Becoming a partner at McKinsey & Co is not easy. Much like at Goldman Sachs, the partnership selection program is deep and deeply painful. If you don’t make it through, you’re reportedly encouraged to reconsider whether you’re in the right profession. And not many people do make it through – estimates suggest that no more than 2% of McKinsey associates progress to the elite.
Nonetheless, it’s always worth a try. Partners at McKinsey & Co. get a cut of the firm’s performance and can easily earn $1m+. Disgraced ex-partner Rajat Gupta boosted McKinsey’s Indian consulting revenues to $3.4bn and left the firm with a reported ‘fortune’ after earning an annual salary estimated at $5-$10m. On this basis, some pain might be ok.
Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s current managing partner, appears to have gone through more angst than most. In a lecture at Wharton this week, Barton said it took him three tries to get promoted to partner, with the agony peaking at try number two.
The first time he tried to become a McKinsey Partner, Barton said he was informed that despite having the ‘intrinsic qualities’ required for the job, he needed to display them more blatantly, to “tough and go at it.”
The second time he tried, Barton said he was told that maybe he didn’t have the intrinsic qualities required of a partner after all. Worse, he was told that he wasn’t a good problem solver. “This is like telling someone in the church that they’re an evil bastard.” said Barton. Friends and family started to intimate that maybe he shouldn’t be in consulting at all.
Barton said the whole experience was very stressful. Rather than succumbing to the doubters, however, he resolved to overcome the negativity in his own personal way. “I had splinters in my back from going over the bar so often … and I finally realized, you know what, I’m going to set my own bar. And I’m going to make it higher than theirs.” He decided to stop “jumping through hoops for other people,” to make his own hoops, and to quit if he was still unappreciated. Instead he got promoted. And then he became managing partner. Victory.
Barton also helped current Wharton students to understand that life at McKinsey isn’t just about advising CEOs on exciting strategy changes. His first job as an associate was to work out how many pieces of KFC should go into a lunchbox. The answer? Four.