Can Consulting Be Useful?

October 5, 2023 Melissa C. DeShields

In recent years, the consulting industry has come under fire for everything from fueling the opioid epidemic and climate crisis to destroying the middle class. Critics argue that consulting firms weaken governments by making them overly dependent on outside expertise and less capable of taking on big challenges. Corporations have used consultants to provide cover for decisions that have exacerbated economic inequality. So, it’s no surprise that some folks are asking “Do Consultants Do Anything Useful?”

As the CEO of a Black-owned mission-driven consulting firm, I’ve been sitting with these questions and critiques. Indeed, as a firm, we’ve been wrestling with them from our inception.

Frontline Solutions’ ethos runs counter to the culture, norms, and standards of the sector, such as valuing production over people. Advancing freedom and justice for Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color is our north star. Toward that, we’ve worked hard to cultivate a culture of joy, learning, reflection, and radical imagination. This is also what we help our clients to do. Rather than taking an ‘expert’ posture, we hold processes and create spaces that enable social change organizations to do their boldest, most transformational work. And we’re never neutral about what matters most. You won’t catch us working with big oil or cosigning plans to exploit workers for corporate gain.

Still, I know that we must stay vigilant about our vulnerability to recreate toxic practices and spaces. Our mission-driven consulting model is awash with contradictions. For example, a critique of capitalism—particularly how aspects such as paternalism, short-termism, exploitation, and dehumanization show up in and undermine social change efforts—is central to the analysis that guides our work. Yet, we are a for-profit company. We made this choice because we wanted the fruits of our labor to belong to Black people, not the state of incorporation. And we wanted to make sure folks were hiring us because they saw the value in our work. Still, while it is possible to do well and do good, it isn’t always easy, and we can’t pretend there aren’t tensions.

Putting our people first sometimes means having difficult conversations with clients about, for example, why our team isn’t available for meetings on Fridays in the summer. And, while we only work with clients with whom we’re mission-aligned, that doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything. Ultimately, leaders and organizations can take or leave our advice.

Given these tensions and contradictions, I know that we’re not above the criticism of our sector. We don’t get a pass just because we’re Black-founded and led. If we want to be useful, and even liberatory, we must invent new ways of working. Here are three things we’re experimenting with toward that:


1. Dismantling barriers.

The notion of experimenting toward liberation can feel daunting. Organizations often become paralyzed by the belief that they must have a perfect plan for transformation, full of big ideas. And we do need big ideas. But sometimes to get to those big ideas, you have to dismantle barriers.

For example, a local funder hired us to help them connect with and support small organizations doing good work in their community. But many impactful organizations we identified didn’t yet have 501(c)(3) status. So, the funder wanted to make fiscal sponsorship an application requirement. Because of our deep relationships with grassroots organizations, we understood that this would create a barrier to applying. So, our team convinced the funder to allow us to support organizations to apply for fiscal sponsorship after their proposals were accepted.

For the client, this shift helped them to consider how to be better partners to small, impactful organizations. For us, it was a reminder of one of our differentiating factors: Our authentic relationships with and accountability to organizations that are fighting injustice on the frontlines. By dismantling barriers that prevent them from accessing the resources they need, we are making ourselves useful.


2. Untethering ourselves from convention.

At Frontline, we believe that radical imagination is required to conjure the future we desire. This means untethering ourselves from convention when it doesn’t serve us. It means tapping into intuition, history, and ancestral wisdom. You might be asking, what does that look like in practice?

One example that is alive for us right now is performance management. When I started at Frontline, I was completely against it–at least as it’s usually practiced. I’d always seen it wielded in overly hierarchical, punitive ways—counter to the inclusive, expansive culture we wanted to create where folks can be all of who they are and know their authentic selves are a value-add to our work.

At Frontline, folks don’t have managers in the traditional sense. We don’t do performance reviews to ‘grade’ our team and decide their salaries. Still, we aim to be a place where our folks can continue to grow and achieve their dreams, and we believe that will make us a stronger institution.

So, we asked our staff what kind of support they would find valuable. They told us that they crave insights from colleagues, accessed through honest conversations and anchored in shared purpose, trust, and safety. They want to work together to better understand how to discern patterns and incorporate learning. And they want space, time, and guidance to be able to participate in these processes thoughtfully.

Understanding this, we’ve been experimenting with new structures and processes, including what we’re calling circles of support, through which small groups of colleagues regularly give and receive feedback and coaching. And, we’ve recently launched a self-study process to increase personal awareness and outline career visions and set goals with robust input from colleagues.

We’re excited about the potential of this work, but it’s early days. And we’ve made mistakes along the way. As folks often do when it comes to inventing something new, we underestimated how long it would take. And, it was difficult to know how baked our ideas should be before inviting others in. There were times when I and the management team could have been more transparent with staff about where things stood.

Now, as we’re rolling the processes out, we’re thinking carefully about how we communicate with staff, and acknowledging that change management will take time, perhaps even years. We expect that we’ll have to make tweaks and adjustments.


3. Leading courageously.

This one is personal. As CEO, my job is to ensure that our team has what they need to do their best work. Because their needs are always evolving, I have to continually reinvent my job and ask myself, who do they need me to be, and how should I show up today? 

Sometimes this means making decisions, but just as often, it means stepping back and trusting our collective brilliance. It requires deep self-reflection and undoing harmful internalized beliefs and ways of being.

This can be uncomfortable, scary, and isolating. Failure is an inevitable part of the process, but we’re not supposed to talk about that. Leaders in the sector are positioned as competitors. We’re only supposed to share success stories. This makes it hard to cultivate spaces where we can be vulnerable and trust that it won’t damage our reputations.

But maybe this is part of the problem. Maybe this posturing contributes to the moral failings of the consulting industry. As a mission-driven firm, we shouldn’t see other folks working toward liberation as competitors. We’re all part of an ecosystem of change. Our competitors are the forces of oppression, injustice, and extraction. And I’ve always believed that if the space you need doesn’t exist, other people likely need it too.

So, over the next year, I’m going to be sharing more of our challenges, failures, and experiments in the hopes that you’ll join me. Have you been experimenting in similar ways? Would you like to learn more about what we’re doing on performance management? Or, are there other liberatory experiments and practices you’d like to share with us? We’d love to hear from you.

Can consulting be useful? We believe it can, if we reinvent it together.

Want more insights? Stay tuned for the release of season 2 of our podcast. Throughout the season, we will be discussing the themes in this article with clients and partners!