Many experienced-hires wrote to us about our recent piece on becoming a McKinsey Principal. While they may appear to be the same, becoming a McKinsey Director requires different skills from becoming a McKinsey Principal. This article will unpack those differences using the example below.
Let’s assume the regional CEO of a major auto company is being interviewed for the position of McKinsey Director in the Automotive & Manufacturing Practice.
This regional CEO runs a region with an R&D center, manufacturing sites, and a large consumer market. In many countries, regional CEOs simply run a sales organization. This person is that rare regional leader of a Fortune 100 company who understood the entire value chain of the business and ran parts across the entire value chain.
For a variety of reasons, he wanted to do something different and given his profile, intellect, presence, and his vast network, he was being considered for a McKinsey Director position.
He was clearly smart and could command attention. He could rivet the attention of senior decision makers. McKinsey Directors need to be able to generate a book of business. If he was just smart, let’s assume very smart, but was unable to build that book of business he would be a McKinsey Principal or an expert track leader.
Stefan, let’s assume that was his name, believed he had access to a network of auto leaders that could allow him to build a practice. Let’s assume he did have access to this network. Stefan believed that by working with another McKinsey Director, they could create a significant increase in revenue for the practice and branch into new areas.
Assuming he was right, why was Stefan not hired as a McKinsey Director?
Stefan makes a mistake that is common to most senior industry leaders trying to become a McKinsey Director, or even a BCG or Bain director.
Stefan confused a McKinsey Director role with a Consigliere role. A consigliere is a counselor who guides the more senior person. In the consulting world, they are used when a firm enters a new market or region and needs help to understand the local issues and especially, need introductions to the key industry and government leaders.
McKinsey, Bain etc. used them in the 1970s and 1980s as they expanded into Japan and Europe.
In this model, this is what happens:
A consigliere is valuable because they know 20 of the most powerful business leaders in India, for example.
They set up the meetings for McKinsey Director X.
They will likely attend the meetings and counsel McKinsey Director X.
McKinsey Director X explains how McKinsey works, gains the trust of a business leader, discusses the leaders’ issues etc. which ultimately leads to an engagement.
McKinsey Director X inherits the relationship with the industry leader when he gains the leaders’ trust.
As these meetings continue, there is no longer a need for the consigliere.
Once all the relationships are transferred the skill/asset the consigliere possessed is no longer useful to McKinsey.
A McKinsey Consigliere has access to a network but cannot gain their trust to perform engagements.
A McKinsey Director can convert a relationship into revenue. That is crude but let’s call a spade a spade.
A McKinsey Consigliere only keeps his network because he is not asking much of them. He just knows them and hangs out with them.
A McKinsey Director is able to build a relationship where the firm is doing work for the client, and, this is important, the relationship does not end when the work is done.
A McKinsey Consigliere gets a finders fee. Not a share of the profits.
A McKinsey Director gains a share of the firms’ profit percentage distribution.
Once the relationships transfer to the McKinsey Director, a McKinsey Consigliere has almost no value. This scene from the Godfather captures it perfectly.
Junior McKinsey Directors operate more like McKinsey Principals. They help a Senior McKinsey Director manage, maintain and grow his $10MM-$30MM mini-consulting business within McKinsey.
A Junior McKinsey Director is closer to the action and the teams on a consulting engagement. This means they need to understand to some degree how engagements are run, issues are structured and problems are solved.
So while it is relatively easier to become a Junior McKinsey Director, that is only true in relation to the reduced stress of sales. The stress will be high if you are interviewing for the position but either do not know how studies are conducted or the Senior McKinsey Director who is considering you for his team thinks you cannot learn enough to manage the engagement teams in an appropriate time period.
A Senior McKinsey Director is generally so far removed from the operating details of the team that they will not be assessed for this skill.
The firm will look to see if they can maintain relationships, convert those relationships to sales without alienating clients and create sales that meet the quality and style of the firm.
The short answer is usually no.
There was a time when the foreign world was this tantalizing and mysterious place. It was usually an American or European going off to some land like Japan etc., to build a business. The world has opened up significantly since then.
One does not need a consigliere to navigate new countries or dark alleyways in new countries. Google Maps and Uber work just fine.
McKinsey can often send a Polish Director with Polish consultants to open the Warsaw office. I would presume they would know whom to meet, how to meet them and which alleyways of Warsaw to avoid.
In most cases, a McKinsey Director marries a foreign person (for example), eats foreign food for 10 years of the marriage, moves to his partners’ foreign country for 5 years and calls himself an expert of the country. And people believe him. When I moved to Canada, ate Canadian food for a decade and served the top leaders, no one called me a Canadian expert. Apparently, I still needed to assimilate. This must only work when you move from the West to Everywhere Else.
Or maybe I should have married a Canadian as well.
I wonder if it is an intellectual appropriation to assume to be an expert in a country just because you served some of the business leaders? Just know when the New York Times appropriates this phrase, you heard it here first.
Generally, spouses are the new consiglieres. They may not have access to top decision makers but having a spouse from the region where you are trying to build a business is seen as an easier way to integrate.
There are very few places where McKinsey needs consiglieres these days. Maybe to meet certain government leaders or in very closed economies, but there are fewer and fewer of those.
The primary reason is that he saw his main value as having access to a network versus him developing that networks into clients for the firm. He was also not such a valuable gatekeeper since the firm had other ways to reach those leaders. And even if he did have access the firm could not attain by himself, he was positioning himself to be a consigliere.
He firmly believed that he would pair up with a McKinsey Director, his work wife/husband, and they would build a happy family serving clients in the auto sector. He would go out in the morning and hunt for the prize and his work wife/husband would convert it into something worthwhile.
He wanted to be a McKinsey Director but he did not understand what the role involved. And because he could not understand there was a difference, there was no point in hiring him. It would have been a case of mismatched expectations.
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