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Thoughts on McKinsey

McKinsey, the consulting firm, has been in the news lately -- primarily because it was the first place Pete Buttigieg worked post-college / post-Rhodes scholar. (An achievement he apparently touted for years.)

Recently, Daniel Altschuler published an op-ed in the Washington Post about the recruitment of Rhodes scholars at Oxford [link]. 

I wanted to write about McKinsey because the firm had a particular hold on me -- so strong in fact that I wanted to work at McKinsey before I even matriculated at Princeton. Obviously most people, even incoming Princeton freshman, have no idea what McKinsey is -- but I think partly I was obsessed with business so had a somewhat wider berth of knowledge in those areas and partly because I was so prestige focused that I was also aware of McKinsey. (Also, my brother went to Princeton so I already had some exposure to the environment.)

I told myself a good story about McKinsey -- it was the best (arguably true; certainly in terms of the pick of candidates, at least back when I was in school, it went something like McKinsey -> Bain -> BCG -> major accounting firms who had a consulting practice -> small / unknown firms who did strategy consulting). Consulting was a "smart" career because [this is standard schtick for consulting firms] one would get wide exposure to a variety of industries, wide exposure to senior level management of said companies; just better and broader work than one would get by simply joining a regular company. Consulting was also one of the most "prestigious" or at least conferred a lot of psychic value among many high achieving individuals -- I think consulting + finance was like 50% of the Princeton grads (!). That's astonishing. McKinsey was the top firm; Goldman Sachs was right there too, but not everyone wanted to work in finance -- whereas seemingly anyone could work in consulting.

I think all this is true or probably still true. That being said, I have a slightly broader point of view on the whole situation now, a number of years removed. I should note that I've had quite a bit of exposure to McKinsey over the years -- I was exposed to them on the client side when I was an intern at Reader's Digest, I had numerous friends who worked at McKinsey, my first boss at Amazon had been an Engagement Manager at McKinsey before joining Amazon -- at Google, I was there when they formed the Business Operations group which was run by and staffed by numerous ex-McKinsey consultants (and worked with them on a project). 

But this blog post isn't about the ins and outs of how good McKinsey consultants are or how they reflected on their experience or what not -- it's more about what I think gripped me (and certainly grips a lot of undergrads at places like Princeton) -- was is this prestige trap that a place like McKinsey represents. McKinsey offers up a next rung on a ladder for people who have spent their lives climbing rungs on a ladder. It takes a highly accomplished sub-population (e.g. Rhodes scholars) and says -- we're going to take a subset of you, pay you a lot, give you the opportunity to work at the highest levels of numerous global companies -- frankly, make a difference in the world in a way that you couldn't anywhere else doing anything else.

I think my quibble with this is when you're a Rhodes scholar (or at a top-level educational institution) -- is that you're arguably benefitting from the world's resources in terms of education. And you have a free pathway ahead of you. You can choose anything. Largely unencumbered. If consulting is the right path for almost any reason (including those that these consulting firms habitually repeat) -- then that's great. Go with God. BUT, my quibble is I think the reason the percentage of people going to consulting / finance is so high at Princeton is... people don't know. They haven't thought through what they want to do and then simply enter into the best high prestige (and perhaps highest paying) role. 

Now, this isn't forever. Pretty much all consultants I know leave consulting after a relatively short amount of time. (e.g. I know relatively few who stayed 5+ years.)

It reminds me a little of a friend of mine in college. He went to an interview but went into the wrong interview room. When he and interviewer realized his mistake, the interviewer said something to the effect, "Well, you're aleady here, why don't we talk?" They did, he got an offer (this was from a boutique investment bank), he went into banking -- then went to business school, and now works in private equity. He went through a chute that maybe is absolutely what he was meant to do, but maybe not. It was just serendipity that he went to the wrong interview room.

That's a bit about how I feel about consulting (and finance). When you're an undergrad, those are the firms that are constantly at Career Services, constantly holding events at the Nassau Inn, have flyers everywhere, ads in the Princetonian -- you're indoctrinated into this from the day you step onto campus. It seems natural and everyone is doing it -- yet the vast majority of undergrads probably couldn't reasonably describe what a consultant does. 

I think I decided to write about this because if you're an undergrad and somehow stumbled across this -- I'd encourage you to just think broadly about your future. The prestige / pull that matters now won't matter in the future -- I promise you. You can do anything.