Exclusive Interview with Duff McDonald on McKinsey, Consulting, and Business School

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With so many applicants interested in joining a top tier consulting firm after graduation, we thought it would be a great idea to chat with the man who wrote the book on the industry’s largest player, what it stands for, and how it has shaped the field - Duff McDonald!

Duff McDonald is a New York-based journalist. A contributing editor at The New York Observer, he has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York, Esquire, Fortune, Business Week, Conde Nast Portfolio, GQ, WIRED, Time, Newsweek, and others. He is also the well-known author of Last Man Standing, his biography of Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase.

However, it is his book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey & Its Secret Influence on American Business, which caught our attention. A New York Times Bestseller, The Firm uncovers how these high-powered, high-priced business savants have ushered in waves of structural, financial, and technological shifts to the biggest and best American organizations.

Check out what he and Bhavik have to say about consulting, recruiting, and business schools in this candid and insightful chat!

[Bhavik] Duff, thank you so much for chatting with me today. I’m really looking forward to speaking with you and picking your brain about consulting and McKinsey to see what kind of nuggets of wisdom we can share with aspiring business school applicants!

[Duff] Thank you for having me Bhavik. I have definitely learned a lot through the process of writing The Firm and I always love sharing those findings with others. Especially when it comes to the relationship between consulting and business schools.

[Bhavik] Absolutely a very established and long-standing tie there. But why don’t we start with you. You’ve written a number of articles on business, industry, banking, and consulting. What has been your motivation and interest in doing so?

[Duff] Well, I didn’t come into it with a particular passion in mind. It was rather an organic process. I was a Wharton undergrad and my first job landed me at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street. I decided to leave Goldman to find my fortune in journalism – don’t laugh! – and 15 years later I found myself in an incredibly fortunate position. I was scheduled to interview Jamie Dimon the day after Bear Stearns collapsed. Surprisingly, he didn’t cancel. That interview later turned into a cover story that turned into a book. But it was something Jamie Dimon said, almost in passing, that caught my attention and was the initial snowflake that snowballed into The Firm.

Dimon is incredibly skeptical of the use of strategy consultants by CEOs. As far as he’s concerned, if you’re a CEO and you rely on them to make your decisions, you don’t deserve your job. One evening while we were talking about consultants, he went off on this particular mini-rant about consulting firms but then stopped himself and said, “Wait, except for McKinsey. They’re different.” And that piqued my curiosity.

[Bhavik] Very strong words to support an equally strong opinion. Jamie Dimon is perhaps one of the most vocal of many who hold those positions on consultants. Yet, as we are both aware, it’s a thriving industry. So as you wrote this book, you had unprecedented access to McKinsey’s resources but you also researched consulting more broadly. What were some of the most surprising things you have come across related to consulting?

[Duff] The goal was not just to research McKinsey, but to put the firm in a broader context. So I talk about the evolution of consulting but in the broader context of the evolution of American business itself.

One of the most surprising things I discovered was the extent to which McKinsey has protected and cultivated its brand. It’s their secret to success. They are consistent. No stars – no favorites. The point is when you hire the firm, you get the firm.

Secondly, as far as MBAs are concerned, I had always thought Wall Street and Consulting to be very similar paths to a certain degree. But that isn’t the case. Consulting firms take a much longer-term view of their employees. Sure, there is a ruthless “up or out” track as you head toward Partner but they aren’t there to burn you out. They want you to succeed.

Lastly, the way MBAs think about consulting is absolutely accurate. Management consulting is an interesting opportunity but it is also a way to keep options open and defer large career decisions. More people than I anticipated joined because they couldn’t decide what they wanted to do or just wanted to move along the credentials path. The range of opportunities open to you are mind boggling. Consulting can be an excellent pit stop in a longer and more varied career.

Not to mention, the opportunity of moving on to something else from consulting are also higher than Wall Street. The problem with the Street is golden handcuffs – the money gets so good so fast, that people who promised themselves they would leave simply can’t. In consulting, the likelihood of moving to another option are higher.

