The world is flat.
That was conventional wisdom for medieval mariners. Sail too far and you’ll plunge into the abyss. Sure enough, this mindset is splattered across many organizations. Here, talent is cautioned to defer to superiors and follow orders. Posing questions and taking risks are promoted in theory…and treated as rabbit holes in practice. Such cultures aren’t flat – they’re boxed and stacked. That’s why McKinsey & Company approaches issues in the exact opposite manner.
McKinsey is flat…and proud of it. By flat, we mean equal. It is a place where “you will never have a boss and you will never be a boss,” says Kevin Dolan, a senior partner who heads operations in the Chicago office. In a 2020 interview with P&Q, Dolan – a HBS grad and 16-year veteran of the firm – touted the firm’s flexibility. At McKinsey, MBA grads can choose their projects, industries, engagements, and teammates. At the same time, the firm’s trademarks – openness, versatility, expertise, and customization – make it the ideal place to experience how to lead.
DOING IT DIFFERENTLY EVERY TIME
“You have all this professional flexibility,” Dolan notes. “At the same time, in order to activate that, you learn a lot about leadership and working with people because you don’t have any positional authority but you still have ownership to do the right thing for the client. So you build a lot of important leadership skills that I don’t think you can get anywhere else.”
It was certainly different than business school, says Bekinwari Idoniboye, a Charlottesville native who earned her undergraduate degree at Wharton and her MBA at Northwestern Kellogg. Working alongside partners, associate partners, and engagement managers, Idoniboye expected to take a back seat to more senior colleagues. She would listen and learn how similar problems were addressed with past clients. Instead, she found her team leaders would roll up their sleeves and head to the white board. They were always looking to dig deeper, demanding input from team members and never letting themselves be satisfied with conventional wisdom and past solutions.
“At Wharton or Kellogg, you usually had a professor tell you approach and how you get there,” Idoniboye explains in a 2020 interview with P&Q. “At McKinsey, even though the partners have done it numerous times, each time they look at it different because it brings a client context that is unlike anything else. Everyone’s approach is vital.”
“A CONSTANT INTELLECTUAL CHALLENGE”
Joshua Reuben, a University of Toronto MBA, is equally enthusiastic about McKinsey’s culture and structure. The former president of Rotman’s Consulting Club, Reuben credits business school with helping him master problem-solving frameworks and sharpen his soft skills. At McKinsey, he found a platform to achieve his biggest goal: making an immediate impact.
“The relatively flat structure and level of ownership provided even to new associates added to this intellectual stimulation and feeling of real responsibility,” he writes. “I knew from my conversations with colleagues at the firm that the knowledge infrastructure and network served as a force multiplier to help me to have far more impact than I could ever have on my own. Being in this environment is a constant intellectual challenge.”
Intellectual challenge? That’s an understatement. After all, McKinsey is considered to be the CEO Whisperer among consulting firms. Founded in 1926, McKinsey is the oldest and largest consulting firm, with 30,000 professionals staffing 133 offices in 66 countries. Generating $10 billion dollars annually, McKinsey comes with a reputation for authority and influence, with deep roots in both Fortune 100 behemoths and public sector power centers. The firm is elite, attracting top talent globally – including nine members of P&Q’s 2020 Best & Brightest MBAs. While McKinsey isn’t the puppet master it is sometimes portrayed, the firm’s 35,000 alumni members include leaders like Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and U.S. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (along with CEOs at Morgan Stanley, Best Buy, Credit Suisse, and Lego).
AUTONOMY AND OWNERSHIP
Indeed, McKinsey is considered the go-to firm for strategy, operations, and technology. Beyond prestige, McKinsey is regaled for values. In the latest Vault survey, where consultants scored their firms in 22 quality of life measures, McKinsey topped the MBB counterparts in 12, including Innovation, Career Mobility, Supervisor Relationships, Exit Opportunities, and Overall Satisfaction. Such scores reflect an unrelenting commitment to exceeding customer expectations, inclusiveness, and long-term focus. Even more, McKinsey leans heavily on training – investing $200 million dollars annually in developing its consultants. This training is reinforced by an apprenticeship model founded on in-time feedback and continuous learning.
