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The people who really control the world

George Clooney as a consultant in Up in the Air (2009)

Conspiracy theorists “looking for the lizard people who control the world” should turn their attention to management consultants, says Adrian Wooldridge in Bloomberg. These “strange creatures” who live on aeroplanes and speak an “alien” language – “proactive outplacement” and “cascading incentives”, anyone? – inhabit an industry that some estimates value at more than $900bn globally. Proponents say consultancies spread the best management practices by studying companies around the world; detractors say they are vampires that suck the lifeblood out of client firms to keep them dependent on their services.

McKinsey, one of the industry’s big beasts, has often found itself in “tawdry episodes”: it turned Enron “into a laboratory for its ideas” before the energy giant collapsed in bankruptcy; it recommended ways for Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma to “turbocharge” sales of deadly opioids. It also suffers from “absurd” cognitive dissonance, producing “breathless” papers on climate change and diversity while at the same time working for some of the world’s “most corrupt and vicious governments”. McKinsey once held a party to celebrate the wonders of “connecting together” in China’s Xinjiang Province, only four miles “from a detention camp crammed full of Uighur dissidents”. The firm should revisit the advice of Martin Bower, its most influential leader. “It’s never worth sacrificing your integrity in order to fatten your wallet,” he said, “because, in the long term, integrity is the only thing that you have to sell.”