Today, we hear from Kit O’Connor, an accomplished member of MC’s coaching staff. In chatting through his career journey – Financial Services > Columbia Business School > Deloitte Internship > McKinsey > Tech – you’ll discover:
- How he broke into consulting (1:37)
- Why he chose McKinsey over Deloitte (4:53)
- His reasons for staying at McKinsey for 4 years (5:43)
- 3 important skills consulting teaches (9:43)
- His case coaching philosophy (14:50)
- 2 qualities most successful candidates possess (19:17)
- His hidden talent (22:05)
- How you can work with him via 1:1 case coaching (26:28)
It’s a fascinating listen for anyone interested in the consulting space. Listen to the end as we answer a listener question about case frameworks (28:16) – submit your own question for a chance to have it answered live on the pod!
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Transcription: Columbia MBA to McKinsey EM
Kit. Welcome to the Strategy Simplified podcast, really glad to have you on today.
Thanks so much for having me, Stephanie. I’m excited to share a little bit of my consulting and case coaching experience with the broader Management Consulted community.
Absolutely. Yeah, let’s start there. I would love if you could just give us a brief introduction. Let’s start with your background before McKinsey.
Yeah. So I broke into McKinsey via the MBA route. I think it’s one of the most common areas that people come in, out of undergrad out of MBA, and I actually had the full time MBA experience coming out of Columbia. Prior to that I was at a financial services company called Jane Street – it was a great place to work, I was very excited. But there was kind of this nagging feeling for me that there was a little bit more out there. And I looked at consulting as a way to accelerate my career.
So Columbia MBA, you certainly weren’t the only person looking at going into top tier consulting. So what was that process like for you? How do you feel like you broke into the firm?
I think that, as many people find out during their first couple months of an MBA program, it’s drinking from a firehose, in a kind of great way. I think that I was a little bit surprised when you arrive on campus in August, and then you’re immediately recruiting in September and you kind of wonder, Hey, I haven’t learned anything yet. What am I going to be good at?
And I think it’s kind of a microcosm of what going into consulting is like, because you’re often thrown into situations where you’re not really using some skills that you’ve learned out of a book or in a classroom. But it’s more about more innate skills, about being adaptable to situations and learning on the fly. So that’s what it felt like – you get to school and suddenly you’re recruiting. And a lot of it is based on, Hey, can you keep up on the fly? Moreso than, Okay, I’m gonna ask you a question and allow you 10 minutes to go look it up and then come back and have an answer for me.
That resonates deeply. So what offices did you recruit into – where were you based out of?
So I was based out of New Jersey. I think for me, I had been in New York for, oh, God, almost a decade at that point, and I wanted to stay in the New York area. So, I recruited for the New York and New Jersey offices. For McKinsey, those are relatively similar, and there’s a little bit of mixing. I know for other firms, BCG in particular, that there’s more of a differentiation between the New Jersey office and the New York office, where there’s a bit more of a distinct community in New Jersey.
People often ask me, Hey, what are the differences between the firms? And this is one of them. Think about the specific office culture that you’re applying to. And whether it’s part of a bigger complex, i.e., at McKinsey, New Jersey, New York, a little bit of Boston, or more siloed environments.
In a two year MBA program, were you lucky enough to get the summer internship and then secure the job that way or was it a two year recruiting process?
I got a summer internship. It wasn’t the one that I ended up that I had two offers for my summer internship, Deloitte and KPMG, which was actually a fairly tough decision on which one to choose. I ended up going with Deloitte as part of their New York office – they don’t really have a New Jersey office – and then re-recruited when I came back on campus in the fall for MBB and obviously ended up at McKinsey.
So, could you tell us just a little bit about why you decided to not stay with Deloitte?
It was a very tough decision. Deloitte is a fantastic firm with wonderful people. For me, it was a little bit of a of a ‘what if.’ I think that when I look back at my, even at my application essay for Columbia, I talked about going to McKinsey because McKinsey was ‘the’ consulting firm.
And that’s not to say that there’s not a number of other fantastic other firms out there. But I really didn’t ever want to look back and say, Hey, did I leave anything on the table? And so for me that was, hey, let’s give this one more shot and see how it works. And you know, it ended up working out okay for me.
