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Behind the scenes at McKinsey, Bain and Boston Consulting Group

What really goes on inside the big three consulting firms?

If you're thinking about joining a top global consulting firm, you've probably got your eye on the 'Big Three' MBB firms (McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co. and Boston Consulting Group). You've probably got excellent academics and maybe an MBA. You're probably prepared to work hard. And you're probably prepared to compete vigorously to get in.

But are the top three really any different? Should you be angling for one firm above another? Here's our occasionally quantitative but mostly qualitative judgment on which firms win across each of the following dimensions.

1. Best for pay? Bain & Co.

If pay is your priority, you should be angled towards Bain & Co. according analysis by, the real time pay benchmarking site. Emolument looked at pay points for 668 senior strategy consultants at the three 'MBB' (McKinsey, Bain and BCG) firms. It found that Bain pays lower salaries than the rest, but more than makes up for this in its bonuses.

Consulting pay emolument

Source: Emolument

2. Best for work life balance? Boston Consulting Group 

If you work in consulting, you're going to be working some long hours. When Harvard Business School professors researched work practices in consulting firms in 2013, they were told things like, "There’s a correlation between success and the willingness to just put everything else aside and do a ton of work. People here are probably doing 14, 15 hours of work a day. Pretty much just working and sleeping during the week. They sleep 6 hours a night or less," and, "We’re on our Blackberries. We’re thinking about our work 24/7. I mean maybe you tune out for a little while here and there, but people [at this firm] work all the time."  There's a lot of travel and a lot of flights - one consultant said he took 105 flights the previous year and was feeling "pretty fried".

Consulting firms are aware they've got an issue, however - and most have tried to do something about it.

We're nominating BCG as best for working hours on the basis of its ‘Predictable Time Off’ programme. Under this policy, consultants at the firm are assigned ‘predictable periods’ of downtime at the start of a project. During these periods, BCG consultants are required to be off completely – they mustn’t check their email and they mustn’t check their voicemail.

McKinsey & Co. has also been making an effort to improve consultants' working hours. Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and director of global recruiting, told us the firm isn't going for a one-size-fits-all solution as this doesn't suit everyone: "We encourage people to ask for what they need and we promote an environment of flexibility and respect." At the start of each project, McKinsey's teams get together and discuss what they want to get out of the engagement and how they like to work, says Rolfe. "This might including things like working out in the morning or leaving for a class every Tuesday," he says. "As the project progresses, team barometers measure how the team is doing against these goals…is everyone getting the support they need? How is the workload? Are they achieving what they expect in terms of gaining skills and expertise, networking and having a full life?"

McKinsey also operates initiatives called 'Take Time' and 'Pace'. Under Take Time, Rolfes says consultants have an option to take an extra five to ten weeks off beyond their official vacation time. Under Pace, they are given greater control over their career advancement and trajectory.

3. Best for training? Bain & Co, or McKinsey

Whichever way you look at it, the big consulting firms spend a lot of money on training up their staff. Rolfes says McKinsey spends more than $100m on training and learning ever year. BCG boasts that it spends $200k per consultant over the course of their careers. Bain & Co. doesn't give a number, but does emphasise the ongoing resources devoted to making sure staff perform - and continue to do so.

If you join McKinsey, Rolfes says you'll be put through the training program 'Embark' within two weeks of starting. This is the firm's "basic consultant readiness programme" for new joiners. If you join with an MBA, your existing knowledge will be supplemented with McKinsey's 'mini-MBA' program. And if you make it to management level, you'll be sent to McKinsey's 'Engagement Manager College Program' in Cambridge, UK.

At Bain & Co., Keith Bevans, the partner in charge of the firm's global recruiting effort, has said that you'll be sent on 'New Consulting Training', where all the new hires from all around the world are put into groups of four to six people and trained by a partner or manager who's taken a week off to get them up to scratch. After that week, Bain provides a similar global training program every 18 months. Even interns at the firm get trained.

At BCG, the firm operates a 'customized learning portal' called LAB. This "gives you access to BCG’s collective expertise anytime, anywhere".

4. Best for international exposure? McKinsey & Co.

If you want to work internationally, there's only really one option: McKinsey & Co. The firm is the largest of the three and the most global. It has 10,000 consultants in more than 100 offices in more than 60 countries and is known for encouraging its staff to work overseas.

"Our consultants have the opportunity - if they are so inclined - to work on client projects all over the world, including their home office which is their default location for staffing," says Rolfes. If you work for McKinsey and you want to work internationally, Rolfes says you can do an 'engagement loan' (you relocate to another office for six months or less to work on a specific client engagement,) a 'short-term transfer (you spend approximately a year in another office), or a 'long term transfer' (you join another office for at least two years).

