What a ten year old movie can teach us about the future of consulting

Natalie and Ryan checking out the remote firing set-up — “Up in the air” (2009, Paramount Pictures)


I believe that Corona will change consulting but that doesn’t mean everything will stay as it is now with home-office being the norm and frequent flier accounts dormant. “Up in the air” shows why the world after the lockdowns end might look remarkably similar to the world before the lockdowns: Consultants leaving home on Monday, spending four (or five if you are unlucky/ really don’t like your family) days at the client’s office and returning only for office Friday.

Key takeaways from the movie:

  1. Replacing business travel with videoconferencing isn’t a new idea, “Up in the air” was released in 2009.
  2. Tough discussions should be face to face.
  3. People like to be on the move. Business travel is a part of that and will return.
  4. People like perks. Traveling for business comes with perks that we don’t want to miss, even if they come at a high cost.
  5. Consulting takes smart university graduates and gets them up to speed quickly, doing that from the office is tough.

I watched “Up in the air” in the cinema when it came out more than 10 years ago. I was still in university at that time and hardly knew what a consultant was. I’ve re-watched it a couple of times over the years, including on a plane of course. I still think it’s a solid movie overall but it is “the” consulting movie for 2 reasons:

  1. It fits the stereotype. Ryan is what most people think a consultant is, if they think about consultants at all: A heartless person in a suite who flies a lot, works for many different companies and is generally bad news when he walks through the door.
  2. Despite #1, it still has a lot of truth to it. There is quite a lot that I recognize from my work as a consultant, even though I don’t know any consultant who literally flies around the country firing people.

It is also a movie about flying which I haven’t done a lot of in recent months. Before the pandemic started, I’ve put up what in the movie is being called “pretty pedestrian numbers”. Now I haven’t been on a plane for longer than at any point since I’ve turned 18. That might be why I just had to watch it when I came across it recently.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, let me give you a quick summary that grossly oversimplifies the movie for my own purposes: Ryan Bingham works as an outplacement consultant, which basically means that he travels around the country and fires people for a living. His personal goal is to reach 10 million miles on AA. For my frequent flyer friends: You would think that those are butt-in-seat-miles but the movie is a bit inconsistent on that. Natalie Keener, a recent college graduate with no experience in the field, joins the company Ryan works for and introduces the concept of remote firings. As you would imagine, remote firings are basically the same drill, just via videoconferencing software. The goals are cost savings and to get people to spend more time with their families (joke partly intended). To learn the ropes, Ryan has to take her on the road with him. During a round of firings that Natalie conducts, an employee threatens to kill herself. Natalie is unable to react properly due to her inexperience. Remote firings eventually go into trials and they are pulling everyone of the road. Shortly after the fired employee commits suicide, Natalie leaves the company, the test is being terminated and Ryan returns to his former life of flying. It should be noted that the disastrous firing happens in person which makes the story a bit inconsistent if you ask me, but we’ll work with what we got.

There is also a love story and generally a lot more to the movie, so watch it if you have the chance, it’s good. For our purposes though, I’ll concentrate on the replacing travel with teleconferencing aspect of the movie because I think that there are valuable points to take away from it for our current situation. All of these points combined lead me to my prediction that we will (mostly) return to in-person consulting.