It sounds like it did. You rolled the dice, you went back, you re-recruited? Obviously, you made all those relationships in the first year of school, right? You went through that process. I went through a very similar process myself, and recruited full time into the Associate position. You decided then to not just do the Associate tenure, you stayed on to become an Engagement Manager. What was that process like for you? When you got in, did you anticipate that you wanted to stay for a long time? Or were you just feeling it out as you went along?
That’s a great question. People often talk about signing up for consulting in two year chunks at a time because, at least in MBB, that’s kind of the typical path to promotion. I think that’s changing a little bit now, especially as remote work becomes more prevalent, but at least when I joined, it was pretty much two years at a time: two years Associate, two years EM, two years AP, and then make it to Partner hopefully around six to eight years in.
For me, I would say that I came in sort of thinking it would be about a 50/50 shot whether I wanted to go for Partner. And when I talked to my counselor at McKinsey, she she actually said, Wow, that’s a really high percentage. She said, I think most people are about 20-30% who want to become Partner. So I was a little bit shocked at that.
I would also say it ebbed and flowed over my time at McKinsey. I distinctly remember about three or four months in, I was talking to my parents and saying, I can’t do this, everyone else is so much smarter. Everyone else is so much faster. Everyone else is so much more insightful. And I think that everybody who joins a consulting firm has that little dip in the beginning of their career because consulting is so fast-paced and really just, not cutthroat, but there’s not really a lot of slack that’s tolerated.
So I started off really strong, excited about maybe becoming Partner someday, had this little dip where I said, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve made a huge mistake. But then suddenly, six months later, I was teaching a new Associate how to make some slides, how to put together a storyline, how to write emails in the “McKinsey way.”
And I realized, Oh, my God, I can do this. And so I think I said, Okay, that’s approaching my first two years, do I want to do this for another two years? Yeah, I think so. I want to just say, Hey, I proved myself at the Associate level, can I go prove myself at the EM level in a little bit more of a leadership position? And I think I was able to do that.
It wasn’t quite as intense of a roller coaster as being an Associate. I think you kind of have the battle scars, where you know, okay, this is going to be intense. There’s going to be new demands put on you, there’s going to just be all of the internal things that you hadn’t quite expected. But like I said, I was a little bit more prepared for that. And so I felt better about it.
And then, frankly, at the end of that Covid hit – and I think I mentioned before, consulting is a bit of a team sport on steroids – and I really did not like the job in a pure work from home environment. I missed the camaraderie, I missed being in the team room, I missed being face to face with clients and having impact. So for me, it was it was a little bit of external factors that ultimately said, not quite the right time for me at this firm anymore.
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It makes perfect sense. So, after leaving McKinsey, what has that pathway looked like for you and how does your McKinsey skill set help you in what you’re doing now?
Another good question. I think that the consulting shine is very apparent in any sort of role post-consulting. Certainly, I always positioned myself or, if I don’t, somebody else does, as an ex-consultant. And that means something. I think that there’s a little bit of a club in that people who have been through the wringer are able to speak in certain ways, reminisce in certain ways, and just kind of move things forward.
I’ve had a couple of stops on my career since McKinsey. The first one was kind of a quick drop into the consumer industry where I was focused at McKinsey. So I worked at AB InBev for a year helping to build out what they call a revenue growth management program. And then actually was recruited to a tech company to do essentially the same thing, writ very small. So AB, it’s a huge company with a lot of moving pieces. At O9 Solutions, where I am now, it is a much smaller team very focused on building the best possible platform that we can then scale more across companies, across industries, across the world.
That consulting shine, it’s gotta be more than just a brand stamp, right? For those who are thinking about the kind of skills that they’re going to gain from going through the wringer, as you said, what are some of the things that come to mind?
I mean, in a word, it’s PowerPoint. (laughs) But how does that translate to actual skills? I think it’s a few things. Let’s call it three things, because as a consultant, you always make lists and lists often have three things.
I think the first one is the ability to speak at the right level. You see a lot of people who have grown up in industry, and they’re excellent at their functional area, but kind of start struggling a little bit as they have to go a level or two higher, and you can’t be in the details anymore. So that’s the first one – consulting really teaches you to speak at the right level for your audience and to tailor your message for, frankly, the level of seniority, because in consulting, you’re dealing with people from the first year Analyst all the way up to C-suite. So that’s the first one.
I think the second one is the ability to craft a compelling story. When I work with people on MC case practice, a lot of times I say, It’s great that you can have the answer to a problem, but that’s only half the battle. The other half is convincing people that you have the answer. So it’s not enough just to answer the case, you have to answer it in a compelling way. You have to weave through a story.
