The art of leaving Morgan Stanley and becoming a partner at McKinsey & Co.

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Jill Zucker McKinsey

Jill Zucker never intended to work in management consulting, even after she finished her MBA from Columbia Business School in 2006. She had spent most of her earlier career as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, working in the firm’s energy and utilities team in New York.

“I wasn’t looking for a big career change, and always assumed I would go back into banking following my MBA. But when McKinsey started calling people from my class, I went for an interview there and ended up becoming a consultant,” says Zucker, who is now a partner at McKinsey & Company and heads its North American wealth management practice.

McKinsey ranked as the top professional services firm in the 2018 eFinancialCareers Ideal Employer survey, which asked more than 6,000 people globally to identify the companies they aspire to work for.

Like Zucker, many of McKinsey’s experienced new recruits join up having already worked in industry and having recently completed an advanced degree. “We hire a lot from industry, rather than from other consultancy firms, because we think that consulting skills can be developed in-house,” says New York-based Zucker. “Many of them have MBAs, but we also increasingly take on people with MD, PhD and JD degrees.”

No interview 'tricks'

Zucker, who currently leads McKinsey’s hiring campaigns at her alum maters, Barnard College and Columbia, says the firm has a streamlined recruitment process, which typically involves just two interview rounds. “When I interview, McKinsey has a standardised list of questions to ask people, so everyone is tested in the same way,” she says. “And we don’t ask those awkward situational questions at McKinsey, like how many golf balls you can fit into an aeroplane. We’re not looking to trick you.”

McKinsey is much more interested in your problem-solving and leadership abilities. During a job interview there, you’ll have to tackle a case-study problem – a business challenge faced by a real client, such as a company whose revenue is flatlining. “We want to see how you identify important issues, structure your thoughts, and reach conclusions to help the client,” says Zucker.

You should also come to a McKinsey job interview armed with examples of how you’ve demonstrated “entrepreneurial drive”, she says. “This could be new strategies you’ve conceived, for example. But you must then go further and show us that you’ve achieved something from your ideas, because we’re looking for people who will have an impact on our clients.”

Leaving banking

What convinced Zucker to interview with McKinsey herself and swap investment banking for consulting? “I didn’t realise this until I was talking to people during the recruitment process, but there’s a lot more freedom here to shape your own career. Progression isn’t a rigid lockstep process like it can sometimes be in banking, because you’re not forced to specialise too soon.”

When McKinsey hires new consultants such as MBA grads, it doesn’t typically put them into an industry (i.e. wealth management) or functional (i.e. risk management) team, even if they’ve previously worked in that area, explains Zucker. They often join as generalist consultants, working on client assignments across different sectors for about two years before they specialise.

“I was from a banking background and ultimately became a banking consultant, mainly because I related well to clients in the industry,” says Zucker. “But that wasn’t a certainty when I came on board. Having covered energy when I was a banker, I could have equally gone into energy consulting at McKinsey.”

Don't come with a plan

New joiners to McKinsey should not arrive with “preconceived career plans”, says Zucker. “That may be a good strategy in some companies, but not here. I’ve seen people with medical degrees become financial sector consultants after their rotation, for example. There are opportunities that you might not know about until you’ve worked at McKinsey for a while.”

Zucker says she’s been “surprised” by the variety of opportunities she’s had outside of her day job. “I’ve done an M&A acquisition on behalf of the firm, led a women’s initiative in North America, and been appointed to the global partnership election committee. Continued challenges like these help explain why I’ve stayed with the firm.”

The ability of McKinsey to offer staff “challenging and interesting work” is seen as a key strength of the company by 85% of those who voted for it in the Ideal Employer survey. Other strengths include “competitive salaries” (74%), “solid training and development programmes” (75%), and “opportunities for promotion” (70%).

Most recently, Zucker has helped to conceive a new ‘dual career’ HR initiative for McKinsey employees whose spouses or partners also have busy jobs. The programme, which is currently being piloted, offers “targeted support to couples”, from concierge services to including partners in relevant McKinsey staff-training sessions.

Zucker, a mother of three young children, has also contributed to ongoing discussions about McKinsey’s parental policies. “We’re studying off-ramping and on-ramping strategies for people who take parental and other types of long-term leave,” she explains. “For example, we’ve found that it’s sometimes easier for someone to on-ramp – return to the firm – in a business-research role rather than a client-facing one, so we’re now offering these kinds of varied options.”

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