Many people look at McKinsey or similar type firm employees as absolute geniuses or complete idiots. Total awe or a mix of scorn, disgust & jealousy. Using labels like slide monkeys, suits, talking heads, look at your watch to tell you the time,... I could go on and on.
We need to guide more young people towards early-stage companies after a few years at a consulting firm, they provide apprenticeships for first-principles-based problem-solving.
I would skip the consulting if you can work directly for a high-quality founder, but the error rate is much higher. Working for a low-quality founder is terrible & so full of drama that it would probably be better avoided. In contrast, nearly everyone at a consulting firm can help teach the basics of structured thinking & writing.
I've had a close look at McKinsey as a competitor, (potential) employer, and as a client, and can see why they get extreme reactions of praise and scorn.
I worked at a similar firm called Booz & Company, started by Edwin Booz which was the first management consulting firm. I joined the Dubai office of Booz & Company (non-US government business) as an Associate. I joined them because they selected me, they paid the most & Dubai was close to home, Pakistan. (Important: I did not work for Booz Allen Hamilton which worked mostly with the US government agencies, famous for Edward Snowden & Wikileaks.)
In 2013, Booz was being acquired by PwC to become Strategy&. I was going to move to McKinsey to work out of their Dubai office. In between, I realized I hadn't had a proper holiday in four years, so I took some time off to play golf & write code.
In that summer, I realized I loved building much more and started up Kiwi.
Back to consulting. TV shows like "House of Lies" didn't help either. The reality in my case was quite the opposite. Most of my friends & family remember my consulting days as a time where I worked 100-hour weeks and "partying" was a viciously protected Friday night dinner with close friends and family.
I learned a lot of things in those years that helped me significantly over my career. Here are the three concepts I found most helpful:
2) Frameworks (1-3): better known as Mental Models for example OODA Observe Orient Decide Act
3) So What - ask that a few times when you create a (para)graph. if it doesn't scream exactly what needs to be done next, push your thinking
At business school, almost everyone wanted to work at McKinsey or one of the top management consulting firms. Why? they boasted a low acceptance rate (same odds as getting into Stanford). So people either loved them or hated them as they progressed through the interview process. Either way, it's a great brand/signal and I'm trying to deconstruct why that is the case.
As a client, hiring McKinsey I will bring a high-speed team that will deliver a focused & well-structured analysis of an issue. It's useful for big companies, where consensus is needed and everything happens slowly. A consulting firm will deliver a plan in six weeks that the internal team would build over six months. Execution speed will still be a function of the size of the company, which sometimes consulting firms also take over at high rates.
Your mileage as a client will vary based on your work. We had a large telco tycoon, who made a 1 slide plan and told us what he needed & when. The client designed and delivered a massive 4G network at an unprecedented pace. That was the best example of a client using a consulting firm, but definitely the outlier.
As a young person, I learned a lot more about how to work hard at consulting firms vs. working on poorly led startups. If you can get into a <100 person high growth company working for a good leader, that would be much better than a consulting firm. On average, you will be better off at a consulting firm.
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