[Bhavik] Those are wonderful points. It’s also a great way for MBA graduates who didn’t come from core business fields to get some on-the-ground training. Not to mention, that brand follows you around for the rest of your life and can open some impressive doors! So what would you say to an applicant interested in landing a spot at one of these prestigious firms? Any advice?

[Duff] I spoke to the Associate Dean at Kellogg when I was writing The Firm, who happens to be an ex-McKinsey partner, and she said firms are looking for strong problem solving skills, analytical capabilities, a team orientation, and the ability to help people figure out the right questions to ask. In short, people who can think. Also, there’s an argument that you can get into a top tier firm from a lot of different MBA schools but some schools do get preferential treatment. So that’s something to keep in mind too.

[Bhavik] That last point is really important. Schools are, in a lot of ways, marketing engines. They want to showcase their programs in the best possible light and it’s important for applicants to really dig a bit deeper. There is a big difference between Booth and Yale. McKinsey hired 10% of Booth’s class. That number was a lot lower at Yale. But both schools can claim the firm recruits there. Also, past a certain point, a lot of firms stop recruiting. They don’t view them as strategic programs and so don’t allocate time or resources to them. Picking the right program from both a recruiting and a chances perspective is a critical first step!

[Duff] Absolutely. Until the 80s, McKinsey really didn’t hire from many schools outside of Harvard Business School. That has obviously changed but to think the firm all schools similarly wouldn’t be an accurate statement.

[Bhavik] Exactly. As you know, a big part of communicating career goals for our applicants is making sure they have the right medium-to-long term goals in place. In other words, what will they do after consulting. So as you researched McKinsey and other consulting firms, were there any common career path exits that you noticed?

[Duff] Absolutely. As a note, I was primarily focused on successful alumni versus those who left these firms early. But, that said, I saw three major paths. The first, Private Equity is a big draw. A lot of consultants see themselves as “company builders” so they like these types of firms and they fit right in. Strategy departments of big corporations is another large exit pool. A lot of big companies have in-house strategy groups that are staffed almost exclusively by ex-consultants. Lastly, and more recently, we’re seeing a trend of people moving into startups / tech. There is a stage in the lifecycle of a startup when they need to bring in the “adults”.

[Bhavik] That last point – I could not agree more! Tech and startups are a massive goals buckets for our clients and getting them to think holistically about the industry, these companies, and how they fit in is often times where we spend a lot of time. Many applicants want to start their own businesses when they leave consulting without realizing this really isn’t a very common exit. If we had a nickel, you know? But to your point, after a certain funding round, startups have the funds and the organizational structure and processes in place where an ex-consultant could really come in and drive growth.

So if you were to talk to someone about selecting the best MBA programs right now in order to recruit for consulting, what are some of the considerations you would have?

[Duff] The first point, and one we’ve talked about a bit earlier, is the elite vs. non-elite cadre. There is a big cut-off here that applicants need to be aware of. Firms like McKinsey don’t just recruit from everywhere.

The other is to not be afraid of international schools – as long as they are elite. McKinsey, for example, hires quite heavily from INSEAD and London Business School. If you’re an American interested in an international adventure, this might actually increase your chances!

But within the elite, analytical capabilities are a huge draw so don’t go to a school that doesn’t have a strong track record there. Consulting firms also really focus on teamwork so schools that emphasize collaboration and experience based learning should be prioritized.

[Bhavik] Duff, these have all been wonderful points and I know your insights are going to be very useful to applicants looking to business school as they target top tier consulting. Thank you so much for your time, your insights, and candor. It has been a pleasure!

[Duff] Thank you for having me.

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There are a lot of things to consider when crafting your story and your goals and management consulting is a great career choice. Start your journey to McKinsey, Bain, or BCG by signing up for a free consultation with us!

Good luck!

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