House of Lies



Book Authors: Martin Kihn

Book Review by : S.S.George
Director, ICMR (IBS Center for Management Research)


top tier consulting firm, careers, higher performance bar, recruitment process, McKinsey, egalitarianism, McHarvard, industry

In House of Lies - How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time, Martin Kihn describes his experiences at a top tier consulting firm. While his book is not quite the exposť promised in the title, he does provide an interesting, and at times funny, take on the profession and on his fellow consultants - and one that is certainly different from popular perceptions.

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However, this is not to say that it is entirely bad - it is good in parts. For example, there is an inside look at the recruitment process at McKinsey, and descriptions of the consultants' obsessions with loyalty points. And the author's description of the dreaded team dinners, where the consultants on the same project gather to socialize, are quite funny. There are also insights into consultants' frugality with truth, and the resume padding in which they routinely indulge. Kihn also exposes the myth of the egalitarianism in knowledge work - the pecking order in a consulting firm seems more rigidly defined than even, say, in the military.

Kihn does not always appear to be mocking his profession. Sometimes, one gets a sneaking suspicion that he enjoys, and is even proud of, at least some of his work. A similar ambivalence can be detected in his attitude towards McKinsey & Co. Although he would like to put them down, he cannot help giving the impression that if McKinsey had made him an offer of employment, he would have jumped at the chance. In fact, he had interviewed with McKinsey for a job, but was not selected.

And finally, Kihn has his own take on why companies use consultants at all, even when everybody knows that the consultant knows next to zilch about the business, and is there only to take the money and run. According to him, consultants, like flashy corporate offices, are a luxury - and people who run businesses love such luxuries. Given the fact that most of the companies which can afford to engage a top-tier consulting firm are highly profitable cash generators, this seems to be as good an explanation as any, as to why someone should pay for advice he will not use. According to Kihn, the biggest problem he faced as consultant was not the bad food, or the constant travel and its attendant discomforts. It was not even having to answer the stock question ("What do you know about our industry?") asked by managers at the companies where his firm consulted. It was trying to explain to other people, including his mother and his brother, exactly what he did for a living.

One of the drawbacks of this book is that Kiln has not spent sufficient time as a consultant to have enough stories to fill an entire book. So, he is forced to digress often. He provides the 'shortest summaries' of the business classics, discusses the 'McHarvard' domination of the business world, and devotes several pages to the jargon used by consultants, some of which, for good measure, appear twice in the book. Perhaps, he would have had a better book had he written this book after a few more years - when he would have had more stories to relate, and possibly, the maturity to avoid occasional lapses into what appears to be a somewhat beardless cynicism. However, any fresh MBA looking to a career in consulting would do well to read this book. It would also be a useful read for people who routinely hire consultants.