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McKinsey’s Marvin Bower, a Father of Management Consulting

McKinsey’s Marvin Bower, a Father of Management Consulting

Consulting as a profession is relatively new. It was brought into prominence, at least in the USA, by Marvin Bower from McKinsey & Company.

Many management consultants don’t know who Marvin Bower was. Marvin Bower was a legendary man. He had a vision of what management consulting should be, which he brought into reality while sticking to high values and maintaining an unbelievable level of integrity. He knew what was required to build respect for McKinsey, and did not compromise to make a quick buck. He showed an unprecedented level of commitment to the firm. For example, when it was time to sell his shares, he sold it at book value, whereas he could have taken the company public and made a fortune during his exit.

Who is Marvin Bower

A lot of McKinsey’s current success is due to the momentum which was built by Marvin Bower and some other earlier partners such as Bill Matassoni, a close friend of Marvin Bower, and Kevin P Coyne. You can read more about Marvin in Bill Matassoni’s memoir on Amazon, “Marketing Saves the World.”

Marvin Bower was a courageous man. He built McKinsey from the ground up. He never let his ego be more important than the firm. Nowadays, it is so hard to meet someone with that level of integrity, loyalty, and commitment.

He was very strict. He demanded that McKinsey consultants abide by certain rules. Such as wearing specific socks and clothes to ensure McKinsey consultants look professional and unnoticeable, or ordering blue plate specials at restaurants to keep clients’ costs low.

He left a legacy second to none in management consulting. Yet somehow, he is not just forgotten by many in the management consulting profession, he was not even known to begin with by most management consultants.

If you want to be a management consultant, you should know who Marvin Bower was and what he has done for the profession of management consulting. Without him, management consulting would likely not even exist. You also need to know who is Bill Matassoni and what he did to build McKinsey. This is covered in The Bill Matassoni Show on StrategyTraining.com, FIRMSconsulting sister streaming platform. Here is an excerpt from this program.

Here is another video where Bill Matassoni discusses management consulting.

If you want to be an outstanding management consultant, start by getting to know who Marvin Bower was and what he stood for. Who Bill Matassoni is, and what he stands for. Who Kevin Coyne is, and what he stands for. You can watch Kevin’s programs on StrategyTraining.com as well. There are number of powerful programs to choose from such as, How to Become a McKisney Partner, How to Solve Big Problems,  Competitive Advantage, Advanced Competitive Advantage, How to Be Influential and Make an Impact, The Consulting Offer 2. Below is an interview we recorded with Kevin.

And here is an excerpt from one of Kevin’s programs on StrategyTraining.com.

Especially if you want to interview with McKinsey, you need to know who Marvin Bower was. And who some of other impactful partners were, such as Bill Matassoni, Kevin P. Coyne and Dominic Barton.

The story of Marvin Bower

But let’s go back to the father of management consulting, Marvin Bower. Marvin had a facinating quote from 2001, “Ideas are not enough. They do not last. Something practical must be done with them.” And that is what he have done. He took ideas, implemented them, with help of other amazing McKinsey partners, that resulted in development of a powerful firm that lived on well beyond Marvin Bower’s time here with us.

It is surprising how so many people in consulting do not know who Marvin Bower was. Yes McKinsey exists because of Marvin Bower. Moreover, management consulting was brought into prominence by Marvin Bower. If it wasn’t for Marvin Bower we probably would not have BCG, Bain, Deloitte Consulting, PwC Consulting & Deals, KPMG management consulting, and other management consulting firms. He created a profession and, what is more, made it not only a respected line of work but a dreamed about path for many students and professionals.

Marvin Bower joined James McKinsey’s accounting and engineering firm in 1933, and six years later, at the age of 35, he and his 3 partners (two over 60 years old) bought struggling McKinsey & Co and committed to building a great firm. Marvin Bower built McKinsey from a staff of 18.

Marvin Bower did not rename McKinsey & Co to Bower & Co after the death of James McKinsey and taking over the firm because it was hard for him to sell going to meetings being named Bower whereas company’s name was McKinsey & Co. He did not want to put someone else through this experience. What a sign of an exceptional human being!

Years passed, working and building McKinsey into the powerhouse it is today. Here are some reasons Marvin Bower succeeded while so many failed.

  • Marvin Bower focused on building a preeminent institution.
  • Marvin Bower consistently displayed relentless determination.
  • Selfless commitment to the firm.
  • Marvin Bower believed in a non-hierarchical management structure. During his years at Jones, Day, when he worked on bankruptcies and reorganizations as a young lawyer, Marvin saw firsthand the dangers of CEOs being isolated from important negative information because employees did not feel comfortable telling the boss what was going on. Isolated CEOs ended up with disastrous results and, ultimately, failed companies.
  • Marvin Bower sold his shares to his partners at book value when other service firms were going public.
  • Unemotional logic, integrity, and values.

