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McKinsey Associate Mistake

Whenever we place a client as a McKinsey Associate or McKinsey Business Analyst, about 90% make the very same mistake in planning their careers and approaching their new role. This advice applies equally to Bain & BCG. It is a mistake that should be so obvious, that it is surprising that the mistake occurs so often.

And it is a mistake that will likely derail the career of any McKinsey Associate.

Pre McKinsey Associate

Before you became a McKinsey Associate you were an applicant. You were one of many aspiring to become a McKinsey Associate. In that pool of applicants, we have a range of people.

Very weak applicants who have a very small chance of getting in but apply anyway.

Weak applicants who have some of the elements to become a McKinsey Associate.

Average applicants who have all the elements on paper but nothing stands out.

Strong applicants with some parts of their profile above average.

Very strong applicants who would receive the offer provided they did not mess up the interview.

If we plotted everyone’s likelihood of success we would have a bell-curve. This is normal. This is what a normal distribution looks like. Lots of average people and a few very weak applicants on one end of the curve and a few very strong applicants on the opposite end of the curve.

The key insight is that the average skills of this pool of aspiring McKinsey Applicants are not great.

When taking on this average pool you need to usually prepare extensively. Lots of case interview learning and practice sessions, hours of resume edits, stress, failed applications, rejections, lots of networking. Not all applicants go through these hurdles but most do.

Some clients say they did 120 cases with hundreds of hours of practice. Personally, we think that is too much work. Anyone doing so much work is probably not using the right learning techniques.

In other words, you did so much work when competing against a pool of average applicants.

Post McKinsey Associate Offer

When clients receive the offer, they stop preparing. Many celebrate. It’s one big party. I always put a damper on their celebrations by indicating they should only celebrate if their primary goal was to join McKinsey. It’s a whole different ballgame if their goal is to succeed at McKinsey and post-McKinsey.

In other words, welcome to the Coliseum.

In the pre-McKinsey Associate applicant pool, we had a small portion of the population who were good enough and received offers. Once you join McKinsey that small portion is now the entire population against which you are competing. The weak ones have been culled from the herd.

The curve has adjusted and the definition of average just got a whole lot tougher.

If you needed to do so much work against the relatively weaker pool, why would anyone assume it would be easier against the much more capable pool?

It’s like Ancient Rome in some ways. If you were born in one of the far-off barbaric lands, your most likely hope of acceptance into Roman society was to fight your way into performing at the Coliseum.

But getting to the Coliseum was not the prize. Surviving and gaining acceptance into privileged Roman society was the prize. And, of course, it was tough. Gladiators competed against other battle-hardened warriors whose sole purpose on the planet was to fight and survive.

Joining McKinsey is not the prize. All you have achieved is a ticket to the Coliseum. Surviving and thriving at McKinsey is the prize.

McKinsey Associate Battle Plan

McKinsey’s brand is so strong and its marketing so good, that everyone forgets that you have no advantage at all amongst a room of other McKinsey Associates.

You are just one McKinsey associate trying to prove himself or herself.

If everyone is receiving the same training, how can the training help you relative to everyone else?

If everyone has access to the same tools and toolkits, how does this give you an edge?

If everyone is observing the same partner, what relative advantage do you have?

For McKinsey Associates who have no plan, and this would be the majority, they fall into two camps.

They sincerely believe being at McKinsey gives them an edge over other McKinsey associates and the firm has some unique system for them to succeed relative to other McKinsey associates. There is no logical way for this to be true, but the majority believe it.

The other camp believes joining McKinsey is the pinnacle of their lives and it does not matter what happens next. They got in and they believe the brand is going to give them a rocking life. Come hell or high water, the McKinsey name is going to be their life raft.

The majority of both camps will not last too long, unless they are lucky, course correct or receive some wise mentoring.

Yet it is a mind-shift change. If you do not know you are approaching this incorrectly, you will never change.

McKinsey Associate Performance Review

The reason so many McKinsey associates under-perform and are managed out is that they are not attuned to reading their feedback correctly.

When you receive your feedback from McKinsey there is a summary paragraph at the top. It is usually about 8 to 10 lines and it is written in such an uplifting evangelical manner. 90% of the text is dedicated to all your strengths, how much your team valued those contributions that they valued no matter how little of it there was, and all the other positive things you did.

Tucked at the bottom will be one of two comments about you needing more experience with top-down communication or some other foundational skill. Even these two comments are written in uplifting prose. McKinsey excels at making you feel good while you are getting negative feedback.

And this is where most McKinsey associates are undone. They assume the following:

If 90% of the review listed their strengths, then it was a good review. This is not about volume, this is about the severity of what was listed. Feedback occupying 5% of the review can overshadow everything else.

McKinsey associates expect negative feedback to be written in a negative and harsh way. McKinsey is more a velvet-gloved dictator when it comes to feedback. Feedback on improvement areas is a big deal even if they sound positive and uplifting.

Since the improvement areas list no steps for remediation, it must be insignificant or easy to fix. A performance review is not a remediation plan. The associate needs to figure out how to fix the problem.

When you join McKinsey you have a clean slate. After your first engagement, every team that wants to staff you will want to discuss your performance with your prior engagement manager and team. This is the most jarring surprise for many. They cannot believe they are, in a manner of speaking, being re-interviewed and evaluated after every engagement. They thought the interviews were done.

Teams are hesitant to bring on someone with major foundational development areas. That is why they check your performance on prior engagements.

So the point is to not allow those major development areas to get onto your record in the first place since it severely limits the engagements and opportunities you have going forward.

Watch the clip above. You will survive and thrive by staying in formation and mastering the basics.

You are welcome to post any comments and questions below. As you can imagine we receive many requests for help and as much as we would like to respond to them all, we just do not have the time. To ensure our responses reach as many readers/listeners as possible, questions will only be answered in our iTunes podcasts. This allows us to offer both thoughtful and meaningful answers that help improve your career. If you ask a question please offer as many details as possible. It is difficult to offer customized and valuable feedback if the details are vague or missing. It helps to provide more facts and leave out your interpretation of what happened. It is better to write “Duke MBA, graduated 2 years ago and working in Wells Fargo Technology Support,” than “a Top-10 MBA, recent graduate working for a large bank’s internal technology team.” The advice we offer would be very different for each and we would select the first type of question to answer.

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