Former McKinsey Associate Partner Shares How She Broke Into “The Firm”

Stephanie Knight is a former consultant and Associate Partner at McKinsey. Her journey has taken her from Northwestern University to the mountains of northern Afghanistan, to Duke Fuqua Business School, to McKinsey and beyond. You’ll glean so much about life and consulting and more through this interview.

Stephanie shares about the McKinsey case interview, including how she failed the first time through the McKinsey interview process, and how she turned it around the second time up. If you’re curious how one rises through the ranks at McKinsey – from associate/consultant to Associate Partner – you will want to keep reading. In addition, you’ll learn what a typical week-in-the-life of a McKinsey Associate Partner looks like. It’s packed full of juicy insights you will want to apply to your own journey. Listen (or read) at your leisure!

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Former McKinsey Associate Partner Shares How She Broke Into “The Firm”

Namaan Mian  00:27

Welcome to this week’s episode of Strategy Simplified. This is Namaan here. I’m really, really excited to be talking to Stephanie Knight today, a former McKinsey Engagement Manager and a member of our senior leadership team here at Management Consulted. We’re going to dive deep into her story, how she broke into McKinsey, what her time was like at the firm, why she left, what she’s up to now, and just some of the lessons she’s learned along the way. Stephanie, thanks so much for joining me today.

Stephanie Knight  00:56

Thanks, Namaan, I’m excited to be with you.

Namaan Mian  00:58

Amazing, let’s just get right into it. Can you introduce yourself and just talk to us at a high level about your background? Where did you go to school? How has your career arc been?

Stephanie Knight  01:12

Yeah, absolutely. So I started thinking that I really wanted to do something in science and in that, so I ended up at Northwestern University undergrad with a degree in mechanical engineering. And while I loved the education that it gave me, once I got onto the job, I realized that it was not what I wanted to do. And so I moved and I pivoted, actually, basically 180 degrees, and went into the nonprofit space.

Stephanie Knight  01:44

I stayed around Chicago for a while and then got the opportunity to go to northern Afghanistan for nearly two years. And there I worked with a NGO in community development and education. And that time led me to think more and more about what I wanted to do in the future, and at that point in my life, I thought that I really wanted to step up into nonprofit management in a more significant way. So I went and got my MBA at Duke Fuqua because of their global reach and the great program they have in social entrepreneurship.

Stephanie Knight  02:18

And when I got to school, I learned about management strategy consulting. And as I learned about the field, when I heard folks speak that were currently in the space, I just thought, this really fits my interest and skill sets. And I think I can have even more impact in this space. I started the recruiting process and did not land an internship my first year, but reworked my process and got the job that I wanted full time as a second year. So landed an Associate full time position at McKinsey in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Then I spent over four years at McKinsey. I was based out of Minneapolis, I also spent a year based out of Geneva, Switzerland, and got to work on projects across four different continents, and a slew of different industries.

Stephanie Knight  03:11

I was an Associate, Senior Associate, Engagement Manager, Senior Engagement Manager. I was operating as an Associate Partner, AP junior Partner level when I left. But was about six months away from my first pass at that promotion to Partner, and decided that I just wanted to slow life down. So moved back to North Carolina, and started my own consultancy, which I’ve now been doing for the past six years. So that puts me just now over 10 years in the consulting space. And I also wear another hat – I’m an adjunct professor at Fuqua, I teach three classes in consulting at the Analyst, Associate and Engagement Manager level. And then I am super excited to now be with you guys as the Chief Learning Officer here at Management Consulted.

Namaan Mian  03:59

Amazing, that’s quite the journey and I want to get to McKinsey in a minute. But I have to ask more about Afghanistan. How much can you share? What were you up to? Where in northern Afghanistan were you? What was the work like?

Stephanie Knight  04:14

I was located in Mazar-i-Sharif. And the basic background of the story was that there was a group of medical professionals who had wanted to set up rural health clinics in Afghanistan. And so in their medium to long term path to doing that they had to establish themselves in larger cities, to learn the culture and the language before just going out into the rural areas.

Stephanie Knight  04:43

They couldn’t just be there as tourists, of course, so they established various nonprofit entities on the ground. And by the time they were getting ready to leave, they realized we’ve got a great reputation, great organizational presence here on the ground. Now, we need non-medical staff, we need folks that are interested in this education and community development space to come in and take over our work. So I heard about that opportunity. And what really pulled on my heartstrings was they said, we really in particular need women because women can work with the older population, male and female, and women can work with children.

