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Withdraw from the McKinsey interview process?

When you are moving through the McKinsey interview process, or BCG or Bain interview process, it is a significant amount of effort.

It is taking away time from your family and social life and, you may be thinking, “Hey, you know what, this is not worth the effort. I am just going to apply to other firms and I will withdraw from the McKinsey interview process”.

If you are considering withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process, I want to talk you through the trade-offs you need to consider.

I am not going to talk you into staying in the process. That is a decision only you can make. I am, however, going to help you make this decision by thinking about your choices in a very different way.

One of our clients, let’s call him Bruce, was recently in this situation. He had invested a significant amount of time preparing for his McKinsey interviews, and midway through the process he decided to withdraw from the application process.

Bruce had decided he does not want to continue going through the McKinsey interview process because it is taking up too much of his time.

He is also not sure whether he is doing his family any favors by going through this process.

In fact, Bruce had decided that he should prioritize his wife first and he is not spending enough time with her. Bruce also felt he had no social life because he had a full calendar of social activities and he could not spend any time doing them.

Therefore, he had decided to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process.

At face value this seems like a reasonable decision. However, I want to talk you through the kind of discussion I had with Bruce, since I don’t think he is making the right comparison. And with the wrong comparison, he could be making the wrong decision.

I am not saying his decision is wrong. I do not know if it is right or wrong for him. However, I do not think he has thought it through correctly to determine if he has made the right or wrong decision.

The exhibit below summarizes the key points that must be considered to assist in making a well-informed decision on whether to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process.

McKinsey interview


For whom are you withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process?

If you are, like Bruce, and considering to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process, the first question you need to ask yourself is, “For whom am I really doing this?”

It is possible you are making it sound to others, and to yourself, as if you are doing it for the other person, when in fact you are doing it for yourself.

If you are doing it for the other person, let’s say your wife, do you know what your wife wants or are you guessing what she wants?

Do you truly think she wants you to stay at your current job? The current job that is clearly not making you happy as as evidenced by your desire to leave, a job which is unlikely to lead to anything prestigious in the future, and a job that offers lower level of income now and for the years to come.

Does she really want that for you? Does she want that for our children?

I cannot know, but Bruce should know.

In Bruce’s case, I suspect he is doing it for himself. We deduce this since, after making a comment that he is doing it to spend more time with his wife, he immediately follows up with the comment that he also does not have time to go for his dancing lessons and play soccer with his friends.

Those latter reasons have nothing to do with his wife. Those are his personal things that he wants to do. Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking care of your personal needs. However, you need to be ever so careful about projecting your needs on to someone else.

Projecting one’s needs is dangerous. It is like the stereotyped mother who insists her daughter attends the Ivies, becomes a doctor and marries a surgeon. That mother is projecting her desire to reach attain a status in life she can never attain by herself and needs her daughter to accomplish it for her. You cannot force others to live the life you want.

Be particularly clear about whom you are making this decision for. A lot of times we say we are doing things for other people when in reality we are doing it for ourselves.

The trade-offs of withdrawing from a McKinsey interview

Whether you are doing this for another person or for yourself, you have to think about the trade-offs that will result from your decision.

If you spend most of your time in the present undertaking fun activities instead of building your career, you are borrowing from the future.

You are basically saying, “I don’t want to invest in my career now. I want to do it some time in the future”. This means you are borrowing from the future.

Sometime in the future you are going to have to put yourself through a similar situation again to move your career forward. Your career will not move forward by itself.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this provided you understand the trade-off and consciously accept it.

You have to ask yourself, will you have the energy and the time in the future to go through this process if you are struggling to do it now? If you are, as Bruce, now in a situation whereby you just married, with no kids, how are you going to balance having to go through all of this again when you will have more commitments once you have kids?

It will not get any better. Things will get tougher.

Now let’s assume that it is 20 years into the future.

After withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process, you spent quality time with your wife. Yet, your career has not moved at the rate you thought it would. This is not a surprise since management consulting opens many doors for you that you not likely would find by yourself.

You are at a different point in your life, with many responsibilities and children. Your energy level is lower and you are battling a couple of health issues – age will do that to you. And, your family income is not at the point you want it to be.