And then I think the third thing that you really learn is – going back to that having to present to the C-suite – is this executive presence. I remember in my MBA program, I had a class where I had to go up in front of the board and just give a presentation on anything whatsoever. And that freaked me out, my heart was pounding because I knew that I wasn’t being judged on the content of the presentation, I was being judged on how I presented it.
And so I went up there and stumbled through my words, I went too fast, I was fidgety. And I sat down and said, Oh, my God, what happened? It was this audience that was there and evaluating me. You do that – you have to present to senior people and a variety of people – so often in consulting that it becomes second nature.
I remember one project where I had a relatively new consultant on my team, and I was the EM and it was frankly going a little bit sideways. But I had a meeting where I had to present a deck that I had seen maybe once before in my life. And afterward, the consultant looked at me and said, How do you do that? How do you make it seem like you’ve lived in this for so long when I know you just saw this an hour before the meeting.
And so I think that skill of being able to take material and present it even if you frankly haven’t seen it much before is kind of the last piece of the puzzle. So there’s the speaking at the right level. There’s crafting the storyline, and then presenting that storyline.
Look at that. Kit had a list of three. He gave a thesis statement about what those were up-front, talked through them and then recapped there at the end. I’m sure that that’s one of the things that you help coach your clients through as you prepare them for case interviews. Love that. Let’s shift there. You are one of our coaches here at Management Consulted. You help train and prepare folks that are interested in interviewing for a variety of firms, not just McKinsey. What’s the way that you think about that? What process do you run your clients through to prepare?
Another good question. And I think that one of the great things about Management Consulted is that we have a program that helps us structure conversations with clients, but every coach is an individual. And if you talk to me, if you talk to Lisa, if you talk to Nare, you’re going to get a different point of view and kind of a different style of coaching, which I think is fantastic.
So if I think about one of those first sessions with a new client, I’d spend a little bit of time getting to know them, understanding where they are in the process. And let’s call this one case interview practice, how well they understand the case and what it’s measuring. And just make sure I eliminate any misconceptions right off the bat.
I think the other thing I do is I make sure I ask people, What does success look like for you tonight? I’m typically coaching at night. So what does success look like for you tonight? And so I think it’s important that, as a candidate, you start bringing in that attitude of not just, Hey, I’m going to sit back and learn. I need to take control of this process early and start putting in my own and driving it as much as I can.
I think that being able to drive the interview forward, whether it’s interviewee-led or interviewer-led, is critical from a candidate point of view. So going back to that session, at the beginning, see where people are and understand what they want to get out of it. And then I have my own personal case library of six or seven cases that all have, I’m gonna say, a unique twist. But there are specific lessons that I try to bring out in each one of them.
I find people who go through three, four, five of them really enjoy it. It’s never the same experience of the case in the can of, hey, we’re working with a grocery store, and they want to improve profits. How do they do that? There’s some uniqueness there. And I like to keep people on their toes.
I’m also pretty blunt with feedback. So I think people who have, I’m gonna say slightly tougher skin, tend to do a little bit better with me, because they are willing to hear all the things where you can improve while not quite glossing over but saying, hey, you did this well, but let’s not focus on that. Let’s focus on the things that you need to improve to get to the next level for the case interview.
Absolutely. As you think about what it takes to succeed through this process, what are some of the top qualities that you think all top candidates possess?
So there’s no one size fits all. I think part of what makes consulting firms unique and effective is that they have people coming from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of skills. You know, if I were to come in here and say that all of the best consultants know how to use VBA in Excel, then you end up with a very data-focused team that, as I said earlier, you can’t convince someone of the answer if all you have is math.
So I would say that, if I think about what I saw through the process, both as an interviewer and when I went through the process, let’s call it broadly two things. I think first is this general sense of self and other awareness. I think that successful people are not just in their own head, they’re reading the room a little bit.
They’re keeping one foot outside of the case and thinking about it holistically, rather than being hyper focused on, whatever the most recent question, what price do I need to sell this gallon of milk at is, and trying to tie everything together. So that’s what I mean by this self and other awareness that, hey, I understand where I am, what I’m doing and how it fits into the whole.
And I think the other one – it’s rather specific – is this sense of creativity. When you’re an interviewer on the consulting side, you’re giving the same case, probably six or eight times a day. And I know for me, I tried to use the same case the entire recruiting season, because I got really good at knowing what a great performance looks like, what an okay performance looks like, what a below the bar performance looks like.