Stephanie Knight  05:22

And so, you may just think that men are going to have more power and presence here because of the culture of the country. But, in effect, we need more women on our team. So I went, I lead different courses. I also got to teach at the university. I got an offer to stay on at the university teaching engineering, which I was woefully unprepared for and unable to do quite honestly.

Stephanie Knight  05:53

But it was it was a great experience and I got to dabble in and see, you know, from micro-finance to education. You’re working with other expats and other NGOs, just got to see a lot of different types of of operations on the ground. And over my two years, I really rose to to help lead the organization. And so that’s again, at that point in my life, I thought, Hey, I just need to sharpen my toolkit In this sense, and then perhaps I’ll come back or go somewhere else.

Stephanie Knight  06:28

But then, you know, even through my work at McKinsey, I was able to do social sector work and have an impact in that space still, as well.

Stephanie Knight  06:37

That’s amazing. So you spent two years in Afghanistan and you decide, I need to broaden or sharpen my skill set, and so you decide the MBA is the best way to do that. What was it that convinced you that an MBA was the right way to go and why Fuqua?

Stephanie Knight  06:54

Let me tell you a little story – and I love this story. I was finishing up my first year in Afghanistan. And, you know, in town, there were only a handful of places where we would go out to eat, for security reasons, and just culturally speaking where we felt comfortable, particularly as a woman. And so it was not uncommon that we would run across other expats that we knew in town, or even folks passing from out of town. And so we were out to lunch one day, and we met a man and a woman who were passing through, they had left Kabul and they were leaving the country up through the northern border throughout Uzbekistan.

Stephanie Knight  07:36

They told us about their operation. They had a for-profit, nonprofit hybrid organization based out of Kabul, and they had a social entrepreneurship accelerator on one half of the business. And on the other half of the business they were working to really gain a profit off of investing in the most promising ideas and entrepreneurs that came through that program. And they were leaving the country because they were flying back to the US to pitch to Whole Foods, the idea of a new saffron product grown, harvested and processed in Afghanistan. And they had their whole pitch ready about why it made sense from the environment and geography but also, why Afghanistan was the perfect place in terms of the high workforce that you need over a short period of time to harvest saffron.

Stephanie Knight  08:29

And I was just entranced. The idea of being able to pair that type of business sense, with still having a broad and deep impact in the community, I thought was just really impactful. And as they shared more, the woman of the group shared that her MBA from she said, I didn’t go to one of the best schools, but I have an MBA from an American University. And whether it’s been working here in Afghanistan, or in the Emirates, other places in Central Asia and the Middle East, it’s opened so many doors for me. And so it was then and there that I knew, okay, I’m going back home for the summer, I’m going to take the GMAT, I’m gonna start my applications, because that just sounds like an exciting type of work for me.

Namaan Mian  09:19

Incredible. A chance encounter leads to the confirmation that an MBA is right for you. And so you did your undergrad at Northwestern. You’re from the Midwest. What drew you to Fuqua?

Stephanie Knight  09:32

Yeah, so I have a little bit of a tie. I have a grandfather that went to Duke and it always had a special place in his heart and we heard about it growing up. I did visit and I applied as an undergrad, but decided not to go there. I decided to stay closer to home. As I started looking around, of course, I was pulled in and I thought I want to apply to the best programs. But then as I looked a little bit broader and further, just you know, outside of basically Stanford and Harvard, I thought, what are the other kind of top tier schools that are interesting to me?

Stephanie Knight  10:05

And I really wanted somewhere that has social sector focus and experience, but also has a broad base of exposure to other industries as well. And then to have a global feel and footprint. And when I looked at the combination of those things, there was nowhere better than Duke to go for me.

Stephanie Knight  10:25

As a case in point, during my two year full time, or daytime MBA program, I was able to, as a part of my course credit, work and do projects on the ground: Belize, South Africa, China, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. So, in that two year program, across various courses, I really got to see new parts of the world as well. My personal country count is up to 54 and I am excited to continue to expand on that post pandemic, maybe even this summer, fingers crossed. But that was an important part of my decision as well.

Namaan Mian  11:15

Wow, that’s more than just paying lip service to the idea of an international MBA. And it’s more than just the one trek that you make at some point during your program. That’s amazing. And I think you’re one of the few people I’ve met that’s got me beat in the country count, so that motivates me to get back out there as soon as the pandemic is over.

Namaan Mian  11:37

So you step foot on campus, and you think that you’re going to kind of stay in the nonprofit world forever, correct me if I’m wrong. But then you’re introduced to management strategy consulting. How were you introduced to it? What was it that appealed to you about consulting?

