McKinsey, widely considered the most prestigious management consulting firm in the world, is also the largest of what are often referred to as the “MBB (McKinsey, Bain and BCG) firms.”
McKinsey was founded in 1926 by James McKinsey, who left his position as an accounting professor at the University of Chicago to put accounting principles to work in the field of management. In 1933, McKinsey hired Marvin Bower, a JD/MBA from Harvard, who helped with the Chicago-based firm’s expansion to New York City. When McKinsey died prematurely of pneumonia, Bower took the helm and led the firm for the next two decades.
Harvard Business School (HBS) calls Bower “the father of modern management consulting” and credits him with the expanding the firm internationally, increasing its billing exponentially and developing its “up or out” recruiting policy. Under this policy, which has since become commonplace in the management consulting industry, consultants are promoted at regular intervals or asked to leave. According to HBS, Bower also pioneered the practice of hiring business school graduates rather than experienced managers from other organizations.
Of the firm’s approximately 17,000 employees, more than 10,000 are consultants. Non-consulting roles include technologists, data experts and researchers, as well as internal service professionals who provide HR, IT, legal and finance support to client-facing teams.
McKinsey has no official headquarters—instead, it has 110 offices across 61 countries around the globe.
The company prides itself on longstanding client relationships built on trust, claiming that 70 percent of its work is for clients it has served for 10 years or more. Those clients include a diverse mix of organizations in the private, public and social sectors. Approximately 40 percent of clients are in Europe, 35 percent in the Americas, 15 percent in Asia Pacific and 10 percent in the Middle East and Africa.
McKinsey is also known for its publications and research. Books published by McKinsey and its consultants include In Search of Excellence, War on Talent and Creative Destruction, among many others. The McKinsey Quarterly was established in 1964 and is an outlet for research conducted at the firm. Many McKinsey consultants also are regular contributors to the Harvard Business Review. And in 1990, the firm established an in-house think tank, the McKinsey Global Institute, to conduct research on major global challenges and trends.
Like Harvard for MBAs, McKinsey’s brand is top notch, which has contributed to the coining of words and phrases such as “McKinseyites” and “the McKinsey Way.” The firm also touts the fact that it invests more than $500 million annually in capability building and knowledge development, which it notes is “more than the research budgets of Harvard Business School, Stanford Business School, and Wharton combined.”
McKinsey is the market leader in terms of size, breadth and reach. Its expansive alumni network is also a powerful resource for its members, much as the alumni network of a top business school is.
McKinsey is famous for having a strong culture—its foundation laid by Marvin Bower—and for encouraging team members to do things “the McKinsey Way.” This refers both to the structured, fact-driven, hypothesis-based process the firm’s consultants are trained to use to attack problems and to a set of core values put in place by Bower and upheld to this day. These foundational values include always putting clients’ interests first, fiercely protecting client confidentiality and never publicizing work for clients.
McKinsey consultants employ a range of standard methodologies and techniques—such as the MECE principle of organizing information into subsets that are mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive and the 80/20 rule, which suggests that 80 percent of a company’s sales will come from 20 percent of its clients. Feedback is frequent and expected, and consultants are taught to think in a highly structured way and molded into a tight-knit cohesive culture.
McKinsey hires exceptional people with prestigious pedigrees—which some also say is part of the legacy left by Bower and his double Harvard degrees. Intellectual capacity trumps experience, logic is preferred over emotion, and facts over instinct—basically, McKinsey seeks out the left-brained and hyper-rationale.
McKinsey consultants are generally outwardly positive and upbeat, optimistic and provide positive feedback.
In contrast to Bain, which is known for its “work hard, play hard” culture, McKinsey is known for its “work hard, work hard culture with a little play thrown in,” according to Management Consulted, an online resource for the consulting industry. Also unlike Bain, with its home-staffing model designed to create cohesive teams in local offices, McKinsey staffs globally, putting consultants onto project engagements with five to six team members from other locations around the world. This results in significantly more travel for McKinsey consultants, since even when you don’t need to travel to be on site with a client, you may need to travel to catch up with your team. Indeed, out of the MBB firms, McKinsey has the longest hours and the most intense travel schedule.
There is also a transient nature to the organization. This results from a combination of the “up or out” philosophy, the fact that four days of every week is spent at a client site and the prevalence of temporary team assignments. Turnover at McKinsey, like most large consulting firms, is high. For many, the job essentially becomes a stepping stone into other careers rather than a final destination.
