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 knew.
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:
- They are not any smarter than you
- They know more A-listers than you, and hey, at the upper echelons networking is what it’s all about
- They get out of their cave more often, to more of the right venues and with more confidence in their walk, compared with you
- 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.
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:
- They know to mix with folks who are up the ladder from them
- They know to get out and about, keep their ears to the pavement, and learn all they can from others
- They know to brazenly promote the image that they are smarter, and
- 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.
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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