In a spin-off of the Essential Skills series, we highlight key skills for consultants, which are shown and missed in movies.
Have you ever wondered how they pick the careers of movie characters?
It seems like there are so many real estate brokers, architects, reporters, writers, professors, librarians, and restaurateurs in movies. There aren’t as many people in middle management in the finance department, to use one example.
Management consultants, I believe, are particularly poorly represented in a film – except when the film is about consulting. Let’s review:
Consultants in the Movies
There are some fine portrayals of consultants in movies, even if not all of what you see is always entirely accurate.
Here are a few you might want to add to your Netflix queue:
#1 – “Desk Set” (1957) –
Spencer Tracy plays a consultant working with a television network to install a new knowledge management system. Katharine Hepburn plays the subject matter expert afraid that her entire department will lose its job because of the implementation.
While data conversion is convincingly portrayed, it seems that system testing was not sufficiently suitable material for the silver screen, and the system accidentally fires everybody in the network.
#2 – “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” (1987) –
Less about consulting and more about what it’s like to be a road warrior, this film stars Steve Martin and John Candy as executives trying to get home to Chicago before Thanksgiving.
This film captures an essential part of the business travel experience: That time when you’re stuck somewhere, and you really want someone to feel sorry for you, but there’s just nobody around who does.
#3 – “Up in the Air” (2009) –
George Clooney plays a consultant who specializes in handling corporate layoffs. He fills in his time with motivational speaking, extolling the virtues of a lifestyle unfettered by personal relationships or such complicating factors as a “home.”
This film hits two elements of old-time “Big Five” consulting firms right on the nose:
- First, there’s the difficult relationship of a consultant with his chosen career. While he prides himself on being detached and unbiased, he still feels that human touch is a key part of his job.
- Second, there’s such commitment to his job that he has no time for anything else, and the travel itself – represented by his airline miles – becomes his hobby.
#4 – “The Efficiency Expert” (1992; movie was called “Spotswood” in Australia on original release) –
Anthony Hopkins is the consultant sent to advise a hapless moccasin manufacturer on how to rescue a strategically dead business. Russell Crowe is a young up-and-comer who wants to become a consultant.
Hopkins learns that corporate culture can mean more than profit-and-loss and shareholder value. A touching scene includes his emergency participation in his client’s slot-car racing team, and how the tiny trophy he won from that means more to him than any other recognition he’s received.
#5 – “Office Space” (1999) –
Now, a film with a cult following of people who see their own work environment so accurately portrayed, this story centers around Ron Livingston’s character and his decision to become a terrible employee in revenge against his employer.
Consultants are unfortunately cast as the villains of the movie, as they convey the standard 1990’s threat of down-sizing.
Other than that, the film provides excellent examples of the need to improve leadership and company culture, hopefully before someone sets a fire which guts the entire office building.
Do the Movies Get the Essential Skills Right?
If there was a message to be drawn from this, I would look to the themes of these movies and how consulting is characterized in each of them.
How are the consultants portrayed? What mistakes do they make when it comes to some of their essential skills? My thoughts:
- Communication is critical, and the movies reveal (by their omission) an ignorance of the importance of organizational change management. In “Desk Set,” for example, the implementation is kept secret so as not to spook the employees.
- The value of collaboration and fitting into the client’s culture is stressed, most especially in “The Efficiency Expert,” where the consultant is shown learning from his clients. In the end, when Hopkins feels an attachment to his client, he pushes himself to find a strategic solution for his client despite the downsizing. That happens.
- Consultants are shown as being ambivalent about their jobs. Perhaps people in most jobs are, but consultants in several of these films are shown doubting themselves and their objectives, easily frazzled when they are confronted with the unexpected. That’s not accurate.
Spencer Tracy probably portrays the best model of consulting behavior: He is confident about his work and the benefits it will bring to the client. But he also acknowledges a problem and immediately (and calmly) gets to resolving it.
However, he does exploit a system malfunction to further his relationship with Katharine Hepburn, which is not behavior we’d advocate … but then again, it was only a movie!