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What It’s Like To Fail at McKinsey

“Tell me about a time when you failed. What did you learn from the experience?”

The common trope of an answer is: “Candidate X screws up, but with no major or irreparable harm done. The situation doesn’t unveil some kind of fatal flaw, but rather an easily explained mistake. And in fact an important lesson was learned that paves the way to a brighter future.”

My story? To paraphrase Game of Thrones, “If you’re looking for a happy ending, you’ve come to the wrong place.”

Sort of.

Flashback to winter 2009. I was three-and-a-half years into my time at McKinsey. I’d had a pretty traditional path at the Firm: from b-school summer, to full-time associate, to junior engagement manager (EM), to experienced EM building client and functional homes. While every project presented its unique challenges, I had the general approach down through dozens of client engagements. I had a good track record. My spikes were in problem-solving and running through brick walls to get things done.

I was preparing to take on a new project which would require spending a good chunk of time spent overseas. I knew the client and quite a bit about the specific focus of the study, for which I had a lot of passion. I also had worked with one of the lead partners on the engagement.

The international aspect was new for me, and being away from my family for long stretches would be a challenge. But, I figured that a) it would be a good test to see whether I was in this consulting game for the long haul, and b) I could handle it.

After all, it was just one project, and this was far from my first rodeo.

A mere three weeks later, life was hell. The team was working until all hours of the night and throughout the weekend. We were churning out powerpoint decks that the main clients were figuratively crapping all over (possibly literally as well). Unhappy clients lead to stressed out partners, which in turn lead to constant calls that make the team crank even harder… although not necessarily more effectively.

We were spiraling out of control in the vicious cycle of a failing team.

Staggering back into the upscale hotel that had become a virtual jail cell for me one evening, I looked at my reflection in the elevator doors and wondered how it all could have gone so horribly wrong.

There were a lot of potential excuses. The client was way behind in the market, both in share and in years- lack of satisfaction with our “strategy recommendations” was inevitable. I also had learned a week or so in, that we had actually done a similar study not once, but TWICE before for the same client (albeit for different people at the client) over the last 18 months. The team setup was also not ideal, with multiple Partners involved, giving wildly different direction at times. The scope was expansive.

But I couldn’t shake the fact that there was one simple root cause of our struggles and mistakes: the problem was me.

In the thick of the battle, I couldn’t figure out how to break us out of the death spiral and get us back on track. It was a disaster. Eventually, the team took evasive action in order to salvage the engagement and actually deliver some value for the client:

  • The associate principal was anointed lead Partner, stepped up and provided clear direction for the entire team
  • They brought on another engagement manager. Although I stayed on the project until the end, I effectively stepped back into a senior associate role again and owned a set of workstreams, no longer the entire study
  • The actual associates on the team pulled things together on their workstreams

In the end, as a team we delivered on what we committed to at the beginning of the engagement. Check the box.

However, it took us longer than planned, with significantly more resources than expected. And the team really suffered during that time, top-to-bottom.

Even more importantly, I believe the impact our engagement had for the client was hurt by the sub-par way in which the study proceeded. Looking back on it, our recommendations were sound and would have set them up to be in much better shape today… if they had followed them. BUT they didn’t.

Is it fair to put that on the hired guns… the people that write decks but don’t have the ownership to execute? Maybe not. But as consultants, we pride ourselves on our ability to influence. We spend countless hours on clear thinking and communication, developing actionable recommendations, and establishing relationships. So as I see it, if the brilliant answer doesn’t get executed, it’s on us. I can’t see how a self-respecting consultant could think otherwise and abdicate responsibility.

To this day, over four years later, I still put the sub-par nature of the study, which may have contributed to their lack of faith in the findings and subsequent lack of follow-through, on my shoulders. As the engagement manager, you’re QB1. The team goes largely as you go.

And on this particular study, I failed.

What could I have done differently? I’ve thought about that a lot. There were a number of tactical things that contributed to the team’s struggles… decisions around how much time to allocate to different activities, who to include in different discussions, how to tell the story around our findings. Going back, I would change a lot of those things. A lot of little things.

