One of the great privileges of our unique network is that we have access to some of the most eminent former partners like Kevin Coyne and Bill Matassoni. We adopt their insights when designing our case training and strategy training programs. Our goal at Firmsconsulting is to allow our members access to the partners from whom we seek advise.

This is an exclusive interview that Bill Matassoni recently had with Firmsconsulting where he shared some counter-intuitive concepts you will not hear anywhere else.

Bill Matassoni was the partner who was involved in developing and implementing the McKinsey philosophy that helped the firm pull ahead of BCG in the 1980s and 1990s. He was thereafter the partner who led BCG’s efforts to overtake McKinsey.

Why are we releasing this on the first day of 2015? We want you to take an aggressive hold of your career in 2015 and begin investing in your future from the first day of the year. This insightful, inspiring and counter intuitive podcast explains the steps McKinsey took in the 1980s to reposition the firm.

Planning is meaningless unless you know what to plan. You need a point of differentiation and you need to consistently drive that difference.

Competitive advantage is wrong to pursue. You need to look for comparative advantage.

See if you can extract those lessons from this podcast.

Bill Matassoni started his career in management consulting in 1980 when he joined McKinsey & Company. He was a partner there for almost 20 years, focusing on the branding of professional services. He was responsible for building McKinsey’s reputation and protecting its brand, which included publishing the McKinsey Quarterly. In doing so he worked closely with many of his colleagues worldwide including Tom Peters, Jon Katzenbach, Kenichi Ohmai, John Sawhill, John Stucky, and John Hagel. He was also responsible for much of McKinsey’s internal communications. This included the creation of McKinsey’s systems to manage and disseminate its practice knowledge. These efforts are described in an HBR case study.

He left McKinsey to join Mitchell Madison Group, a strategy consulting firm he helped to take public through its sale to USWeb/CKS in 1999. He then joined The Boston Consulting Group, where he headed for over five years a group responsible for innovation, marketing and communications. As at McKinsey, Bill Matassoni worked closely with several of BCG’s thought leaders — George Stalk, Michael Silverstein, Philip Evans, Yves Morieux, Hal Sirkin and others — to develop their ideas and turn them into consulting assignments. Bill Matassoni retired from BCG a few years ago and founded The Glass House Group, a consulting firm that helps professional service firms with branding and marketing issues. At one of his clients, Tapestry Networks, Bill has become a senior advisor.

Bill Matassoni is a graduate of Phillips Andover (1964), Harvard College (B.A. Literature, 1968) and Harvard Business School (M.B.A., 1975).

For many years Bill Matassoni was on the board of trustees of United Way of America and United Way International. He is now on the board of trustees of First Book and a senior advisor to Ashoka, an organization that invests in social entrepreneurs. He is also on the Board of Advisors of The Demand Institute, a non-profit funded by The Conference Board and Nielsen. He remains interested in the management and marketing of professional services firms, social marketing and healthcare reform.

You can read Bill’s full biography here. His excellent pieces on managing professional services brands are here and here. If you have never had the opportunity to meet Marvin Bower, and that would apply to most of McKinsey’s current partners, Bill’s thinking is the second best thing to have access to.

In this wide ranging interview, Bill Matassoni and I discuss the following about the strategy, culture, values, mistakes and problems of McKinsey and BCG:

McKinsey & Co.

  1. How a partner’s background shapes his or her viewpoint
  2. The old influence of HBR on a consulting brand’s position
  3. Bill’s unconventional path into McKinsey and BCG
  4. Managing versus inspiring other senior partners
  5. Working with senior partners from McKinsey like Ron Daniels, Fred Gluck, Herb Ensinger, Kenichi Ohmae, Tom Peters, Bob Waterman, Lowell Bryan, Tom Steiner and Marvin Bower
  6. Insightful new anecdotes and stories not published before
  7. How to get partners to build a firm’s position and knowledge
  8. Competitive advantage in management consulting
  9. The problem with trying to position a firm as a consulting firm
  10. McKinsey problems in recent times and lack of differentiation
  11. Why strategy is less analytic than it seems
  12. WSJ vs. The Economist vs. HBR for eminence
  13. The Fortune Magazine story that changed McKinsey’s profile
  14. What is McKinsey’s point of differentiation – it is not analytics or strategy
  15. How to build a leadership factory
  16. Why all the books about McKinsey, like “The Firm”, completely miss the mark
  17. Anecdotes about Marvin Bower
  18. Using actions to build principles versus using principles to build actions
  19. The problem with marketing in consulting
  20. How McKinsey really makes decisions and tests them aka how to know when you are junior
  21. How to bring about change in traditional businesses with deep histories


  1. The difference between BCG and McKinsey
  2. BCG’s strengths and weaknesses
  3. What is BCG’s culture
  4. How positioning drives operational decisions
  5. Managing practice meetings

And much, much more.

