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‘You have absolutely zero power’ — I was a McKinsey consultant like Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg’s past career at McKinsey & Co., the blue-chip management consulting firm, has suddenly become a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail. His opponents are questioning him about it. The New York Times editorial board has asked him to break his “untenable vow of silence.”

McKinsey, Monday afternoon, announced it was releasing Buttigieg from his non-disclosure agreement and will allow him to talk about his past work.

Unlike most of Buttigieg’s critics, including most journalists, I actually have some genuine working knowledge of this topic. Many years ago, just like Mayor Pete, I also worked at McKinsey.

As it happens, even though our careers were many years apart, we were both recruited the same way, direct from postgraduate study at Oxford University.

We both joined “The Firm,” as it likes (pretentiously) to be known, at the level of associates. That’s near the bottom of the corporate pyramid. And we both worked there for a couple of years — me for two, Buttigieg for 2½ — before moving on.

McKinsey didn’t reply to my email requests for comment.

Here’s what this debate is missing, and why the coverage is so off-beam.

Buttigieg was not a McKinsey director, partner or manager. Like me, he was just an associate.

Young consultants who join McKinsey straight out of graduate school are much like young lawyers who join a top law firm straight out of law school.

You have absolutely zero power and very little influence. You are mainly there as billable hours.

You are allocated to work for individual partners on individual projects.

You don’t choose the clients, the partners or the projects.

You do a lot of basic brain work, like building spreadsheets, crunching vast amounts of numbers, reading tons of documents, analyzing industry trends, or interviewing lots of the client’s staff. You often end up camping out in a spare room at a company’s headquarters, back offices, or distribution center. I once found myself kneeling on a conference table late at night plotting the location of breweries on a giant map of southern England.

You get to fly business class at a very young age, but you will have your laptop open on your knees all the way. You work long, long hours, and the time is billed out to the clients by the partners at a very big markup. You are nowhere near the key decision making.

It is a stretch to suggest that Pete Buttigieg, as an entry-level associate, had any significant role at the company. Telling you the projects I worked on, or the clients I advised would tell you nothing about me or my values. Zippo. (Buttigieg’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

McKinsey, and firms like it, operate as a pyramid. At the top are the senior partners. Below them is a bigger group of junior partners. Below them are senior engagement managers and (non-senior) engagement managers. Each group is bigger than the last.

The associates are near the bottom. That’s the entry-level position after graduate school. Few make it to junior partner. And even if you do, it takes years and years.

Management consultancies seem to have become the new illuminati. They are accused of being secretive, or wielding massive power behind the scenes, and of getting up to all sorts of no good. The Times has reported on McKinsey’s work for Saudi Arabia, and its “secretive” hedge fund.

They are legitimate complaints, of course. But most of it is nonsense. Usually consultants are brought in by major companies to advise them on anything involving change. It may be restructuring a division that’s losing money, reorganizing a factory, expanding in a new market, or — notoriously — cutting costs.

McKinsey’s work for clients is confidential, for very good reason. You wouldn’t go to a consulting firm that would spill the beans, any more than you would go to a psychologist who did so.

But even projects involving layoffs, the usual thing blamed on consultants, have to be viewed in context. Companies in crisis often need to cut jobs to survive at all. Overstaffing is no kindness if it leads to bankruptcy and everyone loses their job.

The New York Times Co, NYT, +0.22% which is demanding Buttigieg come clean about his nefarious McKinsey record, has done some pretty harsh cost-cutting of its own.

The Times didn’t respond when I asked on Monday if the company had employed McKinsey, or any other consulting firms, along the way. The company’s “vow of silence” on this subject is surely untenable.

Buttigieg says he would have left McKinsey rather than work on a project that went against his values. He probably wouldn’t have had to. There were plenty of conscience get-outs when I was at The Firm. Lots of people, for example, refused to work for tobacco companies. It was considered perfectly acceptable. Female consultants were reassured they wouldn’t have to work for any clients in parts of the world that weren’t friendly to women.

Firms like McKinsey have to operate like that, for a very simple reason. Their only assets are people. And most of them leave. If the directors can’t keep attracting lots more really good people, they will go out of business.

I have no reason to defend the company. I didn’t really enjoy my time there. I was a fish out of water. I was once quoted (anonymously) in The Economist joking that McKinsey’s treatment of its most junior staff was like something out of the Middle Ages.

Oh, and most of the time, when I was there they assigned me to mind-numbingly dull projects working for insurance companies.

The typical McKinsey consultant is very buttoned down, rather boring, extremely bright, and very well organized. They seemed to be the type who always handed their homework in on time as kids. Consulting firms like McKinsey and some of the world’s most well-known accountancy and law firms supposedly, likes to hire “insecure overachievers,” according to the Financial Times.

In return for all those billable hours, McKinsey will give the young graduate a better business education in two years than they could get in most other places in 10. They typically get a deep immersion in economics, finance and business strategy, as well as in softer things like organizational dynamics and managing complex, long-term projects with multiple stakeholders.

The sorts of things, in other words, that are quite useful in a top job.

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