One of the most frequent questions that I get is why I left McKinsey. Until now, I’ve been hesitant to address this in-depth – mostly because I didn’t feel it was relevant for what I was doing with Management Consulted. But also because I didn’t want to be perceived as a naysayer.
However, I think my story of why I left McKinsey has valuable lessons for people entering the field, and for those that are currently working at a top firm.
In the first part of the article, I’ll explain why I left McKinsey, and dive into what I perceive to be McKinsey (and generally speaking, the consulting industry’s) shortcomings for me personally. That’s important to keep in mind.
In the second part of the article, I’ll dig into why I loved working at McKinsey and the general benefits of a management consulting background.
I enjoyed my time at McKinsey, and wouldn’t have done it any differently. I actually tried leaving the company earlier than I did, but am glad in hindsight that I was persuaded against it.
3 Reasons Why I Left McKinsey
There were 3 main reasons why I left McKinsey – my entrepreneurial bug, a lack of interaction with customers/end users, and the service-oriented nature of the business.
Let’s dig into each of these.
Why I Left McKinsey: An Entrepreneurial Bug
The interesting thing is that in school, I didn’t consider myself entrepreneurial. There were several half-assed attempts to start the occasional student group or business idea which never got far.
Instead, I was very much an “organization guy” – spending years at various organizations to achieve leadership positions in everything from SURJ (an undergraduate research publication) to student government.
I think a lot of people in life figure out what they want to do as a series of “anti-experiences”. In my case, working at several big companies (Google, Credit Suisse, McKinsey) taught me that I definitively did not want to work at a big company as a long-term career.
There were both mature reasons for that (the slow pace, the inefficient work processes, the lack of created value going into my own pocket) as well as immature reasons (having the occasional uninspiring boss, the 7am wake up times, the business casual dress code).
Regardless, my “anti-experiences” convinced me to start a company. That’s how I caught the entrepreneurial bug.
Oh, it also didn’t hurt that I loved technology, and in particular, the web. I wrote my first HTML website in 6th grade, and would often stay up at night reading HTML training manuals (don’t mention this to my future girlfriend).
Why I Left McKinsey: Lack Of Consumer Focus
Management consulting is at its core B2B. It may touch consumers indirectly (for example, when you’re consulting for a large consumer-packaged goods company), but your primary focus is delivering value to other companies.
This in itself is not a bad thing, but my passion is in working with consumers…and in most projects, we rarely interacted with them, if at all.
On one project, we needed to understand the behavior of small and medium-sized businesses (in particular, restaurants) and their purchasing behavior – so we spent a lot of time interviewing restaurant owners and managers and talking about their customer experiences.
On another project, we were helping a large yellow-book advertising business streamline their debt collection practices – so we spent a lot of time analyzing call-center employees and their interaction with customers.
That’s about as close as I got.
Why I Left McKinsey: Consulting Is A Service, Not A Product
I use these terms loosely, but the key distinction to me is whether the outcome is repetitive or incremental.
For example, a barber is in a service industry – each outcome (the completed haircut) is repetitive. Facebook is a product business – the “Newsfeed” feature that was released is incremental and builds upon the existing Facebook website.
Consulting at its core is a service business. Every project is in many ways a new beginning – you go through the same process to pitch potential clients, scope a project, recruit a team, and solve the problem(s).
The output is remarkably similar across projects – generally a mixture of Microsoft Word memos and PowerPoint decks of findings delivered in presentations to client executives.
In fact, a favorite partner of mine once said, “We’re masters at reinventing the wheel”.
In addition, because you are an advisor and not responsible for execution, sometimes your work may be totally ignored – a .ppt file stored in some company intranet folder to be referenced 5 years later when the new CEO asks for a review of strategic options (“Oh, I remember we hired McKinsey a long time ago…let me see if I can dig up their stuff”)
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t incremental aspects of the business – many of which I touch upon below (such as the accumulated knowledge base, the client relationships, etc).