If you found this piece interesting, please post comments and questions below. We will be interviewing other very senior ex-partners of McKinsey and BCG, and will use these comments as an input for future interviews.

We also use comments and social shares to determine if a series should be pursued. If you would like us to interview another BCG or McKinsey ex-partner, corporate executive or renowned athlete please let us know in the comments section.

Hope you enjoyed it.


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16 responses to Bill Matassoni interview, BCG & McKinsey Partner

  1. Thanks Hassan – we are looking at that option.

  2. Fascinating insight into the unique proposition of positioning an elite consulting firm among its rivals. I would certainly second the request to hear the Bain view on their positioning given both the divergent approach they took. Many thanks.

  3. Hi Phillip,

    Yes, you get what you reward. And if you want to understand a company’s culture the only thing you need to look at is its compensation and incentivisation scheme.

    That will tell you everything versus focus interviews and discussions with employees and management.


  4. Michael,

    I really enjoyed Bill’s insights into how he went about making changes in well established institutions. His discussion on culture, people and the evaluation systems was really exceptional. I think many potential change agents miss some of these elements when they try to bring about major change in an institution. For example, Bill spoke about how the evaluation system at BCG impacted the opportunity for young talents to gain multiple exposures in order to grow knowledge. He was able to identify that as an obstacle for real change. I’ve witnessed many potential change efforts fail because the change agents ignore or minimize some critical organizational, measurement and/or cultural issues. The result is that the people in the organization do not align to the change because their behavior is still influenced by the underlying measurement system or cultural element. It was a great take-away for me to hear how Bill honed in very early on the people, the culture and the evaluation system in his focus to bring about change in each institution.

  5. Thanks Michael. The point about the outcomes being in BCG’s favor is pretty instructive.

  6. Hi Jojo,

    I do not think there is a contradiction. While BCG does measure revenue, it is not enforced as much. So they look at, but the use of the metric is not as strict as one would think. It is a loose measure at best. A guide.

    The outcomes speak for themselves and that is more important. While McKinsey, and Bain, have had a raft of scandals related to partners seeking greater profits, BCG has had none. Not just a few, but really none of merit.

    So, while McKinsey may not directly look at profits, and claims they do not, a lot of partners somehow got caught up into the pursuit of it.

    The other issue is that Bill identifies himself more with McKinsey and is more flattering of McKinsey.

    There are two other issues here unrelated to Bill. They are just mentioned here since they important points but unrelated to Bill who is very sincere.

    First, every partner will naturally tell you they did not support Gupta. That is the safe thing to say even if they loved him.

    Second, many McKinsey partners where not up in arms when Gupta led the firm astray. They where only upset when he got caught. That says a lot about what matters to them. Are they upset that he led the firm astray or that getting caught hurt the firm’s reputation?

    To me just worrying about your reputation is the definition of vain. They should have been damn upset that he led the firm astray even if no one knew outside the firm about this and it, therefore, did not hurt the firm’s reputation.


  7. Micheal,

    I think the race issue, and I am going to tread lightly here, is a great point. I think far too many times, quality is sacrificed at the altar of diversity and genuine criticism is looked at as anything but. In Gupta’s case it probably was a lack of understanding of McKinsey’s values, among other things. That is not to say that diversity is not important, it is incredibly so. There are entire demographic talent pools that, if leveraged, would benefit both firms and economies immensely, not to mention give people opportunities. However, I very strongly do not believe that quality (whether it be ability or values based) should be scarified. That is why it was heartening to see that when you decided to make 50% of Firmsconsulting clients female, you took the time to find good applicants and did not sacrifice quality.