Making management consulting an esteemed profession

Marvin Bower was born at a time when women could vote in 2 out of the 45 states, when Harvard had no business school, when the New York Times cost one cent, and when the world did not have management consulting as a profession. He used his lifetime to invent management consulting.

Marvin Bower had a vision to make management consulting a respected profession. During his earlier career management consulting as a career was inferior to being a doctor or a lawyer. In fact, being in business was something people felt ashamed of. It was signaling that an individual was just not good enough for a more esteemed profession.

It is remarkable to be able to change people’s perceptions—the entire world’s perceptions—about your line of work in your lifetime.

Knowing your purpose in life is arguably our main job. Marvin Bower knew his purpose. He had a vision and pushed for it. This was done over many years, it did not happen overnight.

Changing how management consulting was done

Marvin Bower was the first to hire fresh MBAs for consulting. Prior to this practice, consultants were experienced, mature people with years of after-school experience. He was also loyal to Harvard School and contributed to making Harvard even more prominent by hiring a lot of Harvard MBAs.

McKinsey rules set by Marvin Bower

We will conclude this post with some of Marvin Bower’s rules for McKinsey.

  1. Be invisible. Marvin was a determined fellow who was very set on what he believed in. One of the things he believed in was that consultants should be invisible, and this is how the “no fancy socks” rule came into being. As part of being invisible, he believed McKinsey consultants should dress as was common at the time. If it was common to wear hats, everyone at McKinsey had to wear hats.
  2. Save the client’s money. Ordering in restaurants also had to be done according to Marvin’s rule. The blue plate special had to be McKinsey’s consultants’ order.
  3. Try to work directly with the CEO and deal primarily with major problems. If a client was someone below CEO level, the key messages from McKinsey’s team may never get to the decision-maker. Working directly with the CEO allowed McKinsey to focus on the most pressing problem facing an entire organization. In fact, Marvin once fired a McKinsey partner in Chicago primarily for doing a lot of work that did not meet the “major problem” threshold.
  4. Common values. One of the firm’s values is the right and obligation to dissent. Marvin wanted even the most junior members of the firm to speak their mind.
  5. Common problem-solving philosophy.
  6. Action orientation
  7. High-caliber committed people. Marvin Bower believed that the firm’s people and a good reputation are McKinsey’s top assets.
  8. Sensitivity to external factors/aversion to complacency
  9. Regenerating leadership. Marvin wanted to develop enough leaders so the firm would not rely on one generation of leaders.
  10. A national firm with multiple offices. Marvin Bower felt that to build a strong reputation the firm had to be involved in communities. Therefore, a local presence was required. Moreover, many clients had a national presence and could be better served if the firm had offices across the country. Lastly, Marvin Bower did not want members of the firm to burn out by spending too much time on the road.
  11. We are what we speak. McKinsey has clients, not customers. It is a firm, not an organization, business, or company. McKinsey has members, not employees. The firm has values, not rules.
  12. “We are management consultants only.” Marvin Bower resisted moving to the sidelines to take advantage of opportunities to make more money by expanding the firm’s range of services. He envisioned McKinsey as an independent and unbiased advisor. Marvin resisted even once-off opportunities to make money on services or products beyond management consulting. A good example is when Kidder Peabody wanted to buy a computer model that McKinsey built to evaluate acquisitions. Marvin’s answer was, “no, we were not in the business of selling software”.
  13. Publish the firm’s thought leadership to build McKinsey’s reputation. Marvin worked hard on building the firm’s reputation. He published a number of articles and books, and gave numerous speeches at professional organizations, and he encouraged other members of McKinsey to do the same.
  14. Do not advertise McKinsey’s services, and do not solicit clients. Marvin did not want to make implied promises of what could be done for prospects because McKinsey did not know what they could accomplish for a client, so promising certain outcomes did not meet high professional standards. Moreover, having clients approach McKinsey made it easier to serve clients since clients did ask McKinsey for help instead of having a “show me” attitude, which is common when you buy something after a sales pitch.
  15. Put client interests first.
  16. Only take on projects where you know you can provide real value to the client.
  17. The one firm philosophy.
  18. The importance of teamwork.
  19. Consultants should use their lunchtime to meet with and touch base with old and potential clients.

Marvin believed that the principles outlined above were in the long-term interest of the firm.

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