On the up side, associates often have a great deal of flexibility—they have the leeway to choose assignments and will have “project bosses,” but no set boss. Associates work directly with clients, often on site. And according to CNN Money, McKinsey also gets high marks for the flexibility it provides to working mothers. It features a Mother’s Network program that designates a point person to provide coaching and advice for every consultant who is going on and returning from maternity leave.
On its website, McKinsey cites four main factors it looks for in the people it hires: personal impact, entrepreneurial drive, problem-solving skills and leadership abilities. In an interview with CNN Money speaking specifically about its MBA hires, Brian Rolfes, partner, global recruiting, echoed one of these and added another. “Two qualities we look for as we recruit are problem solving and the ability to work well in teams,” he said. “These are at the heart of what our consultants do every day.”
McKinsey views business school—and particularly the very top business schools—as the ideal training ground for its consultants. “Your MBA program prepares you as a problem solver—developing hypotheses, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and making recommendations,” reads the company website. “You’re intellectually curious, asking and answering questions others don’t, and testing solutions others haven’t thought of trying.” In these and other ways, McKinsey believes that the business knowledge MBAs come in with can prove invaluable to solving client problems.
In addition to the above traits, the MBB firms all look for evidence of strong intellectual ability as well as a strong GMAT score.
Applicants who have been admitted to full-time MBA programs at any of the top U.S. business schools (mentioned below) can take advantage of a unique pre-MBA opportunity at McKinsey called the Emerging Scholars Program. Designed to provide promising incoming students with an early introduction to the firm, the program includes monetary awards for the highest-performing applicants, one-on-one mentorship by McKinsey consultants and valuable networking opportunities.
Students entering full-time programs (including dual-degree programs) at the following schools can apply: Harvard, Stanford, UPenn / Wharton, Northwestern / Kellogg, U. Chicago Booth, Columbia Business School, UC Berkeley Haas, UCLA Anderson, Michigan / Ross, UNC Kenan-Flagler, Stern, Cornell, Tuck, Duke, Darden and Yale. There is a separate scholarship program called “The McKinsey Award” for students enrolling at MIT Sloan. These programs are open to both U.S. and international residents who are heading off to a top 16 U.S. business school.
The simple, online application process takes only a few minutes to complete. Applications for the Emerging Scholars cohort are typically due in May. Scholars are announced in July.
Current MBA students can apply to work in one of McKinsey’s offices around the globe for eight to 10 weeks as an associate intern. Most associate internships take place in the summer between the first and second years of business school.
Associate interns typically work in teams of three to five consultants and get to dive into all aspects of client engagement. This can include information gathering and analysis, testing hypotheses and developing and communicating recommendations to clients—putting McKinsey’s signature problem-solving approach to work from the get-go. Associate interns benefit from coaching and mentoring from colleagues on their teams as part of day-to-day project assignments, as well as one-on-one career guidance from a partner assigned to them from their local office or practice.
McKinsey consultants specialize over time as they progress through the ranks at the firm, but the majority are generalists when they come in as associate interns.
Coming into McKinsey as an associate intern is the best path to securing a full-time position post-MBA.
About 50 percent of the firm’s incoming consultant hires have MBAs. MBA graduates usually enter McKinsey as an associate, working either as a generalist or as a practice consultant if they have a particular area they want to focus on. Generalist consultants move fluidly between different industries and functional areas, whereas practice consultants spend at least 50 percent of their time focused on a particular industry or function.
Like Bain and BCG, McKinsey works in a wide range of industries—22 in total. These include everything from advanced electronics to chemicals, paper and forest products to semiconductors. Its work in social impact is particularly well known, dating back to 1954 when, with fewer than 100 consultants at the time, it took on its first pro bono client work, for the Red Cross. In the last five years alone, McKinsey consultants have undertaken more than 4,000 projects for foundations and nonprofits in the social sector, governments at every level from local to international and public-sector bodies.
McKinsey’s practice areas likewise run the gamut, from analytics to operations, risk to strategy and corporate finance. Most recently, the firm launched a practice it calls Digital McKinsey, which brings together more than 2,000 experts from across the firm to help clients embrace digital technology in cutting-edge ways.
Incoming MBAs usually spend between two and three years at the associate level before evaluation for a promotion to engagement manager. Three to five years as a manager can lead to promotion to associate principal, and finally principal/partner.
Of course, others choose to use the McKinsey brand as a springboard to any number of other careers—from starting their own companies to running major corporations to running for president.