After many years of hearing my friends discuss the wisdom and comedy of House of Lies, I finally took it upon myself to start watching this series. (You can catch the first three seasons on Amazon Prime.)
This show centers around a group of consultants who work in management consulting. Don Cheadle plays Marty Kaan, a divorced, egocentric rock star at the top of the industry. He cares very little about his clients and, instead, looks at them as never ending cash cows to be milked for every penny. He can’t commit to relationships and he often treats his team like crap. His right-hand woman is Jeannie Van Der Hooven (Kristen Bell), whom he trusts implicitly over all other reports.
The TV series is produced by Showtime and is still in its production run, currently season 5. Although the show displays very extreme themes in consulting (greed, manipulation, and control), these stereotypes are based on some truth. In this post I’m going to break down the consulting themes represented in the first episode of the show and compare and contrast them to a version of consulting real life.
One disclaimer – although I am a consultant, I don’t work in management consulting. There is overlap between the type of consulting I do and management consulting…but the road diverges.
Theme #1: Pay Grade
In the very first episode, Marty Kaan mentions that management consulting pays “7 figures a year”. In my line of consulting, this is absolutely not true (not even close). We are in the “6 figures a year” range, and there are some wide salary bands depending on who you work for, the position you hold, and what your bonus/commission looks like. It’s possible that pure management consultants get paid in the 7 figure range – I don’t have knowledge on this.
Theme #2: Travel
In many of the episodes, travel is a backdrop to the scene. As the team’s home base is on the west coast, you see them sometimes flying as far as the east coast. Travel is an essential part of the consulting lifestyle. It might be weekly, it might be cross country or international, and it might consist of multiple trips in a single week. This is one of the harsh realities of this lifestyle. The term “road warrior” (someone who travels a lot) exists for a reason.
It also seems like the team wakes from their travel looking and feeling as fresh as they started. <insert laughter> Travel is taxing and there have been extensive studies on the effects of lack of sleep, time zone changes, and jet lag on the human body. Most folks are adversely effected by travel.
Theme #3: Workaholics
A common theme throughout the series is Marty’s shortcomings as a father due to his workaholic nature. Constantly on the road, he often misses his son’s major events and relies on his own father to help with family matters. Later in the series you see a pattern emerge where: Marty promises his son that he’ll “be there”, Marty breaks the promise, then Marty compensates by doing something extravagant or profusely apologizing.
Marty’s not the only consultant who’s a workaholic. Jeannie discusses a desire to have a baby, but only after she makes partner. The TV show does a good job of representing one of the darker sides of consulting, and workaholicism is a reality. Why would this be? A good number of consultants are workaholics to make money. However, I have met folks who aren’t just in it for the money – they genuinely enjoy what they do. It’s just so easy to turn into a workaholic in this type of industry. I have seen people on all sides of the spectrum here.
The industry that I work in has made a shift toward better work/life balance in the past few years. Consulting firms know that this is a hard life, and I have seen several of them make an effort to work with clients to allow for more scheduling flexibility and less travel. The war that’s being waged is tipping in favor of balance, but it will take more years to even the scales.
Theme #4: Psychological Games with Clients
In the first episode, Marty makes a remark about disregarding what the client wants. He states “consulting is like dissing a really pretty girl so that she’ll want you.” This is then further illustrated by several other pieces of “Management Consulting 101” advice:
- “Flatter the client” – Marty uses this technique when first starting his sales pitch with a client. The tactic here is twofold: one, to play to a client’s ego and two, to offset bad news by starting with good news. Regardless, it starts the conversation on the right foot. This technique is used quite often and it is a common tactic of sales teams and project management.
- “Ask them what they think” – Marty then spins the sales pitch from flattery to client self-reflection. Yes, this tactic is also used quite often, but it’s also known as “listening”.
- “Use indecipherable jargon” – when Marty doesn’t get a response to his above question, he then uses a bunch of buzz words and important sounding, irrelevant phrases. The tactic here is to gain the upper hand by confusing the client with a demonstration of supposed superiority of knowledge. I have seen this done before, but very rarely. It sometimes works.
- “Data dumps” – This is described as “the actual information, the numbers, the dirt”. This is a term that’s not used in this way in the industry that I work in. In the TV series, Marty’s team uses “data dumps” with the intent to use them as leverage against clients. They pull up the dirt on clients and then manipulate the client’s actions through blackmail. I can proudly say that I can’t think of any similar concept in the type of consulting I do.
Theme #5: Taking Advantage of the Client
Throughout the series there’s a common theme of taking advantage of the client. Some examples:
- Charging exhorbant expenses – later in the episode Marty tells his team that it’s time to go to “see if we can find some $1,000 sushi joint that we can bill these a******* for.” I don’t know of a single client that has an unlimited expense account for consultants. This might have been believable in the 80’s and 90’s, but not in today’s world.