    The part about BCG not getting overly excited over profits is interesting. Bill mentioned that Mckinsey evaluated employees on a “contribution basis” with revenues rarely being discussed while BCG was the one that used a “credit” approach. Is there a contradiction here or am I missing something?

    Thanks again.

  8. Hi Jojo,

    I obviously have sentiments on the CEOs of all the major consulting firms. Sticking to McKinsey, I am someone who did not support Rajat Gupta and I am one of the people who did not support Dominic Barton. Our rankings editorial on Barton should make that abundantly clear.

    At both BCG and McKinsey, and I am sure even Bain, there are/where partners who vehemently disagreed with the changes. Yet, those partners tended to be in the minority and people tend to get sidelined when profit discussions start to dominate. Even at McKinsey.

    McKinsey likes to treat Gupta as an aberration but he was voted in 3 times by a wide majority of partners. That is the part I always worry about. Gupta’s champions are probably a bigger problem than Gupta.

    BCG tends to be different since it has a very reserved culture. Nothing, not even profits, really gets them that excited.

    At my firm, I was a partner who dissented significantly when I saw a breach of values. I would not back down even though I was a minority who was in the minority. I recall several times fighting to change things that I thought where unfair or did not support our values. The way it works is that other partners are generally worried of dissenting. Not many partners want to challenge the view of the senior partners. And your career can suffer when that happens. So, you have to be willing to take some pain when you do this. Because dissenting means you disagree with the majority and consultants rarely think they are wrong. They actually think they are completely right and the dissenter must be a little crazy.

    At the junior levels of McKinsey and BCG, and I think at all firms, dissent is treated much more professionally since you do not want to alienate the junior staff. At the senior level you either support the direction of the partnership, disagree and convince the majority of your view or disagree and fail to convince the majority of your view and get sidelined. That is how things work in any partnership and generally any elected group.

    This is not to paint a negative picture because the flip side is that maybe the dissenting partners should have made a far better case for their hesitation and I think many of them focused on the speed of growth as a problem versus the lack of quality due to the speed of growth. So, both sides are to blame. A partnership is like a democracy. You cannot simply state a fact. You need to convince the electorate to accept the fact. The dissenting partners failed at this, rather miserably.

    They need to take real responsibility for that. It is serious issue to quit on a firm/philosophy which you supposedly believe in. Certainly, some tried and where pushed out, but many did not try nearly enough.

    I also believed there was a racial component. It was minor but real. Gupta was the first non-white partner of the firm and challenging him was loosely, sometimes, interpreted as attacking the belief that a non-white person could run McKinsey. People never admit to this, but it was certainly there. I have seen it at other firms as well, and especially in the emerging markets offices when a minority partner was elected to lead the office. The same thing happens to any non-white CEO today, an attack is always interpreted by some as a racial issue. The same with pointing out flaws with a female CEO – a group will always interpret this as gender bashing.

    I think Romney and Nooyi would all make great interviewees and we will see if we can make that work. No promises.


  9. Hi Michael,

    Thank you for doing this. It is not only great listening to someone like Bill talk about his experiences but listening to how he talks about things is a great lesson in communication. It is one of the major reasons I seek out interviews like this.

    I have a question I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while. Wasn’t quite sure how to put it before, but Bill’s podcast brought it up again, so here it goes;

    It seems to me, and I may be wrong here, that well before the insider trading situation came to light, there were partners/senior people in McKinsey that did not agree with the direction that Rajat Gupta was taking the firm. I don’t think you’ve ever directly said this (or at least, I haven’t heard you say it) but I think you were one of those people as well. Now, I understand that in a partnership as large as McKinsey’s, there will be a difference of ideas; that is healthy. However, when Gupta’s successor, Ian Davis, ran on “the need for a return to the McKinsey heritage established by the firm’s long-term spiritual leader Marvin Bower” (copying the BusinessWeek article that ran this), it seems to suggest that the debate within the firm wasn’t on ideas but on its values. Is this the right inference to draw or am I reading too much into one article? If it is indeed correct, I am wondering why other partners didn’t dissent sooner and why Gupta got to serve three terms.