However, what I like about being in a product business is its primarily incremental nature – it’s like building your own house and then renovating it over time.
With consulting, I felt as if I were renting an apartment, decorating it to my tastes, and then moving on 6 months later to a new apartment only to begin the process again.
These are the 3 main reasons. Of course, there are small nits – sometimes, I felt like a kid running around acting like an adult – it was tough pretending I knew something about life insurance marketing when I’d been on the project only one week, sitting across from executives 15 years my senior who had spent their professional lives focused on the problem.
There are always the engagement managers who manage workload poorly, the clients who have unpredictable and poorly defined demands, etc
But these are all small problems that aren’t unique to consulting, and weren’t the main contributors for my exiting McKinsey and moving on to start a company.
Hope that helps clarify. Please see the second part of the article below for reasons why I loved McKinsey, and why I would do it all over again.
Anything I said not make sense? Anything you disagree with? Please comment below!
Why I Loved Working At McKinsey
Below, I’ll dig into why I loved working at McKinsey and the general benefits of a management consulting background.
As I said before, I wouldn’t trade my McKinsey years for anything. Many fortunate people face the choice between an MBB (see consulting lingo if you’re like “huh?”) and prestigious companies in the financial services industry (from Goldman Sachs to mid-market private equity, from well-known venture capital firms to prestigious corporate management programs).
9 times out of 10, I recommend MBB. The reasons why I left McKinsey above don’t necessarily out-weigh the reasons why I loved working at McKinsey below. It’s a personal perspective, but hopefully a benefit to you.
Reasons Why I Recommend Consulting
Benchmark For What It Takes To Be A Great Business Leader
This was probably my biggest learning from McKinsey.
I came into the company pretty confident in my abilities, and frankly, was used to putting in 80% effort and still doing well at most things.
I was quickly corrected of that notion at McKinsey. Not only were the people very smart, but also hard-working and socially savvy.
Of course, there’s some variation in abilities at the top consulting firms, but in general, I’d say the benchmark was set pretty high for good performance. I quickly realized I had to work very hard in order to be successful, and I realized the benchmark I needed to reach to be considered a strong business leader.
That knowledge is invaluable, and it’s something I carry with me today.
Valuable Training In The HOW and WHAT
By HOW, I mean the approach to solving business problems and creating value as a business leader.
- Hypothesis driven problem-solving: the benefits of quickly determining a potential solution set, and utilizing data to iterate on this answer until it’s crisp and accurate.
- 80/20 principle: how to be efficient with your time and your information to arrive at answers that are “good enough”.
- Data-driven decision making: the importance of empirical findings and a fact-based approach. As one wise man said, “If you don’t have any facts, we’ll just use my opinions”.
By WHAT, I mean specific tactics and tools that are valuable in any business situation. Examples include:
- Things like the “Influence model” (which teaches you specific ways to exercise leadership and build influence) and the “Skill/will matrix” (which is a quick way to understand organizational culture and how to improve employee performance).
- MECE (“Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive”) – most of you have heard of this by now, but it’s a good mental fact-check to make sure you’re thinking comprehensively and in an organized fashion.
- Issue trees – a way to disaggregate large, ambiguous problems into smaller chunks for work-assignment and problem solving purposes.
The list goes on.
I’ve mentioned this several times as a key asset of the top firms, and I’ve reaped its benefits multiple times in my career already. In particular, I wouldn’t have joined shopkick without reaching out to Cyriac Roeding, its CEO and a McKinsey alumni. And I wouldn’t have contacted Cyriac (and in all honesty, he may not have responded) if I didn’t first hear about him through the McKinsey Alumni newsletter.
In addition, even in the startup world – which is underrepresented as an exit opportunity among consultants – I’ve bumped into many McKinsey alumni and it’s a special experience that we all share.
Credibility and Signaling
One of the “laziest” benefits is just having a name like McKinsey on your resume. Similar to getting into an Ivy League school, it lends you instant credibility in all sorts of things. Personally relevant moments for me include in the job hunt, in finding startup investors, in business development and partnership opportunities.
