Why I Left McKinsey, Part 2

This is part 2 of my 2 article series on why I left McKinsey.

In article #1, I explained why I left and dove into what I perceived to be McKinsey and the consulting industry’s shortcomings.

Below, I’ll dig into why I loved working there 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 below explain why.

1. 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 disabused 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.

2. Valuable training in the HOW and WHAT

By HOW, I mean the approach to solving business problems and creating value as a business leader.

Examples include:

  • 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.

3. Alumni network

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.

4. 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.

5. Client skills

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).

6. Firm relationships

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.

7. (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 (to consultants, yeah yeah) 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.

8. 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.

9. Optionality

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 Steven Schwarzman 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 click here if you haven’t read part 1 on why I left.

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 3 Month Mastery sets 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!


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