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How to become a partner at McKinsey & Co.

If you're an 'elite student' and you don't want to work for an investment bank or for a big tech firm, chances are you want to work for a major strategy consulting firm like McKinsey & Co. And once you get into McKinsey, you might be gripped by the urge to make partner. 

We spoke to Caitlin Storhaug, the global director of recruitment marketing and communications for McKinsey, who's based in San Francisco, California. This is what she said about getting in, and then getting ahead.

What are the entry-points for careers at McKinsey?

"There more than 500 open roles posted on our website. Some of the most common entry points for those interested in consulting include business analyst or associate (as a generalist or with a practice), data scientist, software engineer, product manager, data engineer, agile coach, user-experience designer, implementation consultant, research analyst, etc. We also have many non-consulting roles from finance to legal to communications.

People join McKinsey from university (undergraduate and advanced degree programs) and as experienced hires. We have significantly increased our experienced hire recruiting and our experienced hires include former doctors, lawyers, soldiers and even a theatre company director. We are looking for people who love to work in teams to solve the world’s toughest problems."

McKinsey competes with investment banks for talent. What would you say differentiates a potential McKinsey consultant from someone who wants to work in M&A for Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan?

"McKinsey competes with many types of organizations for talent. We hear from candidates and new joiners that the variety of McKinsey’s work is one of the most significant differentiators from other industries such as banking. Our people can work in almost any industry, in 65+ countries around the world and on an almost unlimited range of issues and problems. Our candidates and our colleagues tell us they like consulting at McKinsey because it’s not about closing doors but is an opportunity to continually open doors, try new things, get new experiences and develop expertise in a variety of areas, instead of just one industry.

In addition, colleagues consistently report McKinsey’s continuous learning and development mindset, curriculum and resources – we invest more than $200m in learning and training each year – help them grow and be at their best.

We also know McKinsey sets people up for an extraordinary range of roles if they leave, with alumni doing things like assuming senior positions in business and government, starting their own businesses or joining nonprofits around the world."

What are the different levels/job titles at McKinsey & Co? 

"Candidates who follow a traditional consulting path in North America and many other parts of the world typically go from associate to engagement manager to associate partner to partner to senior partner.

At McKinsey, however, there are many more career paths. Typically, candidates who do not hold an advanced degree such as a PhD, JD (Doctor of Jurisprudence), MD (Doctor of Medicine) or MBA join as business analysts (known as fellows in some geographies).

The Business Analyst (BA) program typically lasts two to three years and can include a secondment with another organization. There is no longer a requirement for BAs to earn an advanced degree to become an associate, though many take advantage of the firm’s educational support programs.

McKinsey also has many roles and paths beyond associate and business analyst. For example, we have more than 2,000 colleagues who are knowledge experts and specialize in conducting research for our teams and clients. Another 4,500+ colleagues focus on tech, joining the firm with backgrounds in data science, software engineering, product management, data engineering, agile coaching, design, digital marketing, etc. About 1,800 colleagues specialize in change management and implementation."

How do the jobs at McKinsey & Co. vary at each level? What does a partner do at McKinsey?

"The BA and associate roles are similar. These colleagues are staffed to a single engagement, serving a single client organization at a time. They play critical roles in researching challenges clients are facing, developing solutions and managing client relationships. They typically own one or two workstreams and participate fully in the problem-solving process and serving the client. 

Engagement managers are responsible for the onsite operations of a client engagement. They work closely with clients and McKinsey leaders, guide and mentor associates and business analysts and structure the workstreams and deliverables.

When a colleague advances to the associate partner level, s/he begins to work with multiple client organizations at one time. Associate partners focus on building lasting advisory relationships with more senior-tenured clients. They also focus on one or two areas within an industry and/or function.

Partners oversee multiple engagements for multiple clients at a time. They maintain long-term relationships with more senior-tenured clients and entire organizations. They advise clients in terms of the types of work that might be most relevant and useful, outline the scope of our work with their clients and teams and manage requests for proposals. Partners are accountable for the work we do and impact we deliver; they remain involved in daily problem-solving and help their teams solve the toughest parts of each challenge. They mentor junior-tenured McKinsey colleagues, take leadership roles in the firm and contribute more heavily to recruiting, office/practice leadership, etc.

The traditional McKinsey client teams typically consisted of one partner, one associate partner, one engagement manager, and, on average, two or three associates or business analysts. Today that team may also include a designer, a data scientist, a software engineer, an agile coach or some type of technology specialist depending on the client’s problem and the scope of the work. When this team comes together for a problem-solving session – to develop hypotheses, prioritize tests to prove or disprove them, synthesize findings, etc. – there is no hierarchy among them. At McKinsey, one of our firm values is the obligation to dissent and all ideas are evaluated on merit, not seniority."

Is it common to progress through each level of the McKinsey hierarchy, or do employees have the potential to skip levels?

"We think the best consultants are those who have been fully mentored in the roles they will assume and who have experienced the positions they will oversee. Great leaders understand well what it takes to do the roles of their teammates. Partners who know what it took to build a model, for example, are better able to contribute to and review the work.

It is, therefore, common for colleagues to progress through each level. We, however, do allow colleagues to accelerate through levels, if they are fully apprenticed before advancing.

It’s worth noting variations to the standard progression. For example, we hire colleagues at all levels, including direct-elect partners. Some colleagues choose to participate in PACE, a McKinsey program that allows them to spend longer in a role to get more experience, build deeper client relationships or see challenges through to execution. Others may switch to an internal role such as professional development, practice management, communications or temporarily or permanently change paths, making a lateral move from, for example, engagement manager to implementation consultant (both of which can lead to partner but with a different area of focus)."

How do you become a McKinsey Partner?

"Promotions are based on merit. Each person’s performance is considered carefully; we have no quotas by level and it’s not an internal competition. We have a standard and robust process to assess whether associate partners are ready for election to partner. To be designated a partner, the colleagues must be elected by the rest of the partnership. Feedback from the person’s teams, clients, peers, and seniors is taken into consideration."

And what happens to the people who don't make partner?

"There is a myth that McKinsey subscribes to an “up or out” philosophy but that is not accurate. We value learning and growth and there are many options in the firm for colleagues who do not become partners. For examples, there are many expert paths people can pursue. Part of McKinsey’s client service model is that we can pull in our specialists or experts in any industry or function to support the problem solving for clients. Therefore, expert paths are crucial to our client service."

Photo by Daniil Lobachev on Unsplash

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Sh
    Shola Observer
    28 January 2020

    Cool interview. Well explained.

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