Stephanie Knight  11:57

It was definitely the the way that I was leaning when I went in. But I wanted to go somewhere where I would be exposed to to other industries and other opportunities. At Fuqua, they have a program called symposiums. And so over the first several weeks of the non recruiting period of the first year MBAs, they take a dedicated focus basically every week, and have more or less a full day conference about different industry spaces. And they’re all optional, but I took it upon myself to go to as many as I could.

Stephanie Knight  12:35

And the consulting symposium really got me to see the critical thinking and problem solving nature of consulting, the project based nature of the work and how therefore it’s always changing and evolving. The quick progression that you can make by being successful in the role and the management role that you can take on at a relatively early tenure in the space. All of those things were really enticing to me as I thought about what I wanted my career path to look like. But also when I thought about what type of leader I wanted to be and what type of impact I wanted to have.

Stephanie Knight  13:22

I didn’t want to start my own organization by myself off the bat, which I found is what a lot of my social entrepreneurship colleagues wanted to do in school, but I thought, to go into a space and really be a trusted adviser as a consultant, gain and sharpen my toolkit in that sense, then if I can do that as a generalist and have some focus on making sure I get to work in the social sector space along the way as well, then I’ll be set up to have an impact in any space moving forward. And so I just really thought the the investment there, if I could land a position would be what made most sense to me at the time.

Namaan Mian  14:05

Amazing. So, okay, consulting draws you in and, not to pick at a sore spot, but you’ve already mentioned that you failed during internship recruiting. So, why do you feel like you didn’t make the cut the first time and what lessons did you learn from that to apply to full time recruiting?

Stephanie Knight  14:23

Absolutely. So I went to the structured on campus events and got all the interviews that I wanted. Honestly, that first time around I cast my net in quite a limited way. But I got interviews with McKinsey, Bain, BCG, and Deloitte Human Capital. Those were the ones that I targeted. And I got zero second round interviews. So the feedback that I got across all my first round interviews was relatively similar and all pointed to the fact that I was woefully unprepared for the case interview portion.

Stephanie Knight  15:04

I had gone to one programming event that the school had led. I had been involved with the consulting club and gotten access to a case book. I had read through a bunch of cases, I had read a couple of books, but I had never practiced live with a partner. And I had never gone through the full motions enough times of practicing the full case. And so I really had to think long and hard that spring and summer about whether or not I was willing to put myself through that process again, because I felt like it was a huge battle even getting to the point of getting the interviews, and not knowing whether or not I was still of interest to any of those firms as I would come back as a second year.

Stephanie Knight  15:51

But I maintained the relationships that I had built through that next spring and summer. I still made the most of the time that I had over the summer. I actually went back to Afghanistan that summer, and created my own opportunity to basically consult to various nonprofits on the ground, and put together projects for myself in that sense, and then came back and was a research associate at Fuqua as well for that summer. I came back and just dove in headfirst. I started live casing, started practicing the fit questions, pushed hard on networking, and still still landed interviews with the companies that I still wanted to that second time around. And so I interviewed again with BCG and Bain and McKinsey, and then decided to to move forward with McKinsey, which was my ultimate goal.

Namaan Mian  16:56

I want to pause there because I think in every episode, and every interview that we do, there are a couple of points that I don’t want people to miss. And so just to reemphasize a couple of the things that you said. Number one, you created your own consulting internship opportunity even though you didn’t get a formal one. I think that’s incredible. And what we recommend a lot of folks do is add that relevant experience to your resume somehow, some way, even if you create the experience yourself.

Namaan Mian  17:26

And then number two, what really made the difference for you in the interview process was out-loud practice. And so I know that you’ve very clearly stated those things, but I’m restating them just so people don’t miss them. Because I think that sometimes we fall into the trap of reading a lot of books, watching a lot of videos, and we think, “I can do that.” But we never actually do it before we walk into the interview. Or we think that “I didn’t get the internship and so I am not going to be able to build the relevant experience.” And your story proves that that’s not true.

Stephanie Knight  17:59

Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more.

Namaan Mian  18:40

So you land an offer at McKinsey. And just based on the career arc that you walked us through at the beginning of this conversation, you were promoted multiple times. So how did you stand out as a top performer?

Stephanie Knight  18:57

That’s a good question. So the exact formula for success, of course, differs a little bit at each firm. McKinsey has a quite regimented rating system and so once a year, you get a real clear view of where you’re at, but also project to project. You get a view, largely directed by your Engagement Manager of how you’re doing and where you’re at relative to your peers, quite honestly. And so I had some good feedback early on and really leaned in to the areas in which they told me I was doing well, and really tried to put extra effort into the areas where I wasn’t doing well.

