client-first rule blog

We receive many emails from readers wanting to implement the client-first rule. Too many readers make a single tragic mistake when implementing this rule. They become martyrs.

They believe the client-first rule means you have to do whatever it takes to put the client’s interests first. In this process they damage their careers, as well as the organization’s long-term performance, and health.

Misunderstanding the client-first rule

This is not the way the client-first rule is used at McKinsey and BCG, but readers fall in love with the glossy narratives of Marvin Bower, which are largely true, but heavily romanticized by recent biographers. People who read about this and who work at smaller firms or rival firms, and even McKinsey, often don’t understand that there is a rule that precedes the client-first rule. And it is a more important rule.

The problem with applying the client-first rule

The problem I see with how many apply the client-first rule is that they put a client first but in an unsustainable way. If you put your client first in a way that burns out and destroys your organization you are ultimately not putting your client first because you are killing your organization and, in time, you are not going to have an organization to serve the client. So when you put your clients’ needs first you have to do it in a sustainable way.

Many consultants assume there must be pain and sacrifice to become a good advisor. They believe one must toil away for hours into the night and earn one’s stripes before moving ahead. This is not true. In the purest of economic terms taking a long time to learn something or to do a certain piece of work, via the harder route, is simply unproductive.

client-first consulting firms

This fits into the romanticized notion of earning one’s success, but if you do so knowing there is a better route, you are actually failing. Do not work hard for the sake of working hard. Work hard productively whereby if you end up working ~2 hours a day more than colleagues your insights and impact should be proportionally higher.

Many consultants cite Marvin Bower when making bad decisions. They make two mistakes here. First, they assume they are correctly linking their actions to Bower’s teachings. They link their very real actions to an idealized version of what Marvin Bower said and meant. Many of his actions are glamorized to the point that many consultants draw completely wrong conclusions.

Second, by linking the action to the teachings of Marvin Bower, they assume their logic cannot be challenged. It can be challenged because the consultant’s action can be wrong. The consultant may very well have misinterpreted Marvin Bower and, usually, they do. Just as going to Church does not make one a saint, linking one’s flawed logic to Marvin Bower does not make one’s reasoning correct. Invoking Marvin Bower does not grant one immunity from being called out for flawed thinking.

You can’t put your clients first without putting your employees first

McKinsey and BCG actually put their employees first as their most important focus and there is a reason for that. If you put your employees first (you train them, you groom them, you mentor them, you drive the culture into them), you automatically put your clients first. And you can’t put your clients first until you put your employees first.

In the short-term, you can put your clients first, hurt your employees and get some quick rewards, but it is unsustainable. Or you can put your employees first and focus them on serving clients and your clients end up well served in a sustainable way for the long-term.

So when you sitting there with your engagement team and pushing your team because the client comes first and they need this work done by 6am the next morning, remember you are not actually putting your client first. You are trying to apply client-first rule but you are doing it in an unsustainable way.

You are destroying your ability to serve the client long-term because you pushing your team to unreasonable limits. And placing the client-first does not mean giving them what they want. Though, that is for a different article.

Final thoughts

And that is what I mean when I say the client-first rule is poorly implemented. It is poorly implemented for other reasons as well. But this is for me one of the biggest reasons – thinking that you can serve your clients well without serving your employees well. If you mismanage your employees, you can never put your clients first because you don’t have the delivery mechanism to treat your clients well.


Michael Boricki is a partner at Firmsconsulting. 



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3 responses to How to implement the client-first rule

  1. Sorry for the late reply, but I came across this after providing my associates and senior associates with similar advice for the past few years as they move into larger leadership roles.

    As an associate often you are rewarded for saying “yes.” Whether to internal requests or clients. This makes the transition to manager more difficult, as the behaviours you were rewarded for are not necessarily ones that put the client or firm first.

    Putting the client first often means helping them stay focused on what actually adds value. Over-delivering on on tasks the client does not need is not a good use of your team or their budgets.

    As a leader you need to keep your client’s best interests at heart, and manage both your client and your team towards that. When you fail to manage a client’s expectations and focus on results you are letting them down and you are investing your team’s time, often in evenings and weekends.

  2. Thanks Anna. The analogy of airplane oxygen masks is very good.

  3. Great advice as always! I always felt something about the client-first rule, in the way I understood it until now based on books about Marvin Bower etc, was off. It all makes sense now. It is a secondary rule, after employees-first rule.

    Reminds me of safety instructions in an airplane, that the passenger should always fit his or her own mask before helping others. I have been involved in various engagements where leadership misunderstood client-first rule, though I think in their case it was more of a promotion-and-salary-increase-first rule ☺. Anyhow, whether you are leadership or not, understanding in what way the client-first rule should be applied is essential.

    Thanks a ton,

    – Anna

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