how mckinsey consultants think and act

#17 – The McKinsey Edge by Shu Hattori

I’m inspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s annual projects and decided to have one of my own.  Read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. Subscribe to my newsletter.

Consultants are impressive specimens. I like their structured thinking; calmness and eloquence under pressure; and their focus on problem-solving.

This is a book about consultants and the principles that make them successful in McKinsey & Company (“the elite of global consulting”).

Things I learnt:

Structured thinking for problem solving.

I wish there was more of this in the book. But thanks to the Internet, I found the paper, “The McKinsey Approach to Problem Solving”. You can download it here. It shows you how to use hypothesis and issue trees to structure a problem and the pyramid principle to synthesise findings.

Highly recommended.

You are a leader. You are a leader. You are a leader.

“You are a leader” is a message constantly driven to all McKinsey consultants from early in their careers.

McKinsey consultants are made aware of the different types of leadership categories – client leadership, problem-solving leadership, team leadership, knowledge or functional leadership and entrepreneurial leadership – early in their training. These categories help them understand the specific attributes needed to be successful in each of these areas and their own corresponding development needs.

What difference will it make to your life if your company does the same?

Are you distinctive?

It’s a word they use a lot and is their highest performance rating, after “Very Strong”. The word means “different from others”. When you are in a high-performing culture, you must not only be good, but also stand apart from others.

What difference will it make to your life if you focus on being distinctive in everything you do?

Am I distinctive? Are you distinctive?

Have a 30-second answer to anything.

C-level leaders are busy and want short answers. This is a useful framework for a short answer:

1. What is the overall project status, good or bad?

2. What are one or two examples that support the status?

3. What do I plan to do about any problems?

4. What can the C-level executive do to help?


This means do as much as you physically can in the first week. Because this is when you create the most impression with your stakeholders. It also maximises your opportunity to shape the outcome of the project and how it is setup. It is also the best time to ask sensitive questions.

Don’t procrastinate. Push and finish.

Start with the end in mind

First week into a three-month project, they would prepare an internal presentation that is half-completed, half of them with blank pages, but fully completed first and last three pages. This is called the ghost deck. This provides a working solution at the end and helps eliminate unnecessary work since the team knows the “story”.

From the McKinsey paper referred to earlier:

“A central facet of the way McKinsey solves problems is to develop an early solution and approach and to iterate them… The early solution will typically take the form of a “Day 1” or “Week 1” draft storyline that the team will revisit and iterate – testing and adjusting both answer and approach at each phase of the process, and at least weekly. Regular, thoughtful iteration saves time and produces a stronger solution.”

What do you do first when you are assigned a task?

Ask: “What is the objective?” I find this helpful – try to understand the impact of the task. It’s not worth doing if it has little impact. Push back if necessary.

How to excel in a presentation?

Memorize the first three sentences. Because they get the most attention.

Use short sentences. Because “C-levels… believe that if you sound complicated, you will be complicated.”

Provide context 

Start with a “background, issues, and objectives” slide in your presentation. There may be people in the room who have forgotten or do not know what the issues are.

Ask second order questions for insights

A first order question is “Why do you want to raise prices”. A second order question is “When prices are raised, what will happen to the competition?” This helps us see the problem from a different lens.

Some examples of leading questions

1. “What if” – “what would you do differently if you were given an extra $10m to spend?”

2. “What would you need to believe” – “what would you need to believe for your company to be selling two times its current revenue?”

3. “Standing in other people’s shoes” – “what would your competitor do if she were in your shoes?”

4. “Options, alternatives” – “you have told me three ways of getting there; how else can we do it?”

5. “Real and practical next step” – “what is standing in the way of hiring a new HR head?”

4 dimensions of a McKinsey principal

1. Incredible with other people

2. Problem-solving maestros

3. Extremely great at getting stuff done

4. Entrepreneurial (taking initiative to create new things or taking the practice to a new level)

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