Why is McKinsey so good at career development?

Karina Brown
Dec 17, 2019 · 5 min read

McKinsey — market leader in strategy consulting — is well-known as a great place to advance your career, whether that’s as a springboard for bright graduates or to refine your expertise as a more seasoned employee. It boasts some high-ranking alumni, including Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman.

A top place to work

McKinsey consistently appears on Top Places to Work lists, including Glassdoor’s (ranked #19) and LinkedIn (where it came in third place). It also appears on the the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, the NAFE Top Companies for Executive Women and Best Company for Dads lists.

So, what makes the company lead the pack in career development?

How to lead in career development

We were curious to learn more about the inner workings at McKinsey and their culture around career development. Here’s what we learned about some of the aspects that make McKinsey a great place for employees to spend time during their career.

Note: we have never worked at McKinsey so this article is informed by publicly available information and conversations with people who have worked there.

Challenging, interesting work

In McKinsey’s latest Glassdoor ranking, a McKinsey employee described how, “The environment is very entrepreneurial, and if you look for ways to get involved with your passions you can find some spectacular opportunities.”

McKinsey are market leaders in their field, which means that opportunities abound for ambitious employees. There are interesting clients to work on, potential stretch assignments in other departments (or countries) and a myriad of ways to grow your career. Short term projects are the norm, meaning there is a high level of variety and new development opportunities.

Strategy consulting is often known for long, tough working hours, however many employees take that trade-off for the opportunity to learn fast and work with impressive colleagues.

Openly embrace employee leavers

Eventually, the vast majority of employees will leave your company. McKinsey doesn’t view a departure as a hush-hush unspoken event, but as a chance to learn from the departing employee and continue a relationship with them once they go.

Employees at McKinsey are ambitious and intelligent — so they will want new challenges and environments. As one explained, “Most people plan to come for 2 years and progress fast. It’s unusual for people to join at 21 and become Partner … and most people that do [become Partner] say they never meant to stay that long.”

Because leaving is a natural progression in someone’s career, McKinsey encourages people to be open and honest about what they aspire to beyond their time at the company and when they plan to leave. Not only does this give McKinsey some forewarning about a departure (beyond the usual notice period) but it also fosters a healthy company culture and strong relationships with its alumni.

Leaving letters are openly shared, sometimes even on McKinsey’s own careers blog. Having everyone talking honestly about their reasons for leaving, stops the stigma associated with handing in your notice. You’re no longer persona non grata — a traitor to the team — but someone who is taking the next steps in their career and who can be learnt from.

A strong mentoring culture

Understanding that an employee has a life beyond the organisation is important. A strong, but informal, culture of mentorship in McKinsey means that people can have honest conversations about their career aspirations. Even if that means leaving the company. They don’t get penalised if they express a desire to move onto new pastures.

Then there’s additional support for the other parts of employees’ lives. McKinsey knows that nobody comes to work alone — they carry their family, friends, extracurricular commitments and goals with them. There’s mentorship and support for new parents, or employees considering starting a family — plus returning to work or taking a short career break.

Mentoring stories are often shared on the Real Life at McKinsey facebook group.

Different to other firms

This is often in contrast to many other companies in the professional services industry.

In many organisations, employees fear talking openly about their career aspirations in case in impacts their opportunities and progression in the company. Employees may be afraid to speak openly about their career goals if they don’t align with company or industry expectations.

This presents a real challenge for leaders. In companies with this culture, employees will often hide their plans until the very last moment, making resource planning and forecasting difficult for those running teams and projects. Not only that but, without having honest conversations about employees’ career goals, it’s incredibly difficult to know how to best motivate, support and retain them.

Lessons from a market leader

It’s unlikely that McKinsey have got a perfect career development strategy. However, it’s in interesting example of an established, market leader with a seemingly progressive approach to career development.

It is a strategy that ultimately appears to work for McKinsey. By focussing on and enabling its employees’ career development, the firm helps to increase their marketability — and its own as a result. McKinsey’s positive culture around career development, progression and alumni is what has catapulted it to the top of so many ‘Best Places to Work’ lists. It’s also driving recruitment, with some 225,000 applicants every year vying for only 2,000 jobs.

Adopting this thinking

In his book, The Alliance, Reid Hoffman makes the case for a new approach to the employee-employer relationship, summarised by the idea that ‘if you (as an employee) you make our company more valuable, we’ll make you more valuable’.

Former CEO at Bain, Tom Tierney, another of the top 3 strategy consulting firms, shared a similar sentiment when he said:

“We are going to make you more marketable”

There is a lot that other organisations can learn about this. As Leadership Development Coach Antoinette Oglethorpe once stated, “Your employees care about their career, not your company”. McKinsey and Bain seem to understand this and make it a central part of their employee value proposition.

How will your employees more ‘marketable’ / valuable after their time with you? Could you promote that more as part of your employee value proposition?


Articles on people development from the team at GroHappy


Articles on people development from the team at GroHappy

Karina Brown

Written by

Co-founder of GroHappy


Articles on people development from the team at GroHappy