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There Is a Plague of Consultants Upon the Land

Before I left the Fortune 200 facility where I used to work, I was unnerved by the proliferation of a relatively new phenomena: seminars led by expensive, silver-tongued consultants. In the early years, not only were we not required to attend seminars, we had no idea what a “professional seminar leader” even looked like. But beginning in about 1990, mandatory seminars became a way of life.

Over a pitcher of domestic beer, a company executive once confided to me off-the-record that, in his opinion, these consultants were little more than “glorified con artists” (his exact words). Of course, because this man already knew my views on the subject, it was possible he was humoring me, which wouldn’t have been out of the question.

But whatever the case, I couldn’t have agreed more. I had come to have a decidedly negative opinion of “seminar creatures.” This executive went on to say that the reason seminars had become a ubiquitous feature of the corporate landscape was because some high-ranking HR honcho had fallen in love with the idea of “worker participation.”

Let’s be clear. It’s not that these group-thrashes were totally “useless,” because they weren’t. Admittedly, they did make a modest contribution. Indeed, if you dug deeply enough, you were likely to find a kernel of “truth” buried in these padded presentations.

But alas, this “kernel” was something that could have been just as easily expressed in a pamphlet or brochure, or spray-painted on a freeway overpass, and not something that required a punishing, mind-numbing session of homilies and role-playing in which full-grown adults were treated like infants.

Here’s an example of a seminar conducted by an outside consultant. I would call this example “typical.”

A bright, articulate woman, whom we later learned was paid $1,500 for her performance—which, in 1990, was a nice piece of change for a few hours “work”—began by asking each of us to introduce ourselves. State your name and department. This was unnecessary. We all worked in the same place, so everyone in the room (roughly thirty of us) pretty much already knew each other.

And because this woman instantly forgot our name the moment we uttered it (we had no name tags, and she never, not even once, addressed any of us by our names), it became obvious that this superfluous exercise in “introducing ourselves” was her way of killing a half-hour of time. One half-hour down, four hours to go. The clock was running.

She then walked to the white board and asked the room how many hours a day we spend at work. Her point was to demonstrate what a major role our jobs played in our lives (as if we didn’t already know that). People raised their hands. Some said eight hours. Others said nine hours. A couple people said ten hours. After dutifully writing down everyone’s answer, we all agreed that nine would be a “fair” average. Only one hour of this seminar had elapsed, and I was already bored and mildly annoyed.

Then she said “But you have to drive to work, don’t you? And shouldn’t the drive to work be counted as part of your job?” We all agreed that it should. So she asked us how long it took us to get to work. Some said thirty minutes, others said fifteen minutes, and others said twenty minutes. One poor bastard said it took him an hour. We agreed on thirty minutes.

But after writing down “thirty minutes,” she cocked her head, smiled at the room, and said coyly, “But you also have to drive back home, don’t you?” She said this with a “Eureka” flair, as if none of us would have factored in the return trip on our own. So we wound up with nine hours, plus thirty minutes, plus thirty minutes.

And that’s pretty much how it went. It was painful. We did role-playing, and broke into little “buzz groups,” both of which were a profound and slightly embarrassing waste of time. My only positive memory was the catered lunch. Instead of sliced bread, the sandwiches were served on croissants. Excellent.