What McKinsey Seeks In MBA Hires

Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and global lead of recruiting

Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and global lead of recruiting

It isn’t easy being number one. The competition is always gunning for you. And your critics never stop assailing you. And being on top of the prestige consulting game has been McKinsey & Company’s burden going on seven decades now. Everyone seemingly has an opinion about McKinsey. To do that, they must be doing something extraordinary.


So what’s behind the admiration and the envy? Let’s start with McKinsey’s sheer size. According to Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and global lead of recruiting, McKinsey employs over 9,000 consultants at 107 sites in 63 countries who speak 130 languages. They cover nearly every conceivable industry sector and business specialty. When it comes to annual revenue, they generate nearly as much as The Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company combined.

It’s also the largest single recruiter of MBA graduates, hiring more newly minted MBAs in a given year than any other organization on earth. The standard package: $135,000 to start, with a $25,000 signing bonus, for first-year total compensation of at least $160,000 is a pretty neat package. At many of the world’s most prestigious business schools, from Harvard to INSEAD, McKinsey tops all other companies in hiring the most graduates. Last year, for example, McKinsey was easily the No. 1 employers at Chicago Booth, Kellogg, and Columbia Business School. The firm employed 40 MBAs from Booth, 29 from Kellogg, and 51, including sponsored students, from Columbia. In 2013, McKinsey hired 108 members of the graduating class at INSEAD, including 45 sponsored MBAs.

Even having a prestige MBA is no guarantee of hire. The firm is among the most selective organizations in the world. Financial journalist Duff McDonald estimates that McKinsey hires just 1% of the 225,000 applicants who apply each year. And among McKinsey’s 30,000 alumni, you’ll find a who’s who of business and politics, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Boeing Chairman James McNerney, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, authors Jim Collins and Tom Peters, and even Chelsea Clinton (to name a few).

And when it comes to McKinsey’s influence, it’s hard to know where to start. Analysts estimate that the firm partners with 80 to 90% of the world’s top 100 firms, with a roster that reportedly includes AT&T, General Electric, General Motors, and Johnson & Johnson (not to mention the NBA and the World Bank). Basically, McKinsey is where leaders turn to navigate treacherous, long-term transitions.

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Founded in 1926, McKinsey is ranked as the most prestigious consulting firm. For some, a stint at McKinsey is the equivalent to earning another graduate degree. For others, it is the gateway to the c-suite, with a recent survey pegging nearly 15 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs as McKinsey alums.


Despite its size and influence, McKinsey maintains a low profile, with its commitment to confidentiality often mistaken for aloofness. As a result, the firm is constantly battling public misconceptions. For one, McKinsey isn’t comprised exclusively of MBAs. In fact, only half of its people are MBAs – and Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s global managing director, holds a BA and Masters in Economics. Despite being founded by an accounting professor from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, McKinsey actually doesn’t maintain a global headquarters, with Barton, a Canadian, actually working out of London.

And don’t buy into those “up-or-out” horror stories, either, notes Rolfes. Boasting that “we’re not your grandmother’s McKinsey,” Rolfes, a 20-year McKinsey veteran who holds law degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, touts his firm’s flexibility. He points to McKinsey’s Pace program, which reduces the pressure to progress at breakneck speed. “[It] provides the option for consultants to stay in their current role longer, while continuing to develop and be challenged professionally.”

At the same time, Rolfes debunks the myth that consulting consists of never-ending travel away from loved ones. “We use a local office-driven staffing model where staffing people on projects with local leadership is the default.” He credits McKinsey’s size for this environment. “Our scale makes it so that we can staff people according to what fits them best, helps them grow and aligns with their priorities.”

Recently, Rolfes replied to Poets&Quants’ questions about McKinsey’s hiring practices and expectations for MBAs. And the answers may not be what you necessarily expect. Check out Rolfes’ thoughts on how to get an edge in McKinsey’s hiring process.

What is McKinsey’s hiring philosophy? What do you look for in applicants first and foremost?

Two qualities we look for as we recruit are problem solving and the ability to work well in teams.  These are at the core of what our consultants do every day and how we serve clients, so we look to hire people who are extraordinary problem solvers and enjoy collaborating with colleagues and clients.

In terms of skills, we look for analytical people who want to create positive results for clients in the private, public and social sectors and have demonstrated leadership skills and experience.  Leadership might be demonstrated through work experience or school activities like serving as the lead for grad school projects or managing a school group or club.

Essentially, we hire people who are passionate about making positive change in the world and can excel at doing so because of their analytical and people skills.  That is the heart of consulting at McKinsey.

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