Thought leadership is a hot topic these days. Basically, it means showcasing your brainpower to clients and potential clients through research, articles, speeches, surveys and now blogs. We call it the “marketing of ideas.” The September 11 issue of The Economist ran an article on it and our firm has seen the concept move from professional services into financial services and medical devices.

Where did it come from … and why should we care? Walter Kiechel answers both questions in his excellent The Lords of Strategy (Harvard Business Press, 2010), a history of the management consulting firms that specialize in strategy. They were the first proponents of thought leadership marketing, although they didn’t use that term. As to why we should care – simply because the U.S. and world economies might be far worse off without the consultants. Think Detroit … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hardly an apologia for the profession, Kiechel’s book traces the origin of strategy consulting from its roots with Bruce Henderson and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) through the recent financial collapse. Some of the fascinating vignettes include:

  • Henderson inventing the “retail marketing of business ideas” to put his fledgling consultancy on the map in the mid-60s
  • Bill Bain breaking away from BCG to form his own firm with a unique business model, representing one client per industry, and Bain & Co.’s subsequent foray into what became private equity investing
  • McKinsey “waking up” to the strategy opportunity under Fred Gluck and eventually surpassing BCG and Bain

There are informative chapters on Michael Porter, Tom Peters, consultancies expanding into Europe,  core competencies, reengineering and the role of strategy consulting in private equity. To me, the most meaningful section of the book dealt with the one industry the strategy consultants were never able to crack: automotive.

“So arrogant, silo-ridden and inert were the Detroit giants that they never bothered to get their minds around … the strategy revolution, despite much advice to do just that… ‘We never laid a glove on them,’ ruefully admits the head of one of the great strategy consultancies, speaking of both his own firm and that of his competitors … Without strategy and strategy consultants, we could have had broad swaths of U.S. industry look like the automakers.”

If you care about the ideas and theories that drive business, you will enjoy this book.  If you don’t, you won’t.

Have you read any good business books recently?

To reach John:

Phone:  212.840.0444
LinkedIn:  John Bliss