    I would second Jen’s suggestion on trying to get Indra Nooyi to do an interview. One other person I would love to have on here is Mitt Romney. I have long got the sense, rightly or wrongly, that politicians sometimes say things that they don’t believe to pander to their electoral majority (not saying Romney did that; it is more of a general sense). I would love to understand how someone like Romney handles that pressure while trying to stay true to his value system.

    Thanks again. Listening to success stories like Bill’s (having gone to school in Pennsylvania, I know a bunch of Steelers fans myself) is truly inspirational.

  10. You’re right, Michael. If I have learned anything from McKinsey’s Marvin Bower, it’s that management consulting is a higher calling, and serving clients is a privilege not a right.

    So yes, I hope you have the privilege of serving the client.

  11. Hi Jen,

    You can root for her. If we are going to be sidelined by anyone, she would be the one to do it. At the end of the day, if she presents a more effective approach for the client, she should serve the client. Yet, we will make a challenge for her for certain.

    We are far from perfect on these things but we make a very big effort to get it right – gender and diversity issues. This year we plan to have our partnership structure at 50% female and we will accomplish that goal.

    Note, you will see we never use words like “win” an engagement. You cannot win a client or study. It is better to say, “I hope you have the privilege of serving the client.”

    Although you did not mean anything negative, winning implies someone loses and therefore this is a zero sum game. It also implies possession and territoriality which is a very commercial way of thinking about clients.


  12. Thanks for the clarification, Michael. So, it’s OK to root for her? No? 🙂

    FC is doing a great job of addressing the elephant in the room. Recognizing the problem is step 1 towards solving it, instead of hiding under the umbrella of diversity of cultures, ethnicities, countries, academic backgrounds, food choices, hobbies, musical preferences etc, which is what most firms do. Basically, diversity of everything but gender.

    I hope you win the engagement!

  13. Hi Jen,

    Your point about the lack of female partners in the list is something I did not realize. Remember, that McKinsey’s first female director was only appointed in the late 1980’s (I believe it was 1986 or 1989). BCG’s was roughly around this time as well. Bain was about the same.

    While I can think of many outstanding female partners I cannot think of many in the league of Ron Daniels for example mainly because they did not have such good roles or exposure. That is changing but it will take time to happen. With great opportunities, we will see more female partners doing great things.

    So when when people say that McKinsey and BCG have female partners, I know it is not enough. The firm must give those partners great opportunities on which to build their careers.

    We have made the decision that FC’s new partner will be female. And we have searched hard to find someone who is exceptional.

    Yes, Jeannie would be an interesting person to interview – if she is willing to pry herself away from an arts discussion which is now her main focus.

    One clarification: the BCG China partner is a current BCG partner and leading BCG’s efforts for the multi-national. She is in effect the competition for this little experiment. We just happen to know each other and worked together extensively at the Firm.


  14. Michael, thank you for this great opportunity to hear from a luminary like Bill. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview, and learned a lot about how thought leadership and innovation feeds marketing and communications. The bit on pharma pricing & reimbursement issues was nice as well. Being one half, and a quarter way through the Mind of the Strategist, and McKinsey’s Marvin Bower respectively, I could relate to several nuggets such as strategy being about points of differentiation (Ohmae), and the blue plate special (Bower).

    The icing on this beautiful cake would have been encountering a woman earlier in the podcast where I counted 18 partners of influence – 13 at McKinsey, and 5 at BCG, all male. It’s evident that management consulting was far more male dominated in Bill’s days, but it would’ve been nice to get the feeling that a woman could have made the cut for Bill’s “guys to make history with” – both at McKinsey and BCG. We believe it when you say the numbers are in our favor, but sometimes it’s hard to internalize that when history is written (and this podcast is history) void of women.

    Suggestions on who to interview next? Elizabeth Haas Edersheim and Indra Nooyi would be my top 2. Bill referenced Jeanie Duck’s work on change management, so she would be a good person to hear from. I’m also looking forward to learning more about your ex-BCG partner colleague with whom you’ll be prospecting the Chinese multinational.

    Thanks a lot Michael! You continue to find new ways to inspire us 🙂


  15. Hi Nauruz,

    That is a good sign.

    Happy New Year.


  16. A podcast like this can draw attention make me write a comment just 2 hours before NY celebration.
    A great NY gift to all firmsconsutlingers.
    Thank you Michael!
    P.S. great to see “notify about followups” option.

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