To some, consulting may seem like a blur of red-eye flights and evenings tethered to a laptop. However, there is a saying at the firm: “McKinsey is more than a job but less than a life.” By that, consultants mean that there is an ebb-and-flow to the workload. Their access enables them to have a voice on what goes on and when they need to step back.
“I like that McKinsey gives me autonomy and ownership of my path at the firm,” writes Sergio Velasquez-Terjesen, a Harvard MBA whose team is currently helping a client develop their long-term strategy to climate change. “Our office-driven staffing model helps me build my network and skills and opens up opportunities to engage with leaders in my areas of interest across North America and beyond. I’ve experienced this even in my short tenure. In addition, our flexible working programs enable me to pursue interests outside of the firm.”
FROM WHITE HOUSE AIDES TO SURGEONS
The firm also accommodated Velasquez-Terjesen, so he could complete the New York Marathon and raise money for Movember, a charity supporting men’s health issues. One of those ailments is testicular cancer, something that Steven Avila beat before earning his MBA at NYU’s Stern School of Business. Avila also spent five years working in the Obama administration. Starting out in the White House’s Office of Presidential Correspondence, he eventually made his way to the Office of the Interior, where he served an advisor.
“I pursued an MBA because I wanted to better understand how public policy impacts business decisions and to learn more about the motivations of business leaders,” he tells P&Q.
Indeed, you’ll find McKinseyites hail from all walks of life. Joyce Tsuchiya, an IMD alum who joined McKinsey in 2019, worked as a cataract surgeon before business school. Chika Ofili, a Wharton MBA who operates out of the Calgary office, led 25-member teams as a major projects engineer across Canada. At the same time, Duke Fuqua’s Winny Arindrani joined forces with her mother to build a social enterprise to help 50 women in Central Java gain an income.
MISTAKING A HEDGEHOG AND A HEDGE FUND
That diversity extends to what they do outside their offices. At 16, Arindrani was the youngest contestant on Indonesian Idol, thanks to a dozen years of classical piano training. INSEAD’s Cherry Oracion can speak six languages, which helps when she jams out to Latin songs and K-Pop in the Tokyo office. As an undergrad, Columbia Business School’s Jake Yihai Zhu paid his tuition breeding hedgehogs – a gig that netted an unexpected benefit.
“When I put that on my resume, an investment management firm rang me as they read it and thought I ran my own hedge fund,” he jokes.
Steven Avila actually brings some star power to the New Jersey office. His claim to fame? When the Washington Monument reopened, he dressed up as a mini-monument…and ended up on the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Think that’s cool? Just wait until you hear where Virginia Darden’s Derek Debruhl proposed to his wife.
“While she was sitting at the edge of the door, I popped the question and then pushed her out before she could respond. My parachute was smaller than hers, so I fell faster and was on one knee when she finally landed. Despite that experience, she still said yes.”
BUILDING VERSATILITY AND CONFIDENCE
Today, Debruhl is working with a large chemical plant to transform its maintenance practices. That’s just one of the engagements where 2019 hires are involved. Over three weeks, Steven Avila found himself devising a five-year plan for a financial services client, which was followed by conducting pro bono work for a nonprofit and ramping up sales pilots for an industrial supplier. Similarly, Bekinwari Idoniboye’s team has been helping a logistics firm redesign their supervisor front line role. This has included developing a job description, identifying training needs, and equipping supervisors with tools to boost their capabilities. For Idoniboye, the best part has been stepping into their clients’ roles and experiencing their lives.
“I wore steel-toed boots, we went to a lot of different sites, and we shadowed many of the supervisors to see what they did on a day-to-day basis. We took note of what was really hampering them, along with their feelings and impressions of their role and what motivated them. That really enabled us to say how we were going to get them from where they are now to where we wanted them to be.”
Go To The Bottom of Page 3 For 14 In-Depth Profiles of 2019 McKinsey Hires