of phony expertise floating around. Most of it you can explain on anthropological rather than technical grounds: we have a very complex economy that requires management, and management needs legitimacy. It does this through credentials and so-called expertise, and creates a whole class of people who are accountable only to themselves. For me the problem is the idea there's a general field of management that applies across all different kinds of businesses. That's what I think is all baloney.
All this in a field that prides itself on being lean and empirical.
If you look at the way we lived as consultants, the last thing we were was lean. As far as empirical, we were so far from anything you could call science it was hilarious. The shocking thing is not that we have people with business degrees, it's that we have so many we have 140,000 M.B.A.s coming out every year. Why not have 20,000, the way we did 40 years ago?
You were working on the road for months at a time, and basically every interaction you had was related to your job. That sounds miserable.
It's very miserable. There were about two years when I literally paid no rent anywhere in the world. Everyone's a contact, but there's no real human interaction. That's a very wearying thing.
So why did you keep at it for eight years? Did you just need the job?
In the first years it was a great learning experience. I felt like what we were doing was not intrinsically bad, though we were charging too much. Over time I started to feel a lot worse about it. I really wanted to get out, but I had invested so much in the [new consulting firm]. It was a tricky and morally ambivalent thing, especially toward the end.
You say authors like Rousseau and Shakespeare offer better management lessons than most management consultants today. Why is it more valuable to study philosophy than business?
Most management systems have to do with establishing trust and getting people to cooperate. They're not really about expertise or science. Look at Rousseau all his writing is about how to build a social contract and a foundation for trust, for integrity, for ethics. When I have managerial issues I think more about Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke than I do about [management writer] Michael Porter or someone like that.
You don't have a lot of kind words for the management gurus lining bookshelves at airports.
The whole shtick these gurus offer is fundamentally religion, not some kind of expertise. Take [Good to Great] author Jim Collins. His entire language is about how a company can transcend its limitations, and how a company or an individual can be motivated to succeed. My complaint is there are better, more eloquent, more far-seeing humanists.
How does this relate to the economic collapse we've been living through? Was it a result of some of these excesses?
I wouldn't pretend it all boils down to the fact there are a lot of M.B.A.s running around. But I think it's reasonable to suggest all this phony expertise and credentials were a layer of fat or parasitism on top of the overall economy. Some of these people learned how to extract profits at the expense of the system as a whole.
How would you describe your consulting colleagues? Somewhat different from your philosophy classmates, I would guess.
Businesspeople get a little bit of bad press, sometimes. There are a lot of normal and ethical people. But at the tip of the profession, the people who make it to a high level in élite consulting firms are, on the whole, nutty. They are driven beyond what is healthy and, at some level, quite unbalanced. At the firm I helped to found they went out and hired a group of psychotherapists. What other occupation would think it natural to spend half a million dollars a year on in-house psychotherapists?