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  You have to hand it to McKinsey.
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They have this glistening reputation for strategy consulting measured not just by what they do, or say they do, but by the glee with which some competitors proclaim a win when going head-to-head in client contests with their 800-pound gorilla rival.

And in case anyone was in any doubt about McKinsey’s enduring candidate appeal, the firm continues to be ranked as one of the most desirable employers for graduating MBA students. In many rankings they’ve actually been first for several consecutive years. Boston Consulting Group and Bain, their erstwhile competitors, also tend to make it into the top rankings – but struggle to challenge McKinsey for the top spot.

So McKinsey still retains its sheen as the most prestigious amongst its peers. But what is this really based on? Is it ‘spin’? Or is it solid achievement as measured by exceptional client gratification? These are big questions, which are important not just for competitors but for people applying for jobs with the great firm. The questions gain resonance when one considers that consulting commentators believe McKinsey’s worldwide revenues have declined each of the last two years. Is something slipping? Breathing hard on their heels are other gorillas such as The Boston Consulting Group, A.T. Kearney and Bain and new entrants to the core US market such as Germany’s Roland Berger. Whisper it not, but IT consultancies such as Accenture and IBM also manage to play at the same table by allegedly lowballing on strategy projects.

Lifting the lid on the McKinsey mystique

We have been waiting a while for someone to ‘lift the lid’ on McKinsey and answer some of these intriguing questions. Alpha Publications’ latest release ”So You Want To Be A McKinsey Consultant?” gives the low-down on what makes the firm successful and how applicants can position themselves to ask the right questions when meeting McKinsey’s hirers.

“Positioning” is indeed a key differentiator that crops up when speaking to McKinsey’s senior people. The firm goes to incredible lengths to gain the confidence of decision makers in what it believes will be large or strongly growing markets in five years’ time or more. That is why McKinsey has been making a strong push in countries such as China and India, which cannot possibly be justified in terms of the immediate return, but which may be looking good when we all grow a little older. The partnership structure helps. “Gratification or profit deferred” is not a phrase that actually rolls off the lips of McKinsey’s top staff when describing their willingness to look to the long term; but it would be just about unthinkable for publicly-quoted firms to take the same long-term view.

Then there are McKinsey’s people. Only outstanding, qualified, people need apply. We’re not talking just about people who are outstanding in terms of academic attainment, although that helps, but rather outstanding in terms of personality and leadership potential. The canvas includes candidates who might be excluded by other consultancies such as doctors or physicists with Ph.Ds. The McKinsey mould, it seems, is much broader than at other strategy firms.

McKinsey’s position on PR is equally fascinating. One might say that McKinsey has developed to a fine art the “Greta Garbo” method of self-promotion, which may be said to combine an instinctive search for the spotlight in situations where it really counts; combined with a reclusive attitude when off the set. A formal McKinsey interview with the outside world is a rare event. McKinsey’s P.R. is also integrated with its marketing and recruitment policies to such an extent that you don’t know where one ends and one begins.

One example given by the author of Alpha’s report is the search for talent in Germany. A recent feature arousing student interest was a business game played out on CD-Roms called “The CEO of the Future.” The game featured an automotive company having to solve difficult problems. Some 13,000 students participated. This was based on a real-life project researched by The London School of Economics. Two winners were selected and presented with their prizes by the German Minister of Economics at a special event organised with “Manager Magazine.” In a televised follow-up, the winning students interrogated Jack Welch and were congratulated by him. So by this means a talent search became a media event – or was it vice-versa?

So at a quick glance, it appears that McKinsey still does retain some mystique, some magic, that other pretenders have found it hard to emulate. Look at the issues of networking, PR or recruitment, and differences it seems do still remain. Our thanks go to Ken Dawson for providing us with insights from his new publication ”So You Want To Be A McKinsey Consultant?” and allowing us to share anecdotes with our readers.
 
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