A Hippocratic Oath for Strategy Consultants

“First, do no harm” is a necessary change of pace for consultants. As the world grows to expect more from corporations, it’s time that strategy consultants hit reset on our ethical compass.

McKinsey especially, the recognized leader in our field, in particular must pause and reflect on its direction and values. Most recently, it devised a growth strategy for Purdue Pharmaceuticals built on the lethal and appalling cocktail of human addiction, death, drugs, and greed. 

According to Justice Department documents, McKinsey suggested ways Purdue could turbocharge opioid sales—despite the tens of thousands of deaths already attributed to the crisis. One piece of advice was to grant Purdue’s distributors a rebate for every OxyContin overdose attributable to pills they sold. This is revolting. And it is even more troubling coming from one of the highest-profile companies in the world. 

Reports last week indicated McKinsey was in settlement talks with state attorneys general that could run to hundreds of millions of dollars. Regardless of whether that’s a suitable fine, I could argue the cost to our collective professional credibility is much higher. 

Certainly, this is not contained to just one firm. There are many other questionable examples from leading consulting firms. As such, it is time strategy consultants create our own Hippocratic oath.

While the phrase “first, do no harm” doesn’t appear in the medical Hippocratic oath, the idea runs through it, and is a solid foundation here too. Ours should include:

  • To accept client assignments that build value for shareholders and stakeholders: employees, communities, supply chain partners, and the environment

  • To place the interests of my client, the public, and the environment before my self-interest

  • To be aggressive in disclosing and avoiding potential and actual conflicts of interest 

  • To serve clients with integrity, objectivity, and professionalism 

  • To accept client assignments that we have the experience and competence to perform effectively

  • To respect the hard-won experience and insights of strategy consultants in whose steps I walk, and share that knowledge with those who follow 

  • To encourage the adoption of this oath by inviting other consultants and through the example of my own actions and success

On our best days, strategic consultants help solve some of the most complex problems in the world. We are in a unique position to create substantive progress. Consider that the companies that partner with us have already made the biggest decision: Change is needed. 

Despite that reality, I realize our greatest hurdle may lie in our clients’ circumstances—business leaders who feel trapped by the next quarterly investors’ call and who need expert and objective guidance. It is incumbent on us to help them break out of the cycle. 

This is where consultants can have the greatest impact. The tyranny of short-term profit has become—if it wasn’t always—too costly for businesses, employees, our communities, and the planet. We can help executives find solutions that provide a more equitable balance between the interests of shareholders, employees, business partners, and communities.

The last two bullet items echo the original Hippocratic oath, highlighting how we learn from each other and how community holds the individual accountable. As a profession, we can drive real progress through the broader business world.

We need to have this conversation. We need to consider seriously how the work we do impacts not just the bottom line but also human lives and livelihoods. 

For my part, I believe we can do better. I know we must. 

— Alex Kruzel, CEO

Where the World is Going

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