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McKinsey Comes to Town

McKinsey Comes to Town
Published on Apr 15, 2024.

Senior year, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs came calling. They didn't come through the usual channels that companies approached Stanford. They didn't show up at the career fairs or the joint networking events. No, they were special. They had their own events which they spread by email, word-of-mouth, and flyers left in select locations on campus.

Those two names, more than any others, carried the same feeling that the name of Stanford had back when we were applying – prestige. It dripped from their names like syrup, and the way people talked about them, with hushed whispers and awe-struck eyes, you'd think the Pope was coming to town.

But there was a critical difference.

The prestige of universities rested on a historical legacy as the centers of knowledge. The prestige of McKinsey and Goldman depended on a carefully cultivated image that lay at the heart of the most powerful corporate recruiting forces on the planet.

McKinsey and Goldman had figured out two critical things about the kids who went to elite universities. One, their pedigree was valuable to clients. Telling your clients that the people who work for you went to Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or Princeton did half the job for you. The core of their businesses, after all, is to sell their smarts. Perception is everything. And nothing shouts smarts as loudly as those parchments with the fancy names that we'd paid so dearly for.

The trick was getting those kids to come work for you. Everyone wanted to hire them. Everyone was chasing after them, and they had their pick of the lot. It was the only time I could empathize with how attractive women must feel, with men fawning about them.

The second thing McKinsey & Goldman figured out was how to woo us. They figured out how to play to our insecurities.

Stanford students are filled with insecurities but one stands out. A single question filled us with anxiety and frustration.

"What do you want to do with your life?"

We didn't know! All the possibilities lay before our feet. We could do anything at all, but therein was the paradox. We were paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong choice.

Our entire lives, someone had been telling us what to choose. Prestige – which was really the sum of other people's opinions – had always shown us the way. But to choose of our own volition, in a place where there was no Right Answer, where there wasn't someone telling us what to do, filled us with dread.

I remember several conversations with classmates who were charged with anxiety at the beginning of senior year because of this single question. There was a girl who looked at me wide-eyed when I told her she could do anything. She was a Stanford grad after all. She was so flustered. It looked like I’d just told her the worst news of her life.

The funny thing is that many of those kids had things they really wanted to do, if I dug deep enough. There were passions there – long suppressed and half-forgotten, but still there. One girl wanted to open a winery. Another guy wanted to become an art dealer. A third just wanted to write.

There were there, these dormant desires, but none of them thought these interests were worth acting on. All of them rejected internal dreams as just childish wishful thinking. They couldn’t take the risks, they said. Those kinds of things don’t work out, they insisted.

It’s probably hard for anyone outside, who didn’t grow up with these kids or go to school with them, to really comprehend how deep their risk aversion goes. It’s like they had everything to lose – like a family that depended on them and a paycheck that just got them by that they couldn’t risk losing.

But in one of the sharpest ironies coincidences I’ve ever seen in my life, these kids who had nothing holding them back, were more scared than people who had everything to lose.

McKinsey and Goldman understood this, and they preyed on it. Their pitch – repeated ad nauseum in informational sessions and over lunches and dinners – was simple. “Come work for us for two years. You don’t have to figure out what you want to do with your life. Kick the can down the road. Working for us doesn't close any of your options. In fact, you'll get to see lots of types of businesses that you might want to join. Then, in two years, you can make a more informed choice about your future.”

This’s probably never been a group of people to whom kicking the can sounded so damn good. But the truth of the matter was that we were signing up for two years to be someone else's Powerpoint jockey, while the prestigious name on our diploma was being pimped out to draw more business.

And yet, droves of my classmates flocked to the info sessions these companies put up. They wanted to slurp up as many of these prestigious alums as they could. The bigger their harem, they knew, the more clients they could service.

I went to a McKinsey info session to see what it was all about. I showed up in a T-shirt and jeans, because apparently I'd missed a memo. All the other kids there were in suits and ties that I didn't even know they owned. They carried their resumes in black leather cases, ready to head to anyone with a McKinsey name tag, at the slightest eye contact.

The session began with a PowerPoint deck, of course. A Stanford alum, who'd graduated a couple years ago and joined the big M, gave a sleek, polished presentation. Her pencil skirt, polished demeanor, impressive title (Business Associate) – they were all designed to impress, and impress they did. She ended the presentation on a hook, "All this can be yours - just sign on the dotted line."

I'd be lying if I said the pitch didn't tempt me too. Working for six months in South America to improve the energy grid sounded perfect – exotic locales, impactful work, business-class travel, great pay. It sounded too good to be true.

And as I learned from friends who joined later, it really was. I'm hazarding a guess, but I bet that South American project was a lot less glamorous than she let on. There weren't evening strolls down the boulevard or late night salsa with mysterious debonair men. She was probably stuck in the hotel, in the conference room that they’d been camped in for weeks, tired of everything on the hotel menu she'd eaten twice, working 80 hours a week on a PowerPoint deck, whose main purpose was not to improve the energy business but to make the client think about hiring McKinsey again.

Because the dirty little secret of consulting and investment banks is that they're not in the business of making their clients better. Not really. They’re in the business of getting more business. Partners are not judged by how much additional revenue or profit they've been able to drive to their clients but by the number of deals they are able to close. And no deal is as easy to get as repeat business.

These companies are two-sided marketplaces of psychological manipulation. On one side are the students from the prestigious universities, who they trick by playing to their insecurities and painting a rosy memory picture of what is ultimately menial grunt work. And on the other are the corporations they feed on, by drawing projects.

They do this by playing politics. The primary motivation an executive has for bringing in consultants is not to make his business better, but to gain ammunition in various political skirmishes he's engaged in. Maybe he wants to promote a new business unit to grow his fiefdom, or he wants to cut a division run by a rival. Calling in the experts with their fancy degrees who side with you is a pretty good move to have on the chess board.

Of course, the underlings in the conference rooms with the laptops and empty cartons of food might not even be aware of the headwinds governing their work. They just take orders after all. But that descent into corporate slavery began with a choice, a choice to make no choices, and just kick the can down the road.