However, having given it some time, I now realize that there was one fundamental thing that I needed to do that I didn’t: I needed to lead.

And with the benefit of hindsight, I now see that what I was doing was not leading.

  • I WAS driving against a gantt chart workplan we developed at the beginning of the engagement. I had the team making powerpoint pages to populate the sections of a deck, against a story I had constructed with the partners early on. I was deferring to more senior people from my Firm and from the client. I was scheduling and conducting meetings. I was being an administrator.
  • I WAS NOT actively questioning whether we were doing the right thing by taking on this engagement for arguably a third time. I was not pushing back on the senior client aggressively and “speaking truth to power.” I was not helping the team cut through the BS in order to get to the right answer. I was not evangelizing that answer and being a force for change with the key clients. I was not being a leader.

I realize now that for all the great skills I had developed during my formative years in consulting (structured problem-solving, story-telling, managing projects), I had developed some really bad habits too (conformity, deference, conservatism). I had fallen into traps that take good consultants and suck the value-add right out of them.

And on this particular engagement, these things contributed mightily to my struggles and my ultimate downfall as an EM.

It’s hard to come back from a misstep at McKinsey. People do it, of course. Noteworthy was the Director Emeritus I met early on, who claimed to have been “counseled to leave” on three different occasions before being elected to senior partner.

However, screwing up an engagement is a little like having an off-year in the Big Leagues where you hit .220. Yes, you could come back from that, especially if you had a decent track record before. But you’ll need someone to take a chance on you. And even then, it’s going to be a ton of work rebuilding your reputation.

I stuck around the Firm for another couple months. I benefited from having an extremely supportive group surrounding me on that international engagement, allowing me to finish out my tour of duty with some degree of satisfaction and pride intact. I then had a few more engagements that were relatively more successful- happier clients, happier teams.

But in the end, like many before me, I left the Firm. What led me to leave wasn’t the hard work it would take to get my McK rep back in shape. Rather, it was two critical realizations:

  1. I want to make decisions more than I want to influence decision-makers. When you hit this point, you know consulting is no longer for you at a very fundamental level
  2. I care about my family. This big international engagement caused me to make personal sacrifices that make it all seem not worth it, no matter how hard or easy the study

I look back fondly at my time at McK and credit it for making me into a professional, I refer to what I learned from the place. I go to the occasional reunion.

But I don’t have any regrets about leaving the Firm and take pride in what I was able to accomplish when I was there.

Still, even today, I think back on this particular experience often. You might forget some of your successes and accolades, but you never forget your failures.

I remind myself to continually seek out ways to lead, and to keep from going through the motions. I actively engage. I push my team members to find the high-impact path, even if it’s not necessarily the one we’d originally set out on.

I call bullshit on things.

I also force myself to step back from whatever firedrill my team or others might be engaged in and think about whether we’re doing the right things or if we have our collective heads up our… you get the idea.

It’s served me well so far and made work a lot more fulfilling. (note: this is that “paves the way to a brighter future” part for me)

It’s also made me feel like I can be myself at work much more than I did as a member of the Firm.

Perhaps it was the thing about representing a collective partnership, serving a particular client paying a pretty penny, or just the overwhelming legacy of the place. Clients were just as likely to refer to me as “McKinsey” as they were by my first name.

I know many still at the Firm that have been able to maintain a distinct style and sense of individuality throughout… I just couldn’t do it myself while I was there.

For those thousands of fresh recruits about to start with McK or other professional services firms, I’d leave you with the advice Columbia B-School professor (and former McK EM), Hitendra Wadhwa, gave to me before I signed on full-time:

“Always remember that you’re smart.”

Each one of you will be challenged on a daily basis- by your clients, and even more fiercely by your own teams.

And each of you will stumble, if not fall, at some point.

Remembering that you’re “smart,” and the confidence that comes with that- the confidence to pick yourself up and to continually lead- is what will sustain you and help you to ultimately succeed.

Chris originally published this piece on Linkedin

Title Photo Credit: flickr

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Written by Chris Louie

Chris is SVP of Product Marketing at Nielsen

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