There are several reasons for this but the primary one is signaling. McKinsey has already done the due diligence on my background and abilities and given their OK. Other companies can leverage this.
One of the key benefits of consulting, far more than any other business occupation, is the client interaction. You’ll work directly with client counterparts, and in some cases you may even lead client teams!
You’ll add a valuable bullet to your resume and build valuable long-term skills. In addition, you may develop client relationships that will last beyond your tenure. It’s not uncommon for consultants to jump directly to a client in a permanent role (more on exit options).
Stronger than any client relationships will be your relationships with fellow consultants, especially those of your class. One of the most valuable things I took away from my McKinsey years are these relationships, because everyone’s gone on to do some very amazing things.
Some have started companies; others work at the top private equity and venture capital firms; still others are at all the top business and law schools.
They’re successful, and not only do they provide motivation for you to continue working hard, but are great friends.
In addition, you’ll develop great relationships with your team leaders (aka engagement managers/project leaders) and partners. I still keep in regular contact with several of them and they’ve been invaluable for career advice and business contacts.
(Some) Domain Expertise
Becoming an expert in X industry or Y function generally doesn’t come until many years into your consulting career.
There are several reasons for this, the primary one being that until you develop meaningful client relationships, you’re most valuable as a utility infielder (essentially a person who can wear many hats).
However, sometimes you can dive quite deep into a particular area and find that, even after several years, you’ve become a de facto firm expert on that particular topic.
On one of my projects, I lead the implementation of a barcode scanning technology that systematically tracked and assessed how employees spent their time. This was a new data-focused approach to identifying inefficiencies and streamlining tasks.
Once this technology was proven to deliver client value, I suddenly became the “barcode expert”. In my final year at McKinsey, I spent a considerable fraction of my time parachuting into projects as a consultant, on how to incorporate this technology.
While this is somewhat unusual, even junior consultants can develop expertise in an industry (eg, pharmaceuticals) early. Functional expertise (eg, expertise at long-term strategic planning) is more rare.
Entrepreneurial…As Big Companies Go
The top consulting firms can be entrepreneurial environments. If you have a particular passion (say, education in sub-Saharan Africa), firms like BCG will generally do what it can to provide you that opportunity.
In my years at McKinsey, several of us were very interested in creating opportunities to essentially do “consulting for startups”. While the idea never got off the ground, this was primarily because of a lack of effort on our part. My feeling is that while McKinsey may not have given us free reign, they would have provided support and guidance to make it happen.
I say “…as big companies go” because ultimately, big companies simply can’t marshal resources, pivot ideas, and seize opportunities as quickly as startups can.
They are subject to their own processes and inertia. It’s key for their very survival.
I’ve touched upon this in previous articles on consulting exit opportunities.
I believe preserving optionality is the most important thing that any young professional can do.
McKinsey helped me do that incredibly well – after leaving, I could have pursued any number of professional and/or educational opportunities. And even years after leaving the company, I can leverage the name to re-open some of those doors if I choose to. (For example, if for some unexplainable reason I became very interested in corporate strategy it wouldn’t be too hard to line up the right interviews).
Preserving optionality is important early in your career because you simply don’t know what’s to come. As confident as you are that you’ll be the next Elon Musk, or Jeffrey Immelt, or Geoffrey Canada, these things can change rapidly – whether in your control or outside of it.
Leaving doors open is the smartest way to arm yourself.
Now you know why consulting’s so great, and why I left McKinsey.
Let’s face it – management consulting is an enticing career. However, the recruiting, networking, and interview cycle can be a nightmare; it doesn’t end there. Once you receive the offer, it doesn’t wind down, you are expected to ramp up to fulfill the potential you’ve shown your interviewer. How do you succeed? Our Black Belt Programs set you up for success by giving you insider do and don’t as well as tips on how to stand out by being the best!