So going back to that creativity, anytime I was able to go off on a little tangent that I hadn’t explored before, because somebody said something creative or new, that was super exciting for me. It gave me a little bit of a chance to say, Oh, John, he was the one who brought up the new labeling on those gallons of milk that we’ve never really explored before. Even if it’s not part of the case, I still think hey, wow, this person has a really interesting idea. That’s the sort of attitude I want in the team room when I’m working on a project.
Absolutely. A couple of other other questions here as we start to wrap up our time just to get to know you a little bit more personally. So do you have any hidden talents, Kit?
You know, this is one of the questions that you did provide me ahead of time and I was talking to my wife last night, and we both kind of came up with the same hidden talent. And these are two words that really shouldn’t go together, but amateur electrician.
And you haven’t caught the house on fire, so… (laughs)
I haven’t caught the house on fire. I’ve only electrocuted myself once. (laughs) But no, my wife and I were part of the great Covid migration out of New York City and we moved to the suburbs. And so I quickly realized how much it costs to have handymen come in and fix things. So I started trying to do things myself. I definitely do way too much random electric work on the house now. But I think I’m okay at it.
I’ll do a favor to you and to the audience and tie it back to consulting. I think if sometimes you look at something and think it’s magic, there’s no way you could understand what’s going on. If you look under the hood and are willing to dig and be curious, the bones holding things together are not quite as complex as a lot of people think. And so if you’re willing to dig into something and be open to learning and kind of I hate using the word “experiment” with electricity, but experiment, then I think you can learn something neat and a new skill and be surprisingly self-sufficient.
I really like that analogy, that worked. I like it. And then, if you think back over the path that you’ve been on, up until this point in your life, is there a moment in time or a decision that you made that really changed the course of your career, that really set that path in motion?
Yeah, it’s tough to say because I subscribe to this philosophy that what’s the best year of your life is next year. And so it’s hard for me to look back and say, Oh, this was the one, but I would say I do refer back to one moment a lot in my consulting and MBA career – and we kind of talked about it – was when I came back onto campus and decided to re-recruit for MBB. I distinctly remember, I went back to our career counseling office and I asked somebody who was a career counselor but also a friend, and I said, Hey, I have this return offer from Deloitte, it’s obviously a great firm. Do I want to put myself through the stress of recruiting again? And I asked – her name is Tricia – I asked Tricia, what do you think? Should I re-recruit for MBB? And, this is gonna sound like she’s not doing her job, but she actually was, and she looked at me and said, I don’t know, should you?
And, I touched on this earlier, but taking your own life into your hands is a big part of what consulting is about, generally. And this was a moment where I could tell she was challenging me, like, the world isn’t gonna provide the answers for you. This is something that you have to decide, is this for you? Are you willing to put your neck out there? Are you are you willing to fail, and frankly, I did fail with with the ‘Bs’ (Bain/BCG) in my re-recruiting adventure.
But I think there’s a lot being said there in terms of the, Hey, this is the type of personality that it takes to succeed. In this world, you need to be willing to advocate for yourself and make your decisions and move forward. So I look at that as kind of the biggest turning point where it’s like, hey Kit, this is for you. Other people will help you along the way, but you have to solve it for yourself.
Absolutely. Kit, I’ve loved to get to know a little bit more about you and your pathway. The spirit that you bring to your coaching here at MC. So tell everybody a little bit more if they would want to work with you, when are you normally open? How can they do that?
Oh, yeah. So I think that I mentioned before that I do a lot of coaching at night, I do have my day job. I would say look on the calendar. I put a few hours of availability on the Management Consulted website. And I typically meet people through there. When I say “meet people” I meet clients through there for the first time and then we set up ad hoc schedules going forward to have something more complete.
So I think that looking at the calendar on MC is the best way. If there’s really not availability, feel free to email me at [email protected] I’m pretty good at replying to both current and prospective clients there. But yeah, through the website, through the scheduler, it’s super easy to use.
I think that the staff at MC, including you Stephanie, is pretty good about having introductory conversations with folks on which coach should I use? When are they available? If I can’t get an appointment with them, what can I do? So there’s a lot of great, I don’t quite want to say hand holding, but a lot of great resources beyond just the Okay, go click, click, click and suddenly you’re paying for a session.
Absolutely. Kit – thank you again for being with us today!