The Goldman Sachs of the consulting world, McKinsey receives 800,000 applications per year for 8,000 jobs. It has built its brand on mystique and secrecy, and its alumni network stretches across the global corporate and political elite.
“A job at McKinsey is a ticket to almost anywhere in the world”, wrote Duff Mcdonald in ‘The Firm’, his 2013 his book on McKinsey. “A McKinsey consultant….is not a banker, accountant or lawyer. He is a thinker. He has had the chance to whisper into the ears of power, to exercise influence while being insulated from responsibility.”
While that’s true, in recent times McKinsey's Teflon-like qualities have been challenged. Last year it paid $15m to settle allegations that it not make required disclosures of its financial connections with other parties while working on bankruptcies. And it's come under scrutiny for links to governments in South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
As it looks to attract the brightest and best, McKinsey is pledging to become more transparent under managing partner Kevin Sneader, who'as pledged to learn from previous mistakes. “There used to be a mystique about McKinsey and that was seen as a good thing. I’m not sure that is anymore,” said Sneader, who was appointed global managing partner in July 2018, becoming only the 12th person to hold the role since its inception in 1926.
Sneader, a 53 year old Glaswegian, won the top job after the firm’s 560 partners elected him as ‘first among equals’ via a secretive, three-stage voting process which takes place every three years.
But even getting to partner is tough. McKinsey employs around 21,000 people and on that basis, around 2% of associates progress to the firm's top tier. study in 2000 by Harvard Business School of 35 aspiring partners at professional services firms concluded that “There are few professional transformations quite as psychologically complex as the transformation to partner.”
The partner persona
The study, which drew on the experiences of prospective partners at McKinsey as well as other consulting firms, says that the process of moving to partner effectively requires a person to change their personality. “Creating a partner persona involves three tasks: observing role models, experimenting with possible selves, and evaluating their results.”
The study concluded that one of most effective routes to partnership is to adopt a chameleon strategy – taking risks and showing flexibility to overcome challenges. Another less effective approach is the ‘true-to-self strategy’.
The study was a long time ago but some elements of Sneader’s rise fit the ‘chameleon model’. The Scot has spent the last three decades travelling the world and constantly adapting to new challenges. He joined the firm in 1989 straight from Glasgow University, when he turned down a Kennedy Scholarship to Harvard in favor of becoming McKinsey's first freshly graduated recruit from Scotland. “I was known literally as the ‘Scottish business analyst’,” he said in 2018.
Sneader is also the embodiment of the new image that McKinsey is looking to project. He has brought a more public face to the firm, and is a regular on CNBC both demystifying the firm and defending it against charges of impropriety He openly refers to his Glaswegian roots as evidence of coming from a normal background. He’s also ‘sports mad’ and supports his boyhood club Glasgow Celtic, showing his ‘true-to-self’ credentials.
The pain of the partner promotion process
Sneader’s predecessor, Dominic Barton, explained in an interview in 2015 the sort of pain he endured in the three attempts he took to get promoted to partner.
The first time he tried to become a McKinsey partner, Barton said he was informed that despite having the 'intrinsic qualities' required for the job, he needed to display them more blatantly.
Barton said the whole experience was very stressful. Rather than succumbing to the doubters, however, he resolved to overcome the negativity in his own personal way. “He decided to stop “jumping through hoops for other people," to make his own hoops, and to quit if he was still unappreciated. Instead, he got promoted – showing the effectiveness of the ‘true-to-self’ strategy.
At a time when big firms encourage the notion of employees bringing their whole selves to work, prospective partners must tread a fine line between fitting in and being forthright. The firm says promotions to partners are made entirely on merit, Sneader has said the firm sets great store by teamwork. “We don’t rely on individuals to solve problems. It’s about putting together teams with different backgrounds and different styles...."
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