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What Working at McKinsey is Really Like

If you’re considering a career at McKinsey and want to know more about what it’s like to work inside the strategy consulting giant, this article is for you!

McKinsey colleagues are impressive and diverse

It’s not so much that McKinsey consultants are smart (though they are), but that they are often from a prestigious pedigree. At McKinsey, your colleagues are nearly always from the likes of Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Or if they’re older: INSEAD, Goldman Sachs, General Electric, or the military.

You come across Olympic gold medallists working at McKinsey. People who’ve worked at the top echelons of Government. Actual rocket scientists. It’s a melting pot for those who’ve been conventionally successful.

Regardless of background, ‘the Firm’ moulds its consultants into part of a tightly-knit, highly-cohesive culture—one of the strongest you will come across for a company its size. Over time, a consultant will begin to talk and even act in a distinct McKinsey style. You can assemble a team of colleagues from offices all around the world and they’ll immediately snap together and work as a common unit.

The McKinsey culture is unique

The inner world of McKinsey can be described as one that values intellect over experience; influence over compulsion; logic over emotion; and facts over gut feel. It’s left-brained, with a hyper-rational, almost Cartesian view of how business and the world works.

At the same time, it’s outwardly positive and upbeat. People are optimists and very little is seen as impossible. This upbeat, can-do spirit probably helps the Firm crack the problems others shy away from.

Some aspects of the McKinsey ‘way of working’ appear odd at first

McKinsey can be quite a quirky place with an abundance of cultural oddities to it that isn’t obvious from the outside. For example:

  • The Myers-Briggs personality framework is widely used and discussed. You’ll frequently hear people making comments about MBTI types in everyday conversation (e.g. “She’s quite ‘F’, so be careful she doesn’t take it personally”). The classic McKinsey consultant is ENTJ – outgoing, big-picture, hyper-rational, and highly organized. The least common trait is ‘S’—a focus on the details is not the consultant’s strength.
  • There are endless acronyms for all sorts of internal roles and frameworks. A consultant might say: “Fill out your EPR after you’re done with BAT, but make sure your EM talks to the AP before it’s passed on to your DGL or PD.” McKinsey folks will be able to translate this, but almost nobody else will.
  • Feedback is frequent and expected. You receive frequent ideas and suggestions to improve how you work. It also helps create a cohesive culture. If you’re acting in a way that’s not “how things are done here”, you’ll quickly be steered away from it.
  • The Firm has something of an academic feel to it. This is partly because of its history in the detached, hands-off world of corporate strategy rather than the grubby business of execution. Sometimes McKinsey can feel like academia meets business, and academic terms infect the McKinsey vernacular: a project is a ‘study’; temporary postings are ‘fellowships’; colleagues who’ve been at the Firm longer are ‘higher-tenured’.
  • McKinsey has something of an obsession with PowerPoint (although it has made efforts to move away from this recently). To convey a thought at McKinsey, you’re generally expected to make a presentation page. Junior consultants spend hours doing this, and there’s even a full-time offshore graphics team to design slides while you sleep.
  • It’s an affluent and rarefied place. Your lunches and dinners are usually paid for, taxis and rental cars are readily available, and you know if there’s a problem the Firm will be able to get you out of it. It’s not a culture of excess, so much as one of comfort: whatever happens, you always know everything will be taken care of.

The real role of a McKinsey consultant is often unexpected

As for the day-to-day, your job as a consultant is to solve problems. You might be developing a marketing strategy, a new organizational design, or simply cutting costs. But regardless of the problem, the vast majority of McKinsey projects will share a common approach.

This approach involves gathering information, analyzing and interpreting that information, crafting your findings into actionable suggestions, filing off the complexities, and presenting it all for client consumption.

That means you’ll be interviewing junior clients, persuading them to give you information, building Excel models, preparing presentation ‘decks’, and sitting in meetings to discuss them.

The work is frequently punctuated by ‘problem-solving’ sessions, where the McKinsey team sits down together to intellectually ‘crack’ a challenge, unblock a project’s most stubborn roadblocks, and figure out how best to proceed.

It sounds sequential, but in practice it’s much more iterative. You tend to start out early with a hypothesis, and even a “week 1 answer”. You then loop through a process of finding information, filling out the gaps in your knowledge, and adjusting the hypothesis and recommendations as you go.

This hypothesis-driven approach is fast, but it can be vulnerable to misjudgement and inefficiency. If your hypothesis turns out to be wrong, you’ll have some horrible re-work further down the line.

Projects are very much “in the weeds” with clients. The classic McKinsey approach isn’t to sit behind a desk for a month and come back with a recommendation. You’re with the clients every step of the way—sitting in their offices, testing and refining ideas with them, and delivering interim recommendations. There’s rarely a single ‘big bang’ presentation. You are co-creating the solution with clients, and so the final presentation meeting should contain very few surprises.

McKinsey can be a high-stress environment

McKinsey consultants are frequently performance reviewed and work under high expectations. Everyone has seen other consultants give in to the stress. People get overwhelmed, burn out, and sometimes get sick.

Yet however bad it gets, most of the stress is internally generated–or at least internally exaggerated–by the McKinsey team or consultant themselves. When things do go wrong, it’s usually trivial in the grand scheme of things, sometimes even tragi-comic. Maybe you spend a week searching for data that can’t be found or trying to convince a stubborn client who won’t change their mind. Nobody was hurt, nothing bad really happened; it’s stress mostly fostered by a group of highly-ambitious, highly-strung minds, anxious to avoid perceived failure in an insecure environment.

It almost goes without saying that people work very hard. Hours are long, and travel is frequent. There is a sincere attempt to preserve work-life balance, but it’s often challenging to maintain when it comes into conflict with the Firm’s mission to over-deliver for its clients.

McKinsey is both structured and fluid

McKinsey teaches its consultants to think in a highly structured way, but the organization itself is rather loose and fluid. You often have a say in the projects you work on, and sometimes have to travel to work in another office at just a couple of days’ notice. Projects have managers and leading partners, but you never have a set ‘boss’ as you would in other types of organizations.

Rules are rarely codified and seldom enforced to the letter. Exceptions can always be made, and the strength and breadth of your internal network will often determine which way something goes. It’s a norms-, values-, and network-based organization, not a regulation- and-process-based one.

In the end, though, the place can have a temporary feel to it. You switch in and out of projects every couple of months, and say goodbye to people you know you’ll never see again. Old faces leave, and others begin to change. Turnover is high, and after a while you may no longer recognize most of the people in the cafeteria. Some do stay to make a career of it, but for most, McKinsey is a stepping-stone and not a final destination.

Working at McKinsey for just 2-3 years will define the rest of your work life—you will learn unique work habits, ways of thinking and communication, and create friends and expectations that you will carry over. All of this will undoubtedly be reminisced about at frequent alumni events.

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