Making Your Own McKinsey

In short: What it takes to get staffed on international engagements of your choice.

“Make your own McKinsey” is one of the mottos of the Firm. Ideally, consultants are free to shape their experiences, do what they like, and with people they choose. However, this idea sometimes contradicts the “Client First” principle. When it does, the interests of the client prevail over the interests and preferences of individual consultants. So choosing your own way is possible, but not automatic. In this post I will share what worked in my case.

This is the last article in the Insecure Overachiever series. You can read previous articles about insecure overachievers, week zero and first engagement under the links.

“What’s Next” Considerations

Last post was about my first engagement at McKinsey. I liked the team and lifestyle, but wanted a steeper learning curve and a more dynamic industry. At the end of the engagement I started to think what my next steps should be.

Career strategy in any company, and consulting firms are no exception, depends on your goals.

Scenario 1. If you want to grow within the company, the rule of thumb is to work with (1) people you like and (2) who have influence in the company. In this way you enjoy your everyday work in the long run and get strong support when promotion is nearby.

Scenario 2. If you want to grow outside the company eventually, you need to work with (1) people you like and (2) on projects that will help you develop necessary skills for your next step. Again, you enjoy your work in the long run, but also prepare for your future job beyond the current company.

Mine was the second case: I wanted to go into private equity. Why? Because I like investors’ impact-oriented mindset and decision-making authority. And, well, yes, money and prestige. (Eventually I realized that career path was not as lucrative as it seemed; I will explain why in a separate post).

To reach my goal, I realized I needed to get into private equity engagements. The challenge was that there were not many of them in my home office.

So I had this plan:

  1. Avoid all engagements but private equity-related ones
  2. Constantly approach managers / directors of all private equity engagements
  3. Get into my first private equity engagement
  4. Leverage this experience and network to get staffed on the following engagements

After certain amount of effort, disappointment, and fear for my career prospects, this plan worked out. Here’s how.

Step 1. Avoid all engagements but private equity-related

When at work, a consultant can either be staffed full-time on an engagement or be in the waiting mode between two engagements. Once you get staffed, you cannot roll off (i.e. change engagement) until the engagement ends – unless you have a serious problem in the team which is always a very bad thing for you. So if you are not super happy with your engagement after being staffed on it already, you have to just deal with it.

To me being staffed on the “wrong” engagement was a threat. I had zero experience besides one capex study. If I got staffed on one or two similar studies, I would become a petit capex “expert”, meaning that capex studies would want to get me onboard, while other studies (including private equity) would not care for me. This would be great for a career at McKinsey, but not so good for a transition to private equity.

In the waiting mode between engagements you support other studies, help partners with LOPs (letters of proposal) but do not get any serious chunks of work. In the meantime, you keep searching for your next engagement. Waiting mode is called working “on the beach” (don’t ask why) and is considered a waste of consultant resources. The staffing department pushes consultants to get staffed as quickly as possible, so anyone “on the beach” is under pressure to leave it asap.

I was under pressure, too. But luckily, my little consulting experience did not interest engagement managers and directors at that point, so I was comfortably left behind for 1.5 months. In the meantime, I helped close some ongoing studies (fixed grammar mistakes in the final document for a picky client) and kept searching for private equity opportunities.

Step 2. Constantly approach managers / directors of all private equity engagements

Upcoming engagements are emailed in the various staffing lists. I asked their coordinators to add me and started reaching out to teams. Success rate was 0. I called, emailed, and texted about 50 people. A few of them replied “no thanks, you do not have relevant experience”, others did not get back to me at all.

The result was disappointing, but not surprising. Private equity engagements are short and intense, and they have no room for errors. It’s just too easy to screw up even with experienced team members, let alone newbies. Moreover, all of the engagements were abroad, and no one wanted to bother and bring an inexperienced business analyst from a different office when managers and directors had lots of manpower locally.

I realized this initial inertia was the ugly companion of a career change, and I had to keep on pushing and wait for my luck. And I got lucky indeed, when my colleague and friend told me about Sean, a local partner who occasionally ran private equity engagements.

Step 3. Get into my first private equity engagement

Burning midnight oil at McKinsey

It would be fair to say that, among all McKinsey people, I owe the most to Sean. He mentored and supported me throughout my career at McKinsey and made sure I grew professionally and reached my goals. Sean, if you are reading this, once again, thank you for your support and guidance, you are an exceptional leader, boss, and teammate.

But let’s go back to when I was working “on the beach” and desperately searching for my first private equity opportunity. Following my friend’s advice, I joined Sean for lunch and asked him to staff on a private equity engagement. He said there were none at the point, plus he was not yet sure if I could handle such a high-pressure engagement.

I started to hang out at Sean’s office with his teams (it was Sean’s working style: get together 2-3 of his small teams, work simultaneously on several things, discuss something, then have lunch together). If I had to do beach work anyways, I thought, I’d rather support Sean and prove my worthiness then do anything else. And I did: I started with some simple slides and updates of Excel models and ended up burning midnight oil preparing a strategy workshop for a medical device company. After a few all-nighters and a bunch of happy clients Sean agreed to staff me on my first private equity engagement in Sweden.

Step 4. Leverage this experience and network to get staffed on the following engagements

After my first private equity project, a couple more with Sean followed. He then supported my application to the European Private Equity Practice rotation program. I talked to their staffing coordinator, and she agreed to include me in the pool of dedicated private equity consultants. Then a couple PE trainings followed where I met some amazing PE people who later became my engagement directors.

By the end of my first year at McKinsey, I started getting calls from partners and managers from all over Europe about joining their engagements potentially. Not all of those talks worked out, but this time the success rate was much higher. I got staffed on the following PE studies while still on the previous ones.

Thanks to the European Private Equity Practice, I got involved into 24 private equity and strategy studies, visited a dozen European and Asian countries, learned modelling, interviewing, information hunting and systemizing, and met several amazing colleagues who helped me grow along the way. But I think this is a topic for future posts, so much for this one.

Lessons Learned

  • In a consulting career, as in other walks of life, you need to take risks and be lucky. Had I failed to get a stellar feedback on a study after spending 1.5 months on the “beach”, my evaluation committee might have questioned my role at the Firm. I got lucky – thanks to Sean.
  • Tell ‘em what you want. No one will play guessing games with you. Unless you figure out your goals and push your way to achieve them, other people will make up goals for you – and you will have to achieve them instead.
  • Find a mentor. Having someone way smarter than you, willing to support and coach you is priceless. Just like winning a gold medal in the Olympics is almost unthinkable without a rockstar coach, growing in a business-related field is highly problematic without a mentor.

That’s it for now. Next post will be about private equity engagements, so stay tuned.

Thanks for your time,

Victor Rogulenko

Cover picture credit: Impowersolutions

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