The Great McKinsey Hoax: From Someone Who Fell For It ONCE

When I was fresh out of Harvard College, one of my earliest jobs was as a Research Analyst for a management consulting firm. In those days that was both sexy and lucrative. I was making a king’s ransom in the mid-1980’s, more than any other 20-something I this a mckinsey management consultant?

And I thought I was hot. In fact, most all of us new hirees thought we were hot. Even the guy who went to Cornell thought so.

But the sad fact is, we were not smarter than the rest of humanity. That is the blunder that can send you into ignominy, if you don’t watch out.

In fact, management consultants are not any smarter than you are. Despite what they say, despite the polish on their bespoke suits or their quotes in HBR quarterlies that they ply over and over, we hold these truths to be self-evident:

  1. They are not any smarter than you
  2. They know more A-listers than you, and hey, at the upper echelons networking is what it’s all about
  3. They get out of their cave more often, to more of the right venues and with more confidence in their walk, compared with you
  4. They never stop moving.

So, here is the good news: You can do it, too.

It has taken me more than a quarter-century and a whole lot of ups and downs to come to the conclusion that I don’t give a rat’s tushy where you went to school, what rank you achieved in your class, whether you have a top tier firm on your resume or which chic table you dine at.

I am not falling for it, and neither should you.

I once took that job down on Water Street because just before I was living at home with my parents, sewing costumes for the second act of Broadway’s Dreamgirls. I was in the stranglehold of jealousy for my peers who were living the good life as singletons in Manhattan. I wanted that. Who wouldn’t?

But I underestimated the importance of knowing yourself.

And I overestimated the rush of hobnobbing on a Friday evening at Happy Hour at the South Street Seaport.

Instead, in my costume-sewing job, I focused on the bummer of a hurricane hitting the Rockaways, and this lousy weather caused my entire table of Russian emigre stitchers to stay home one week, bailing out their basement. Which meant we were running behind in costume sewing. Which caused my boss to demand that I work crazy hours sewing each and every one of those ostrich feathers by hand onto three floor-length gowns.

That was not only tedious work, it was so time-consuming that it made me miss Happy Hour. And that contributed to my decision to look elsewhere for employment.

Call it upgrading.

Just like a girl should marry up or a trivia team should look for a mastermind to upgrade their game, folks like us should upgrade our careers.

she is a capable management consultant

Sharon Janssen, Consultant

But don’t fall for the trap that others are smarter. Unless you are a bozo, the difference between the McKinsey consultant and someone like you is that the McKinsey consultants know to listen first. And:

  1. They know to mix with folks who are up the ladder from them
  2. They know to get out and about, keep their ears to the pavement, and learn all they can from others
  3. They know to brazenly promote the image that they are smarter, and
  4. They don’t settle for second out of the gate. They know that the first mover is the only one who gets the prize.

McKinsey’s recruiting strategy shows how they carefully cultivate the better-than-you image of a management consultant.

It is well-known that the way McKinsey recruits at top-tier business schools reflects a different strategy than others. Most other brass-ring firms set up highly selective interviews at the 10 best MBA schools. That means it is hard to get an interview with them, but among those who do get a seat at the table, the chances of an offer are good.

McKinsey does the opposite. They set up interview after interview for reams of candidates. So, for example, at Columbia Business School, which is superb by every measure but maybe a teensy bit down from the Harvard-Stanford-Wharton clique, if there are 500 students in the class, maybe 200 or more will get interviews with McKinsey.

An absolute ton of questions and answers, to my mind.

Does it make sense? Do they really have difficulty discerning who’s more attractive than the others? Can’t they do more initial culling to save time?

Of course, they could.

But they don’t.

They want all 200 folks who interview with them to think that they are really smart, that they are the crème de la crème, that they have the caliber to get interviews with McKinsey.

Only a small portion receive job offers, but we know the rejects are not rejects, since plenty of gems don’t stand out from their peers in school. We know that school bears no resemblance to the real world. The chance of getting into a top business school goes disproportionately to the well-off, better-connected, more affluent lucky ducks.

But I digress.

When the offers come to just a few, the rejected are prone to think they are not as smart as the winners. And they go on with the memory of that rejection to haunt them.

What will happen to them?

They will succeed anyway. As Dr. Seuss says, “Oh the places you will go.…”

And as they go, they comprise the fertile ground to which McKinsey promotes the message that McKinsey is smarter, better, and more capable, and is the right resource to get the job done. That is how McKinsey throws down the gauntlet for that cool multi-million dollar gig.

And those former interviewees may think to themselves, “These guys are indeed the cat’s pajamas; once I got close to the inner sanctum, but no dice. They are smarter.”

It’s a hoax. Don’t buy it.

I fell for it once, but no more. I see lots of folks who are management consultants that are no better than you and me.

Of course, once in a while, there is someone who embodies brilliance, who ascends to the pinnacle as a thought leader.

But those people worked at it day after day, year after year, and did not give up. They didn’t start their career at McKinsey, and in some cases, they didn’t even graduate college.

They are first-rate listeners. They cultivate connections. They got out and about, networking to the hilt, and took every experience as a chance to learn from everyone. In fact, their thirst for learning drives everything they do.

And they never ever settled for being second. Being first is a core value. They are hands-down committed to innovation and getting ahead, and no one who meets them thinks otherwise.

You can do the same.

People like us have a chance.

We just gotta do it.

Cartoon courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0, Tony Dowler, photo courtesy of wovox.

Are you intimidated by high-powered consultants? What do they do that you can’t?

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  • Michele

    Dear Diane,
    I love every one of your posts! This one will go directly to my sons. Thanks for sharing your insight into this conversation…one that happens in my house frequently, about education, where you get it and how it affects your future.

  • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

    You’re welcome, Michele. Education is a topic that comes around again and again in every household with kids, and among all parents who truly care about the journey of their progeny. My own theory is that people are successful to the degree that they are motivated within, they set a goal, break that goal into intermediate pieces, and continuously engage in goal-seeking behavior, re-calibrating often. On the other hand, there is no denying that opportunities are not equal for all, and luck plays a role, too. One of my favorite explorations of this topic: The movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” And, Malcolm Gladwell.

  • resourceful ms.

    This posting is great! I have often thought about this same topic. One trick these “top”(?) consultants may have is rehearsing what they will say, and the buzz words they will use.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      I agree, a good consultant will rehearse till they know it backwards and forwards, and still come off as speaking spontaneously. And as you said, knowing the lingo is key!

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Renee, one of my top referring sites for traffic to this post was, and when I investigated, I found my evangelist, a guy from Kuwait who has worked with the McKinsey’s and other top-tier consulting firms (including one where I worked, too!) Anyway, he has a hilarious post on using the lingo, you can see here: It ends with this phrase, chock-full of lingo: Now if you will excuse me, I need to think out of the box for some low hanging fruits that I need to synergize and syndicate for some quick wins.

  • Hughie Bagnell

    Hi Diane…Bang On! Wow! You do have the MOJO…a great confident article both from the reader and writer perspective! …Thank you for sharing …Cheers, Hughie :)

  • Pat Moon

    Great article, Diane. You are talking to a 68 year old HS graduate. A lesson I have learned from living life is to be a good listener. Less into myself and more into others. Go get ‘em! Thanks for posting.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      I admire you tremendously, Pat. Indeed, the people I think are great listeners, I always think are the kindest folk. And the contrary holds true, as well.

  • Sandy Pickar

    Hi Diane: I don’t know about McKinsey, but I spent a short time many years ago at a placement firm called Snelling & Snelling. These so called “experts” at helping support personnel find positions got up to all kinds of tricks to locate openings. One time, I remember, someone came in looking for a position as an architect’s assistant. We didn’t normally fill such positions but the manager hated to lose on a possible commission. The potential client was asked to remain in the reception area while we did a little research. Our “research” consisted of going through the Yellow Pages!!! So much for expertise…..

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      That is an example of hucksterism that reminds me of Nixon himself. In fact, there is a huge difference between ingenuity and obfuscation. Thankfully, most folks do not engage in such blatant tricks.

  • Anastasiya Day

    I enjoy reading your articles Diane! Another brilliant post from you. Thanks so much for sharing your insight into this conversation. Have a wonderful day.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Anastasiya, you are making me blush!

  • laurie goldsmith sperandio

    Great article. As i look back at 60, at most of my friends, co-workers, acquaintenances, clients, etc. i am convinced what makes a person successful or not, has much more to do with that something inside of them, than their education, yet admit i still believe the quality of a good education is priceless.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      I totally agree. In fact, there is a lot of research — which is totally corroborated by my own experience — that it is the character of the person and the way they engage in repeated, disciplined goal-seeking behavior, that determines how far they go. Of course, it is somewhat more complicated than this, but most folks who think the name of an institution of higher learning will ultimately make the difference, don’t realize that where you went to school hardly matters 5 years after college. What matters is what you’ve done with yourself.

  • Dan


    I agree with the overall assessment that one shouldn’t be intimidated by the “Management Consultants” from top
    firms or schools. While I have found them to be very smart with great access to strategic information and high level
    people, they often lack the deep understanding of what they are proposing at the strategic level. For implementation and below,
    I much prefer someone who has been in a fox hole on the front lines who has succeeded.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      You said is so well. The best foxhole-buddy is an experienced combat veteran. And the best co-worker is one who has proven themselves successful at executing and leading, in previous work.

  • Maryl

    Having worked on staff for several large corporations, I recall how put out we employees were when we were told to work with an outside consultant, usually from one of the big firms. The implication of course is that they know more and were smarter than us. Of course, as soon as you started working with them you could tell they were vamping half the time and how they desperately needed us to get the job done. And that’s how I learned they were no better than me. Thanks for the reassurance, Diane.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Maryl, you are welcome. That is exactly why I started this blog. If I were to say that I was in digital marketing and online customer acquisition, then I needed to be doing it, not just consulting on it. So I know how you feel. The people who inspire are the DOERS, not just the paper-pushers.

  • Max

    Just got rejected after a McKinsey interview today. This article makes me feel better! Thank you.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      It is amazing how a bit of inspiration can turn around disappointment! I am glad that I was able to convey what I really believe, that is, its NOT always you. Look at what has been working for you, look at what has not, and keep doing MORE of what works for you and LESS of what doesnt. In the long-run, you will get to the places you wish to go!

  • outdoors

    Great article. Very real. I ghostwrite for a management consulting blog and come up with a lot of the content, yet I don’t have a consulting background. Totally agree with the comments on the cultivation of the “better-than-you” image…I’ve become quite familiar with it! At the same time, I’ve learned a ton about business during that time and do put a huge value on that.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      GOOD FOR YOU, be grateful for the learnings, and consider it lucky that you have an aptitude to learn, and then stay the course… without prejudice or judgment of others. That will get you thru

  • CP

    Totally Agree. I joined the back office of Corporate Executive Board in Gurgaon in 2009. Two most terrible years in my life were spent there. And i had one of the best campus offers in that hellish recession of 2009. It isnt even a real consulting firm.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Only you know what is a REAL experience, and what is not coming (acceptably) close to being real. Good luck!

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