Stephanie Knight  19:39

And one of the opportunity areas for me early on, honestly, was I had very limited experience in corporate settings in general. I had a little bit of time in the engineering space, but most of that was me in a cubicle by myself leading analysis and trying to push insights up the chain. So I was not very familiar with all of the different types of project activities that would be involved in the consulting space. So learning how to lead an effective meeting, you know, not waste anybody’s time, be efficient and effective at the same time. Construct and lead meaningful surveys and focus groups, and really drive to insights and bring your recommendations forward with confidence.

Stephanie Knight  20:26

Those were all things that I not only didn’t have experience with, but I really didn’t have exposure to as well. So to be able to do what I could, off the bat, and then really be a student of the way that others on my team were successful in those areas, allowed me to really iterate my approach quickly, and then try and put those things into action as soon as I could to make sure that I was, what I felt at the beginning was, just catching up to my colleagues. But what I found over time was having that student approach, that learning and growth mindset, over time, not only allowed me to catch up to my colleagues, but allowed me to really succeed in that role as well.

Namaan Mian  21:14

I think that’s a goldmine what you just said and I hope, current and future consultants bookmark this part of the episode, and come back and listen to it over and over again. So a lot of folks that are listening, they are thinking, “I’m going to break into consulting, and I’m getting into consulting so that I can leave it. It’s for the exit opportunities.” And others are like, “No, I want to break in, and I want to get on that Partner track. And this is the end all be all of my career”. You were at that crossroads. You had the opportunity to be promoted to Partner and you decided not to take that route. Can you just talk to me about why that was the right decision for you?

Stephanie Knight  21:54

When I went into the role I did so with quite open arms and that’s really the posture I would recommend for everybody. You don’t know how you’re going to deal with it, what impact it’s going to have on you and your personal life and your family, what things are going to be easy or hard for you until you get on the job. And so I thought, Hey, I’m just really putting my head down for 6 to 12 months, we’ll see how it goes. And then another 6 to 12 months. Okay, we’ll see how it goes.

Stephanie Knight  22:22

In there, I also did a relocation to Europe o that’s another leg of the story. But after I hit about three and a half years in, I had already been in the engagement role for a couple of years by that point. And I got an invitation to a small group event held in New York at McKinsey, led by female directors – now called Senior Partners – but, led by the female executives of the firm towards early APs and late stage EM’s that they were excited about to be on the path to partnership. And so I not only felt honored to get that invitation, but I really was curious about what the contents of that two or three day event would be.

Stephanie Knight  23:19

When I got there, I was curious what it was going to be like. They were honest and open in their encouragement, but also with the path that that laid ahead. And so they really walked through and said, you need to have your ducks in a row for the next two to three years to really put your head down on this path to Partner. And let’s talk about what that looks like. Let’s analyze that against your current standing with your different client service teams, and your different knowledge areas, and what it takes to become elected to the partnership from that CST standpoint, from a knowledge standpoint, what your back page looks like, etc, etc.

Stephanie Knight  24:02

And as I went through those discussions, I sat back and just thought, you know what, at this period in time, I feel burned out. I hadn’t really over the years even taken all the vacation that I would have been allowed to take. I had pushed really hard for a long time. And while it was a very tough decision for me, to be honest and I still wrestle with, you know, thinking back on that decision. But at that moment in time, I thought, I need to slow things down. I need to focus on my health and my family, my personal life, and really take things in a different direction. So then I I moved and I started to do that.

Stephanie Knight  24:45

So for me it honestly was never about the exit opportunity in terms of getting on the corporate ladder. A lot of the advice I got at the firm at the time was to say this is your one opportunity to be at that job title level that you’re aiming for, and then be able to march up slowly from there. But when you make this transition, that’s the biggest opportunity you have to now cement yourself on this slow moving corporate ladder.

Stephanie Knight  25:18

And that just wasn’t appealing to me. I wasn’t interested in getting back into the grind in that sense. I was interested in continuing to leverage the skills that I had built at McKinsey as a consultant. And I did in many ways find it tougher to start to try now get business on my own, and start to work independently in consulting, but really have carved out my own path in that way, and I’m happy with the result.

Namaan Mian  25:45

At the end of the day, you have to be able to live with the decisions that you make. And you know, I don’t think you’re ever going to regret carving your own path. So it’s the bolder move, and I think the more fulfilling one. And selfishly, I’m glad that you chose that, because you joined us at Management Consulted.

Stephanie Knight  26:00

Absolutely!

Namaan Mian  26:03

So we’ve walked through your career in consulting, outside of consulting. There are a lot of folks that listen to us and are listening to us today because they want to break into consulting and be where you were. What’s one piece of advice that you would share with them?