  1. Replacing business travel with videoconferencing isn’t a new idea, “Up in the air” was released in 2009. For years the take over of videoconferencing has been like the paperless office: always just around the corner but never actually materializing. Corona has finally made it a reality but that it didn’t happen on its own should give us pause. Forced, rapid change seldom lasts. Think about the labor participation rate of women during World War II. The war brought a massive boost but it did not last (see e.g. The Rise and Fall of Female Labor Force Participation During World War II in the United States). The long term trend of female labor participation goes in the right direction but WWII ended more than 60 years ago and we aren’t there yet. I am not saying that there won’t be change, there will be, I’m just saying that we’ll mostly return to our offices (and in the case of consultants the planes which get us there) for the time being when this is over.
  2. Tough discussions should be face to face. I’ve done 90% of my work from home for about a year now which includes projects from start to finish. My projects have been “feel good”-projects though where close to everyone was in agreement that we are working on something good that will help the company and its employees. Not all projects are like that though, especially after all the stimulus comes to an end and we’ll see the toll Corona has taken on our economy. When there is conflict, when the other person walks out on you, you cannot fix it if you aren’t there.
    Consulting is, at its core, a relationship business. You need to build up relationship credit quickly because you’ll burn it when you go fast. My theory is that within each relationship there is a trust account. It starts somewhere close to 0 and fills up over time. When there is a misunderstanding, it isn’t a big deal if you are still in the black. The other person might be a bit miffed but overall they’ll think that you are a good person and they’ll try to figure out what went wrong before getting angry. Once you are in the red, every misunderstanding has a high chance of ending very badly. In a videoconference it is way harder to build up those points and misunderstandings happen easily. Combine that with the fact that consultants meet new people all the time and, therefore, start at 0 all the time and you are in trouble.
    I could also go into the old “you cannot fax (remember those) a handshake” saying but a metaphor within a metaphor is probably a bit far.
  3. People like to be on the move. Ryan needs to be on the move, I’m not even sure it should be called traveling. In his “motivational” talks he compares it with a shark having to move to stay alive. I see (and feel) his point. Even after the traveling routine should have worn off and I’m back to my “normal, pre-consulting”-self, I still miss being on the move and I am looking forward to the re-start of travel. I don’t romanticize it, no business class seat is as comfortable as my bed at home, lounge coffee is mostly terrible (Australia excluded, but they manage great coffee even in the middle of the Outback somehow) and no room service menu was designed with the half-year consultant stay in mind. That doesn’t change the fact though that for those of us who have that urge to keep moving, losing business travel for good is a hard prospect to swallow and we’ll be the first to put our hands up when the question comes who wants to start traveling again. That might be bad news for those who would rather stay at home. If everyone puts their foot down at the end of the lockdown and says “No, we won’t travel again”, employers would have few options but I don’t think that will be the case, especially in an insecure job market.
  4. People like perks. We might not all chase the illusive 10 million mile mark, I certainly don’t, but getting miles, points and status can be an addictive perk. Is it worth it? Probably not, if you would get part of that travel budget you saved in extra salary, you could take a nice vacation using that money. That is not how the world works though and taking your partner on a nice vacation once a year and getting upgraded along the way sure feels great. I often spend my miles in a way I would not spend my money. Business class with miles? Great perk. Business class with money? Unnecessary extravagance. Seems like homo economicus fell asleep in the lounge again…
  5. Consulting takes smart university graduates and gets them up to speed quickly, doing that from the office is tough. During the movie, university graduate Natalie joins Ryan on the road to learn the ropes. They spend more time together than they ever would have done in the office, simply because there isn’t anything else to do when you are stuck in a tier-3 city where you don’t know anyone. You spend time together, you observe the other person, you learn from another. Natalie and Ryan form a bond on the road that they never would have formed on Zoom or MS Teams. With more time, despite their differences, they might have become friends. I have formed long-term friendships on difficult consulting projects. I am certain that it would not have happened remotely. Talking those connections away from young consultants will also open a divide between those who have connections to other consultants, managers and partners from before the lockdown and those who don’t. Relationships matter massively for a consulting career because if you work at a leading firm, everyone is smart and driven and meritocracies are hard to enforce when merit is hard to measure… but going into that would be a whole other story.

Let me end on a caveat: Climate change is real and business travel is part of the problem. If you can move meetings to Zoom, take the train instead of a plane and compensate your emissions. Business travel can also be highly disruptive to relationships, romantic and otherwise, and, by extension and in combination with long hours, for your mental health. Tackling any of these issues cannot be done by a story on Medium, even one as good as this one. There isn’t a perfect way to live, work or travel. Find your own compromise, question it at times, change when necessary.

How do you think consulting after Corona will change? Do you want me to abandon my beliefs and argue the other side? Is there another consulting story that every consultant should watch? Which other consulting topics are you interested in? Leave a comment below. I’ll share more consulting thoughts, stories and advice every office Friday, 9 a.m. GMT.

Digital strategy consultant. Knows enough about many topics to be dangerous and enough about some to be useful

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