McKinsey also runs a 'Global Rotations Program,' which lets people spend 6-12 months in two different regions outside of their home office, and an EM2EM program (engagement managers to emerging markets), which lets people move to a high growth office to accelerate professional and personal development.

Meanwhile, Boston Consulting Group has 80 offices in 46 countries and says 25% of its consultants work outside their home countries every year.  Bain, by comparison, has a reputation for less travel than the rest.

 5. Best for career progression? McKinsey & Co

Career paths at the big consulting firms tends to be fairly similar: you start as a 'business analyst', you move on to become a 'consultant', 'an engagement manager, 'an associate partner' and then - hopefully - a partner.

Firms like McKinsey are trying to add a bit of flexibility to the trajectory, however. "Our consultants work with their professional development manager on which dimensions of a study (location, industry, team, etc.) are most important to them," says Rolfes. "For one person, it may be to work close to home.  For another, it may be to work with a certain team or partner.  For another, using or gaining industry experience could be the priority. Our scale makes it so we can staff people according to what fits them best, helps them grow and aligns with their priorities."

6. Best for methodology? Boston Consulting Group

All top consulting firms have interesting methodologies, but Boston Consulting Group wins plaudits for its reputation for trying to approach each new problem differently.

Best known for the 'Growth Share Matrix' developed by BCG founder Bruce Henderson in the 1970s, BCG has become known for its novel approach to ideas. Ex-BCG consultant Kenton Kivestu claims the firm has a reputation for being academic: "Rather than try to fit problems into existing frameworks, teams at BCG have a tendency to look at each problem from a fresh and build a solution from the ground up. This has its ups and downs, as sometimes teams repeat work."

Bain & Co., by comparison, is best known for its 'balanced scorecard.' One current Bain consultant tells us the firm's focus is, "less on telling clients what they should ideally do, and much more about making clients achieve their full realisable potential. Practically, it's a more collaborative, less report focused, more company specific approach."

McKinsey's approach is detailed in the McKinsey Way, by ex-McKinsey consultant Ethan Rasiel. McKinsey's approach is based upon being, 'mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive' (MECE) from the start, says Rasiel. First you need to look at the list of issues making up the problem you have to solve. - Is each one a separate and distinct issue (is it mutually exclusive)? Does every aspect of the problem come under one (and only one) of these issues - that is, have you thought of everything (is it collectively exhaustive)? In this way, you define the hypothesis before you've even begun.

7. Best for access to CEOs? All

If getting in front of chief executives is your purpose, each of the MBB firms will help you fulfill your ambitions. "Bain, BCG and McKinsey are virtually the only CEO advising strategy consultancies," says the Bain consultant we spoke to. Bain itself boasts of working with more than two thirds of the world's 500 largest companies. And one McKinsey & Co. employee leaving feedback on website the Vault celebrates the interaction he's had with "CEOs from Fortune 500 companies".

8. Best for culture? McKinsey & Co.

McKinsey combines a reputation for excellence with a strangely flat hierarchy. It's also working hard to promote women and sets explicit gender related targets.  "I cannot imagine a flatter organisation than McKinsey," says Rasiel in the McKinsey Way. "I could, as an associate, walk into my ED’s office without an appointment and talk to him about our study. In meetings at the firm, every idea, whether it comes from the youngest business analyst or the oldest director, carries the same weight and is debated and attacked accordingly (at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and usually is)."

BCG, by comparison, has a reputation for being more 'nerdy' and Bain has a reputation for being more 'uptight.' However, the Bain consultant we spoke to said it's a fine place to work. "The people here are well rounded. If you're spectacularly clever but have a personality quirk (e.g. you're difficult to get along with), you will be employed by McKinsey, but you won't at Bain.  This creates a different vibe. Also, genuinely, Bainies take their work seriously, but not themselves."

9. Best for prestige? McKinsey & Co.

McKinsey ranks first on the Vault's ranking of consulting firms, followed by Bain and BCG. McKinsey employees talk of it being the, "best training ground for business leaders", "the premier consulting company," and a place where you'll "work with the most interesting clients and most talented colleagues."

10. Best for exit opportunities: McKinsey & Co.

There was a time when more than 70% of past and present CEO's of Fortune 500 companies were ex-McKinsey. The firm itself boasts that 450 of its former consultants are currently running ‘billion dollar organisations’ around the world. They include Tidjane Thiam, the new CEO of Credit Suisse and James Gorman, CEO of Morgan Stanley.

Photo credit: nightkaster2

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • ds
    10 December 2020

    70, not 70 percent, of past and present CEO's of Fortune 500 companies were ex-McKinsey. That is a difference of 280 CEOs.

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