Will you be able to afford all of those things you want to provide for your wife and kids?

By withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process now you are basically saying, “I will make the commitment to build a career I want at some point in the future“. But if you start this process in the distant future, it means you haven’t reaped the rewards of making the commitment now, which means you don’t have the income you would have earned.

While that income may not buy happiness it can certainly rent a lot of it.

So yes, you spend more time with your kids now, but does that mean you are going to make a trade-off by sending them to a weaker/cheaper school with fewer opportunities or sending them to a great school and taking on a huge loan?

What if you cannot afford the loan? Do they attend a cheaper or public school?

Those are real trade-offs you are making when you withdraw from any major opportunity. Be it McKinsey, getting an education, joining a bank etc.

Of course, there are benefits of withdrawing from the McKinsey interview.

You get to spend more time with your wife and your loved ones.

Moreover, you get to spend more time rounding out your experiences like traveling, dancing, playing sports, etc. Your memory bank of experiences dramatically increases.

What is that memory bank worth to you?

Imagine you are 45 years old and you are a mid-level employee at your firm. You are quite angry about your career. You don’t like working for someone else. Well, who likes working for someone else? But you don’t have adequate skills to move on.

Are all those things you did when you were younger: spending time with your wife, going dancing, playing soccer with your friends etc., going to compensate for the dissatisfaction you are likely to have in the future?

Is that trade-off worth it? This is the question you have to ask yourself.

Will you regret an act of omission (not trying and not knowing what would have happened) or an act of commission (trying, succeeding and dealing with the fallout) more?

Are your kids going to respect the fact that you spent all this time with them when they were young, but later on in life they have insufficient financial support from you to obtain adequate educational opportunities?

We would like unconditional love for our children to create balanced, confident and independent people, but it does not always work that way. Resentment can occur. Resentment does not occur.

You can see it any way you want, you may have been a loving father and you may have imparted on them the right values, but not having money when you are growing up most often does leave you at a disadvantage later on in life.

I am not saying there is the right answer here. But what I am saying is that when you have fun in the present, you are basically borrowing from the future. When you make sacrifices in the present, you invest in the future.

Ultimately, you are picking one of these two strategies here, unless you are lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family or to be amazingly productive so that you pick up things immediately and you can invest in the future while still having a balanced life.

But only a minority of people are in one or both of those two categories.

An extreme example of sacrificing now for the future

I will give you an example of a client whom I consider to be an extreme example of sacrificing now to build for the future. It’s a female client. I like this client. She reminds me of a young me.

She works at McKinsey and she spends most of her free time focusing on improving her skills in corporate strategy and corporate finance, so that she can get to where she wants to go in the future. She is always skilling up for the next big thing.

She has a lot of energy and motivation to work, learn and travel for work. Vacation is a forced idea for her to please her family.

And yes, she misses out on certain things. These are memories she will never ever have.

She does not know how to swim and she does not know how to ride a bicycle. But the question she has to ask herself is whether the destination she is trying to get to worthy of the sacrifices she is making in the short-term and medium-term. There is no right general answer.

There is only the right answer for her unique situation and only she can determine what this answer is.

If you are really doing it for your spouse

If you want to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process for your wife or husband, you should ask them what they want. Ask them before making a decision.

Moreover, don’t just ask them what they want. Explain the trade-offs.

If you ask someone what they want without providing them with sufficient information to make an informed decision than they will give you an extremely misinformed answer. Not because they have not thought it through, but because they don’t have all the facts.

I think that when you make career decisions you have to involve your spouse. This is not a decision you can make by yourself. If you do, while you may get away with this for the first few years, yet all kinds of tensions and problems will arise in the long-term.

If your spouse married you on the assumption you where both career-oriented and ambitious, changing your goals materially changes the implicit agreement you both have. He/she has a right to be part of renegotiating that contract.

So firstly decide for whom you are making this decision. Then, lay out the picture to your spouse.

Something like this could work, but obviously introduced more delicately:

“I’m thinking of withdrawing now, but what it means is I will most likely stay in this job. All other things being equal, my career progression will be slow. I will have fewer opportunities in this job and I am not sure what this means for my long-term goals. My salary may be diminished but I will be happier and can spend more time with you. It means we can live more fulfilling life and do things together like dinner, travel and hobbies.