Stephanie Knight  26:20

I think in terms of getting into consulting, the biggest thing that I like to tell folks is get every piece of exposure you can to make sure that this is something that you really want to do. Don’t be just persuaded by the the optics, the flashy title, and the potential for big dollars. You know, if you don’t enjoy the basic mechanics of the work, then the the nose to the grindstone is just not going to be worth it. It’s a really difficult industry to get into in general.

Stephanie Knight  26:59

You know, we teach and coach on so many of the different aspects that you have to have polished to be able to even get the opportunity. And then when you get the opportunity, it doesn’t slow down at that point, it just speeds up. So if you can get the opportunity to do an externship, an internship, to shadow someone, to you know, here at Management Consulted we have Strategy Sprint. In your course programs to be able to do an experiential learning opportunity and actually apprentice with folks that have been in the industry themselves, all of those opportunities give you a much better picture of whether or not you like that critical thinking, problem solving, fast paced work.

Stephanie Knight  27:38

And if you do, then we of course have many different tools and resources to help you polish those different aspects and get you ready to land the job that you want.

Namaan Mian  27:50

Absolutely. So let’s say I’m a candidate, and I’ve decided, based on the limited exposure that I can have that consulting is for me. Can you give me some insight into what a typical week, and I know there’s not a typical week, but what an example week could look like if I am at McKinsey.

Stephanie Knight  28:12

So let’s say in a typical week, as long as you don’t have a Monday morning meeting with your client, then you wake up super early on Monday, and you get to your local airport and you fly out to the client site. On the plane, maybe you’re trying to catch a few Z’s for part of it. But then you are getting caught up on your email and setting things up. Not only on the plane, but in transit to your client site as well. Once you get there, and the rest of your team gets there, you huddle and powwow, make sure everybody’s set for the day and the general path for the week. And you begin the various project activities on your work stream. Whether it be meeting with clients, you know, doing Excel analysis and creating models, drafting effective and influential PowerPoint slides, strategizing about the path forward and the key questions you’re still trying to answer in your work stream.

Stephanie Knight  29:06

The general pace is you try and get there before the clients and you try and leave after the clients. So Monday is always a long day as you stay a little extra time at the at the client site. And then perhaps you and the team all go have dinner together. Maybe with clients, maybe not. And then go back to the hotel room where you’re likely catching up on things again for another hour or 2 in the evening.

Stephanie Knight  29:32

That general pattern repeats itself Tuesday and Wednesday, to get to the client site early. It’s a maybe an 8:30 to 6:00 day on site, perhaps. And then getting getting a lunch break, having meetings, doing independent work, meeting with clients, perhaps doing site visits, etc. and then taking time to have dinner in the evening. Maybe on a Tuesday I would choose to do that by myself, and just get a little bit of time away, being the independent introvert that I am, and then getting that extra time at night, perhaps even then to meet with one of your teammates outside of the office setting to have more sensitive conversations that you wouldn’t want a client to overhear at the client site, or just again, continuing to move your workstream forward.

Stephanie Knight  30:25

Thursday, it looks a little different, because then after lunch, everybody starts to migrate and pack up, move back to the airport, and get yourself home for the evening. But even when you get home on Thursday evening, you often have to log in a little bit to perhaps after you have dinner with your family, to make sure that you are on top of your work stream. Friday typically is an office day where you wake up, go to your home office and involve yourself in various firm internal activities.

Stephanie Knight  30:54

Perhaps you’re on the the social committee or a planning team for an upcoming professional development event or, you know, meeting with the local Partners and seniority in your office to network and learn about what’s going on in the firm and about other opportunities in the future moving forward, and getting a little bit of chance to network and engage and just enjoy the colleagues that you have internally in your office. And then often to try and get an earlier day to go home to be able to be to leave the office by perhaps 4:30, give yourself a nice long evening at home. Likely check into your email, do a little bit of work at some point or other on Saturday, just as a touch point. And then by the time Sunday evening comes back around, taking a full sweep through your email and plan and work to make sure that you’re all ready to do it again the next week.

Namaan Mian  31:55

So they’re packed busy weeks, and to your point, you should know beforehand what you’re getting into and that you’re going to enjoy it. Otherwise it’s going to be a long 2, 3, 4 years, however long you’re at the firm.

Stephanie Knight  32:10

And folks that work so hard to get that position and then leave after 6, 8, or 12 months, it’s just unfortunate. I think that unless you stay that full 2 years, you’re not really getting the bump benefit from taking all that time and effort in this industry. And so you got to make sure that investment is going to be worth it to you.

Namaan Mian  32:35

Absolutely. Well, Stephanie, thanks so much for joining us.

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