Advice to a young consultant


It’s easy to spot young consultants. Usually, they’re scratching…and hopping. After all, they’re all dried out. This is when the itching starts. Itching, then the scratching, then the hopping. 

It begins with hotel soap, the most drying substance known to man. It increases with air travel and hotel life, two of the most drying activities known to man. Add a couple of drinks at the hotel bar each night, and the consultant is, within a couple of weeks, almost total desiccated.

Hotel soap is many people’s idea of a convenience. Men, I think, are especially pleased to have the hotel supply what they forgot to bring. What and shampoo, too? Awesome! It’s not long before St. Vitus’s dance is upon them.

rule 1: take your own soap

There are lots of things they don’t tell you in b-school. The single most valuable object for the business traveller, for instance. You and I know this is a book of hotel matches. But the young consultant…not so much.

Eventually, in a medium size town in China, our YC  (young consultant) decides it’s time to go for a walk. Normally, our YC has a pretty good sense of direction, but in this case he has a formidable case of jet lag, and he is more or less disoriented. A couple of wrong turns, and now he’s not sure. Is he walking towards the hotel or a way from it? Never mind. He can just ask someone, right? Well, not if no one speaks English. And not, especially, if he can’t remember the name of his hotel.

Oh, come on. Forget the name of the hotel! Please. It can happen. Our YC didn’t know the name of his hotel till he was on the way to the airport. And when he arrived, it was the middle of the night. And he has stayed at several hotels in the last couple of weeks. Plus, he’s got that jetlag/disorientation thing going on. So, it’s either called the Marriott [plus some name he can’t pronounce] or the Hilton [plus somethiing he can’t remember] or maybe it’s local. altogether. Could be. Or maybe…

Now our YC is truly f*cked. He is separated from his hotel. "Big lobby," describes a lot of places. And in fact no one seems to "get" his English. It’s not clear that even if he could remember the name of his hotel, he could communicate it. Now, he starts to panic a little and now every attempt to ask for help is just another way of identifying himself as an easy mark. Thank god for that book of matches. Hand this to a taxi driver and you are returned to the sweet embrace of your hotel.

rule 2: always pick up a book of matches from the hotel. Because you never know.

Never check your bag. This one is easy. When consulting, everything goes smoothly, until something goes wrong, but once something goes wrong, you can end up playing a game of catch up for the rest of the trip. Lost luggage always return to you the long way round: by way of small countries where the baggage handlers like to open your luggage, try things on, and act out the person they imagine you must be. Think of it as a kind of karaoke with clothing or satorial improv. You will spend the rest of your visit checking with the front desk. Not to mention wearing the clothes you arrived in. Or squandering an afternoon, buying new clothes that make you look like a dork. Charming.

rule 3: never check your bag. Pack so you don’t have to. This means a two suit rotation. Too bad. Never check your bag.

The concierge is your new best friend. Let’s say you need a car waiting for you at the corner of x and y at 11:00 tomorrow. You could this set this up yourself but it would take the better part of a day. Plus, you would have to come up with several ’work arounds’ that may or may not work around. A concierge on the other hand can arrange something like this with his eyes closed. These people are the marine corps of city life. There is no problem they cannot solve. My father, bless him, noticed that concierges are quite happy to work even for people who do not stay in their hotel. They like a challenge. They are prepared to work for admiration and massive tips. Anywhere you have a hotel, you have a concierge, and anywhere you have a concierge, you have a miracle worker, your miracle worker.

rule 3: every concierge is your new best friend

You will wear a suit jacket or a sport coat everywhere, because suits will get you out of more trouble than they get you into. And in the interior front pockets, you will keep two bill folds. I use Filofaxes. One of these will contain your passport and  "financial instruments." One will contain lined white paper. This second is for ethnographic capture. Whenever you are out of your hotel room, you will wear your jacket. No exceptions. Now you always have everything you need, and you have removed your documents (financial, ethnographic and otherwise) from harm’s way.

rule 4: always wear a jacket (suit or sport) and the Filofaxes they contain

When you are out and about, you will sometimes feel yourself the object of the local hostility. I was walking through New Dehli and quite suddenly this guy went off. I didn’t speak his language, but there is now an international code for anti-Americanism, so I didn’t have to.

Now you have a choice. Roll out your meekest look or your meanest one. In the New Delhi case, I think, I produced my "I’m not here, and if I were you would find me a man of great milldness" look. It was late, there were two of them, who knew, who else they had on call. But sometimes, you have to put a great storm in your brow, as the Elizabethans used to say. You have to look at your assailant with a promise of absolute, uncompromising, full-on, bring-it-on malice. The semiotics of fierceness take no training. Threat brings it out in us naturally. But make it good. Promise them the wrath of the gods. This will create a small element of doubt. And sometimes this will create push the door ever so slightly ajar.  Take it and go.

Rule 5: Keep all weathers in your brow, the mild and the stormy, for delivery at will.

9 thoughts on “Advice to a young consultant

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  2. Mick

    “rule 2: always pick up a book of matches from the hotel. Because you never know.”

    Or, have the concierge write the name of your hotel in Chinese on a piece of paper that stays on your person. Preferably have them write the cross streets too – it happened to me once that the Shanghai hotel in which I was staying was newish and my taxi driver didn’t recognize the name.

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  4. debbie millman

    another rule:

    make two copies of your passport.
    keep one with someone at home you can reach in an emergency, and keep one hidden away in your suitcase in your room.

  5. Anonymous

    There is a great German movie, from the eighties think, called “Enlightenment Guaranteed” (directed by Doris Dorrie: It is about two Germans in Japan who do indeed forget the name and location of their hotel, lose or leave behind their money and passports and are left to fend for themselves with nothing in Tokyo. Since they are on their way to a Budhist retreat there is a certain degree of appropriateness to all this. On VHS only.

  6. MEL

    When I was considering entering the consulting biz, a relatively seasoned veteran gave me some additional advice:

    1) Go out and buy a second set of toiletries. Pack your kit with this second set. When you need to travel, you won’t have to think “did I pack the deodorant?” Just grab and go.

    2) Never drink the coffee they serve on the airplane.

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  8. Michael Powell

    Wait, now about rule #1. You’re saying that bringing your own soap is all that it takes? Last week I was in Phoenix, mid-level hotel with one of those a/c units under the window. The desert dryness combined with that unit just about killed me. My skin was bad enough, but I don’t think my own soap would’ve helped my sinuses. Any ideas about that?

  9. Paul S

    Every frequent flyer has a story. My own ties neatly with some of the advice found here. Recently flying from Paris back to the states I did the following as the plane began cruising altitude. 1.) Carefully opened the Bose headphone case, 2.) Hit the sound cancelling switch, 3.) Placed headphones on (over my ears), 4.) Plugged headphones into my Zune, 5.) Played with menu to select Mahler’s 8th, 6.) Opened book of short stories, and 7.) Hit switch over seat for reading lamp. The fellow sitting next to me “engaged” me in a 3 hour monologue about his work. He gave me his card (I did NOT reciprocate). At least he didn’t try to read my book over my shoulder(as a prior passenger did) or ask what I was listening to (it appears he was unaware that I was listening to anything).

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