Duff McDonald's new book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, discusses the management consulting firm founded by James "Mac" McKinsey in 1926, which a number of my MBA students at Stanford have joined over the years.
I haven't yet read the book, although I've seen a number of reviews, including one in the Wall Street Journal just a few days ago. But the commentary that I found most interesting was a letter to the Journal by Bob Wittebort of Chicago:
Stewart Pinkerton's Sept. 7 review of Duff McDonald's "The Firm" refers to "Mac" McKinsey's controversial engagement with Marshall Field & Co. in the late 1930s, during which he was elected chairman of the board and vested with broad executive power. He wielded that power ruthlessly and, many thought, without respect for the long-settled "Field way." In their history of Marshall Field, Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan poignantly describe the lesson McKinsey himself drew from the experience: "McKinsey was informed that unless he changed his management tactics dramatically, his resignation would be demanded at the end of the year. Two weeks later, McKinsey was critically ill with pneumonia at Woodlawn Hospital. To his friend James Margeson, who called at his bedside, he observed, 'Jim, never in my whole life before did I know how much more difficult it is to make business decisions myself than merely advising others what to do in their businesses, without having to take the final responsibility myself.' The following day he was dead." The very best consultants share this wisdom; indeed, it might be what makes them the very best consultants. [Emphasis mine]
While I'm not a management consultant, there's a lesson here that's highly relevant to my work as a coach, and, I'd argue, to all our helping relationships. I'm able to help others face challenges and make difficult decisions, in part, because their challenges are not my challenges, and while I'm deeply invested in my clients and students, I'm not attached to any particular outcomes for them. In a sense, I'm able to provide help precisely because I don't fully experience what my clients and students experience.
In Coaching with the Brain in Mind, David Rock and Linda Page describe this process from a neurological perspective. When we're faced with a challenging situation and weighing our options, they write...
[T]he input we think is purely from our senses in fact arrives already saturated with amygdala and "top-down" (i.e. highly interpreted) processing... Coaches are trained to ask questions that elicit information stripped of its top-down implications in order to set the stage for creative responses rather than mindless reactions. The next step is to generate options for interpretations other than the ones that the client automatically arrived at. Because amygdala arousal can reduce processing power in the prefrontal cortex, clients benefit from "borrowing" the less-aroused brain of the coach to aid in generating these options. [pp 355-356]
Returning to Mac McKinsey, it was probably easy for him to imagine that he had all the answers--and perhaps that his clients were foolish for ignoring his patently sound advice--when he wasn't ultimately responsible. What's tragic is that he seems to have fully understood this--and truly felt empathy for his clients--only on his deathbed.
A fundamental challenge we face when we're helping others--particularly in informal helping relationships with colleagues, friends and family--is to make effective use of the critical distance that separates us from those we're seeking to help, while also remaining deeply empathetic to the difficulty they face as the responsible party. If we err on the side of distance, we fall into McKinsey's trap, and we fail to appreciate how much more complex and daunting the situation may appear to the other person. And if we err on the side of closeness, we may get caught up in the other person's experience and feel it so fully that we're no longer as helpful in the process of filtering information and generating options.