Deconstructing a House of Lies

I was a junior consultant when I read Martin Kihn's House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time. By then, I had stolen a few watches myself.

The argument of Kihn's book -- that management consulting is a conspiracy to squeeze millions of dollars from unwitting companies, that consultants are often unqualified but politically astute mercenaries, and that many of the problems that plague companies are intractable and probably not worth solving anyway -- started to carry some weight after two years of consulting. I had discovered, sadly, that there is a healthy degree of bullshit in corporate life, and that consulting as an industry can profit from it.

The consequences are huge, and that's what makes the profession so exhilarating. Give a group of motivated people the opportunity to change the course of a company, and they will create fantastic or disastrous effects. Sounds like the perfect formula for a TV show, right?

That's why I was excited when Showtime picked up House of Lies. Even if it were destined to be a critique of modern business, at least it would be insanely entertaining.

After three years of consulting, I can say with confidence that the industry is not inherently shady. The consulting skill set can be used for good or for evil. You can build an accurate model or a misleading model. You can wordsmith your way through a meeting or you can have a real conversation. You can manipulate data or you can analyze it objectively. It comes down to individuals and choices. Like a weapon or a joke, the effect depends entirely on the owner. That's not a revolutionary insight, but it is one that eludes most critics.

I enjoyed a solid, legitimate consulting career that was largely bullshit-free. I also worked for an excellent and responsible firm. That's why I enjoyed it so much, and why I became so close with my clients. As a result, I came to appreciate the nuances of corporate life -- the nuances that Showtime's House of Lies has sadly missed.

Here's what I would have done differently.

Focus on meaningful plot lines, not the agenda.

The show is deeply critical of big business, and Don Cheadle's Marty Kaan is both hero and villain. "Since when is management consulting a real job?" asks Marty's father. "Since it pays seven figures a year," Marty retorts. It would be inconvenient to point out that his profession has shaped virtually every major business decision in the past 50 years -- but that's the truth. How much richer would the show be if we knew that? I'd prefer to watch Marty genuinely enjoy his job while wrestling with the implications, rather than accept it as an easy way to make a ton of cash.

Marty is chasing a particularly controversial client: a massive bank that engaged in reckless mortgage lending. About 20 minutes in, the pilot becomes a diatribe about the financial-services industry. Look, we can all agree -- lenders made poor and morally questionable choices, a lot of people got hurt, and the spillover effects were disastrous. The message would have been more compelling if it were woven into dialogue rather than stuffed into an amateur pitch to the client. One slide, incredibly, featured the bank's CEO photoshopped into a Time Magazine cover. Any executive would have laughed in a consultant's face. Instead, the mercurial CEO hires Marty's firm and seals the deal with a big hug. I only got a handful of hugs from my clients over the years, and it wasn't by giving them the corporate equivalent of a left-handed reach-around.

Understand the industry.

The line between plausible fiction and gross inaccuracy is often blurred in television.

Consultants don't expense strip clubs to clients -- especially ones they haven't even closed yet. Is there any company that would reimburse a consultant for lap dances and bottle service? Do you think an experienced consultant like Marty would try to pull that on a prospective client? And have you ever heard of clients covering a vendor's expenses before they hire them?

Which raises another point: In business, there's no one hero who is destined to save a company. With few exceptions, consulting firms offer the same services and arrive at roughly the same answers. That the competing firm is led by Marty's ex-wife is a nice touch, but their rivalry is hollow. A mix of affection and competition would have been magical. Instead, his wife is a prescription-pill addict, which is ridiculous, because you can't be a rainmaker if you're sleepy all the time. (Or drunk, brash, insensitive and impulsive, for that matter.)

Capture the role of women.

Women at work are fascinating. They bring something to corporate life that men do not, and they wrestle with a unique set of issues -- influence, credibility, family, etc. But if we switched the genders of the female characters in House of Lies (with the exception of a surprisingly quick-witted stripper Marty brings to a client dinner), I doubt we'd notice the difference.

The talented and charming Kristen Bell delivers her lines capably, but they are not the words of a sharp, ambitious female consultant who aspires to climb the ranks of her firm. What female professional would tolerate Marty's advances, take a back seat to her idiotic male counterparts (whose characters are so thin they all but disappeared by the end) and share the exact same worldview as her colleagues? Bell's character should have seductively shut Marty down (thereby building the sexual tension that was absent from the show), used her intelligence to run circles around the boys, and deftly navigated the politics of a male-dominated culture. In fact, it could have been Bell's character who helps close the deal at the end of the episode -- a vindication of the unique insight and influence that women bring to a deal.

Here's another question: Have you ever seen a female executive at a strip club? Bell's character would have looked deeply uncomfortable but too worried to say something to Marty, whose approval she desperately wants and needs. Stuck in that saturnalian hell, she would probably sneak out to call a significant other back in L.A. It's incredibly difficult to maintain a relationship as a consultant, and a smart, attractive character like her would have someone at home. That's a simple and relatable secret all consultants share.

Get the details right.

The pilot is full of preposterous moments. Here are a few:

  • Head-butting the person who has the power to hire you. Consulting 101: Don't physically attack your client.
  • Hiring a consultant who head-butts people. Apparently the client doesn't mind that their advisor is also a threat to everyone's safety.
  • Gossiping loudly about the client at the airport. Everyone's listening. A partner once reamed one of my colleagues for working on a PowerPoint presentation on the plane without a privacy screen. Would seasoned advisors spill corporate secrets in front of civilians and the TSA?
  • Taking personal calls in front of colleagues. Everyone's too paranoid in corporate life to handle personal business in public. You're trained to hide it masterfully or ignore it until it disappears.
  • Calling your project manager "daddy." Everyone, including the dudes on the team, call Marty "daddy." That's just creepy.
  • Hitting on the receptionist. Everyone talks in an office. The moment the receptionist tells her boss that the pricey consultants are making her uncomfortable, it's game over.

We live in an enviable time for a TV series about corporate life. Some of the richest plot lines and most absorbing characters come from the smoke-filled rooms of modern business. Material is unlimited. So why not build a house of truths?