- Charging inappropriate expenses – instead of going out for sushi, the team ends up at a strip club. There, excess amounts of alcohol and “other” activities are indulged in. Jeannie asks the question if they’re going to bill the client for this and the non-response clearly indicates that they will. Again, maybe back in the golden age of consulting, this type of expense would get charged through and not frowned upon. In today’s world, detailed expense receipts are required. Most clients don’t allow for “recreational activities” or alcohol anymore.
- Excessively lying – at one point in the episode, Marty pretends that the date from the strip club that he hooks up with is his spouse. He introduces her to the client as his wife and later attends a dinner with the same client where they continue to play out this masquerade. Lying does occur sometimes and the range is broad. In the most extreme cases that I’ve been witness to, consultants have lied about their expenses (one even altered his expense receipts to make a profit), where they were (saying they were working when they weren’t – over billing), and whether or not they were drinking on the job.
Theme #6: Excessive drinking and partying
At one point in the episode, Marty stays out partying all night and shows up in the same clothes that he wore the day before. Yes, this does happen. And with all ages and all types of consultants. On three occasions I’ve seen consultants show up in the clothes they wore the day before (and they weren’t even embarassed about it, but proud). Not everyone partakes in this type of behavior. In addition, it doesn’t happen frequently. More than likely, these types of expenses are not charged to the client – it depends on the situation and the client expense policy.
Theme #7: “Afterwork”
Afterwork is described as “the goal of all consulting…they [clients] hire you week in and week out…millions and millions of billable hours…this is what we want.” This can be true. The primary way to make money in consulting is to bill time. So of course a consulting firm will want to bill out their consultants. However, the idea that a consulting firm wants to latch onto a client forever – stringing them along and creating a co-dependency – is not a firmly held believe by all consulting firms. Some firms truly want to help clients through the projected roadmap and then help them become self-sufficient. Based on discussions I’ve had with various CEO’s of consulting firms, this depends on the executive team’s view of the marketplace. How big is the pie? Is it an ever growing pie? A CEO who believes that the pie is finite will tend to latch onto clients and not let go. A CEO who believes that the pie is growing might take the latter approach.
Theme #8: “Canceled Out”
This is described as “when consultants are fired. It’s not good.” Although the term is not one that I’ve personally heard of, the concept behind it is absolutely true. Much of consulting is based on reputation – if you get fired from projects you carry that stain on your reputation. One tactic I’ve seen firms use when they have too many bad projects is rebranding and renaming. Reputations are tied to names. If you change that name then you can change the reputation.
It should be noted that every consulting firm that’s been around for awhile has been canceled out at least once. Sometimes the project work and/or people are just not a good fit.
Theme #9: Infidelity
Yes, this happens. I have no data on whether or not this happens more or less frequently than other career choices, but it does happen. About a third of my friends in this line of work have been divorced at least once. Frequently being on the road is a hard life and it can cause severe disruptions in a marriage.
Theme #10: It’s a Small World
Marty’s ex-wife is in the same line of work as him and she and him constantly run into each other as they compete for the same business. This situation of running into the same people over and over again is true. In my line of work we’re always remarking on what a small world it is. This is why it’s very important never to burn bridges. You never know who you might end up working for one day.
Theme #11: “Double Booked”
Although it’s unclear at first, this is described as when a client decides to hire two consulting firms for the same job, with the intention of firing one of them. Marty and his ex-wife get double-booked for the same presentation slot. I’m sure this happens, but I’ve never witnessed it personally.
However, one tactic that I have seen clients use is to have all potential partner competitors wait in the same lobby while each one goes in to give their presentation. “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace”, as the saying goes, right?
Theme #12: Cutthroat Competition
Cutthroat competition is alive and well. Such is the basis of the American Dream. However, one repetitive theme is the cutthroat competition that exists internally within the same firm. When firms are as large as the one Marty works for, it is often said that employees are just “numbers that generate numbers”. Meaning, yes, the competition is cutthroat. People are vying to make partner, earn larger bonuses, and outshine their colleagues. There are also smaller consulting firms (called “boutiques”) in my industry where friendly competition or virtually no internal competition exists. Differences in the management and business models justify both scenarios. It just depends.
Theme #13: Sexism
In later episodes, this theme becomes more apparent. Men and women take part in it against both men and women. Like most businesses in America, consulting is a male-dominated industry so there is sexism against women specifically. There is an element of sexism at just about every consulting firm. There are also very few female consultants overall. I believe change in this area has been on the horizon for some time, but it will take decades to overcome. I’m not convinced there will ever be true equality in my lifetime.
House of Lies, although outrageous in its themes, has started to grow on me. Now in the third season, I’m taken in by the weaknesses of each character, the never ending cycle of money, power, and wealth, the characters’ crazy antics, and the ebb and flow of the business. I look forward to finishing out the series.