Alternatively, we can make sacrifices now, knowing that when we are older and when we want more options in life we will probably have that. But it also means in the short-term we will make some big sacrifices. We will not be able to do things other couples can do.”

The secret to success in life

Most people, even the ones who look like they are just sailing through life, are working extremely hard to get where they are.

And, even if they look like they are sailing through life relative to you, they are probably unhappy because they are not comparing themselves to you, they are comparing themselves to someone else who is probably more successful than they are.

Of course, the degree and type of sacrifice you want to take is up to you.

The example of the female McKinsey consultant who is learning corporate finance and corporate strategy all in her spare time and sacrificing most of her personal life is one extreme.

Withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process completely, as Bruce wants to do, and just enjoying himself now is the other extreme.

You can get some balance.

But I think you have to keep in mind that true work-life balance and professional success is not an easily obtainable combination. It is a myth to sell romantic comedies to women and beer to men. In fact, the secret to success in life is to take an extreme position of differentiation and constantly drive your resources throughout that extreme position.

This also happens to be the secret to success for companies.

I have always advised clients to build yourself as an asset for the future. My personal philosophy is that you sacrifice short-term gains for long-term success. That is how I personally make decisions.

Make the sacrifices now because, let me tell you, you never will have the same energy and time when you are 38 or 45 or have kids. Your options will be automatically limited later in life. You will likely not be the guy/could be the guy/want to be the guy working on Christmas day to see through a merger.

Moreover, it is not only about whether you will have the energy. It is also about whether the world will see you as a viable option. Just because you think you can reinvent yourself at the age of 40 does not mean the world agrees with you and will give you the chance to do so.

And when you are turning 40 or 45, and you are stuck in an unhappy or even dead-end job, if you don’t have the resume and an adequate skill-set, you will have few opportunities.

In fact, forget about the resume. An adequate skill-set is more important. You can end up joining McKinsey at 40 and just gain zero traction, get counseled out and still go nowhere in life. That happens.

But assuming you went to McKinsey and picked up all the right skills – you have options. And, that is something that is very hard to understand when you are young since when you are young, you don’t understand the challenges you will face as you get older.

As soon as you are married, automatically your options are dramatically limited. When you have kids, your options are limited to even greater extent.

And I understand these things because we work with many senior people who are trying to break into McKinsey. I was also making these decisions since I entered management consulting at the age of 21. I could see what happened to those who joined at the age of 30, 35 or even 40. We also work with ex-McKinsey people who left for corporate and they work with us to get back into McKinsey. So we completely understand the challenges involved.

The fact that a ex-McKinsey person, or ex-BCG person or ex-Bain person, who worked at those firms previously, needs to then work with us to get back into the firm should tell you it is difficult to make this transition when you are older.

It is enormously complicated.

Ultimately, only you know what is right for you

The question the client who wanted to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process needs to ask himself is, “Are the benefits and the experiences I will get in the short-term worthy of the disadvantages I am most likely to have in the future?”.

There is no right answer. It’s about what he wants. It’s about how he values his life. But those are the things that he, and you, need to think about.

It’s not as if you can say, “Hey, you know what, I will have some fun now and everything will work out later“. Life does not work that way.

The decision you make, have fun now and try to reinvent yourself in the future, or reinvent yourself now and then build an asset base to have fun with in the future is your decision.

But be very aware of the trade-offs you are making. And be very aware of the impact it’s going to have on those around you since it is going have a pretty big impact and you need to be very cognizant of this.

Ultimately there is no right answer. But there is an answer which is right for you and you will have to figure out what it is.

I have pointed out the implications for you. You need to look at the options and decide which option makes sense in your unique situation. But just make sure you know what you are signing up for and make sure you are comfortable with trade-offs.

Prior to deciding on whether or not to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process, take time to understand whom you are making this decision for and carefully examine the trade-offs. Give adequate consideration to the opportunity and responsibility you face. The insights you will gain, coupled with considering what you value most in life, will help you make an informed decision.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What do you think Bruce decided based on what you know about him and the trade-offs discussion I had with him? Please let us know in the comments.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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