McKinsey Culture & How to Answer the “Why McKinsey?” Question

Why McKinsey? Serious African American businessman looking at laptop screen and thinking about a problem problem while sitting in coworking cafe.
Rebecca Smith-Allen
Rebecca Smith-Allen

Former McKinsey Engagement Manager

Why McKinsey?

You’re guaranteed to get this question at least once during the recruiting process. 

What is your interviewer looking for in your answer?

Beyond successfully answering this interview question, you’ll want to know the answer for yourself to ensure you’re building your consulting career with the right firm for you.

My Consulting Offer has several coaches who are former McKinsey consultants. We’ll tell you about the McKinsey culture and help you understand what a good answer to the “Why McKinsey?” interview question looks like. 

In this article, we’ll discuss:

  • Why McKinsey asks the “Why McKinsey?” question, 
  • McKinsey’s culture – What makes McKinsey unique?
  • How McKinsey’s culture compares to other MBB firms – BCG and Bain,
  • Ways McKinsey, Bain, and BCG are different,
  • Sample answers to the “Why McKinsey?” question, and 
  • Thoughts from My Consulting Offer’s ex-McKinsey coaches on the “Why McKinsey” question.

Let’s get started!

Why Does McKinsey Ask the “Why McKinsey?” Interview Question

A consulting firm’s primary asset is its people. The firm’s consultants solve its clients’ tough business problems, which is the core of its business.

McKinsey devotes a substantial amount of time and expense to telling people about the firm and the work they do so they can attract the best candidates to apply to work for the company. McKinsey consultants then spend time and resources interviewing candidates to find the most promising future consultants.

After they bring in a new consulting class, McKinsey invests in training its new hires on problem-solving techniques and leadership.

McKinsey is willing to make these investments in attracting, hiring, and training consultants because the company is not worried about a consultant’s profitability in their first month or year with the firm. They are looking for payback on this investment in over a couple of years at least.

This is why McKinsey wants to know why recruits want to work at the firm. If it takes years for the investment in hiring and training someone to pay off, interviewers need to make sure the candidates they give offers to know exactly what working at McKinsey looks like and are passionate about it.

That way they’ll stay with the firm long enough to make the investment worthwhile.

McKinsey’s Culture – What Makes McKinsey Unique

McKinsey is the oldest management consulting firm, founded in 1926 by James O. McKinsey, a professor at the University of Chicago. 

The firm was shaped by the early leadership of Marvin Bower, managing partner from 1950 to 1967. Mr. Bower established that it was the obligation of every McKinsey consultant, even the most inexperienced on a team, to dissent if he or she did not believe that the team was making the best decision or recommendation for the client. 

The obligation to dissent remains at the core of McKinsey’s values and its internal quality controls today.

McKinsey is the largest strategy consulting firm in terms of revenues and number of employees, though the consulting arms of the Big 4 accounting firms are larger

The strategy consulting firms help their clients address high-impact business questions, such as:

  • Whether to acquire another firm,
  • Whether to enter a new product or geographic market,
  • How to increase revenue,
  • How to cut costs,
  • How to reshape their industry, and
  • How to respond to major market upheavals.

As the consulting industry grew and became more competitive, McKinsey was an early adopter of functional practices

Early consultants were generalists, expected to be able to solve just about any type of business problem. As the industry evolved, clients sought deep functional knowledge in areas such as sales & marketing, data analytics and coding, and operational excellence. 

McKinsey recognized that there was value in not re-creating the wheel with every client case and adjusted its business model to provide this deep functional expertise in the most efficient way possible. It did this by recruiting experienced hires with deep functional expertise in addition to its traditional recruiting at colleges and universities and by creating functional practices.

Deep functional expertise helps McKinsey to solve many types of client problems quickly and more efficiently by bringing in consultants with years of relevant experience rather than having a generalist build that knowledge from scratch.

Another thing that makes McKinsey unique is that it operates as a global network in order to “bring the best of McKinsey” to the client. This means that a McKinsey consultant in one office can reach out to someone they haven’t met in any office to get information on best practices that will help their client.

How Does McKinsey’s Culture Compare to Other MBB Firms – BCG & Bain

At the highest level, the top strategy firms look fairly similar. They all recruit bright candidates from selective undergraduate institutions, business schools, and other programs. They all train them in problem-solving excellence and leadership skills to enable them to solve tough business problems. 

Traditionally, BCG has been seen as the more intellectually rigorous of the MBB firms, less likely to bring in functional expertise or depend on established best practice, but instead to solve the client’s problem from first principles. Solving a problem from first principles means that instead of depending on knowledge gained from solving similar problems before, the consultants would treat it as unique and solve it from scratch. 

Bain has the reputation as the most collegial of the strategy firms, where colleagues not only work together but socialize in the evenings or on weekends. 

As described above, McKinsey stands out as the oldest and largest strategy consulting firm. It’s early and aggressive steps to incorporate functional expertise into its problem solving to streamline solutions for client problems requiring this expertise is also distinct.

But it is not at the highest levels that big differences between the firms are evident, but at the office level.

To Find Differences Between McKinsey, Bain, & BCG Look at the Offices and the People

Why work at McKinsey? A conference room with 10 business women sitting around a long table discussing a business initiative.

It’s easier to see the differences between the MBB consulting firms on a more granular level – when you look at offices or individuals.

What Type of Problems Do You Hope to Work On? With What Type of Clients?

The offices of the consulting firms each have a different mix of clients. Any consulting firm’s New York office will have more financial services clients than other offices. Its Detroit office will have more automotive and manufacturing clients and its San Francisco office will have more high tech clients.

But an office can have a bigger presence in a particular industry depending on the type of work its leaders are interested in and the relationships they’ve built over decades. For example, an office with leaders who are strong in consumer goods can tilt their office’s work significantly to include more projects in that industry.

The presence of deep interest and experience in a particular industry can mean an office has an outsized percentage of the work in that industry.

To figure out what industry or functional strengths of an office might have, look at the McKinsey Quarterly articles and white papers that its partners publish. You can also ask at on-campus or online information sessions.

If you’d love to work at the McKinsey Chicago office but are passionate about doing high tech work, you may find that a different office or consulting firm may be a better fit. Focusing on a consulting firm and office that does the type of work you are experienced in or interested in will make you a more logical fit and give you a strong story to tell when you’re asked the Why McKinsey question.

When you prepare your answer to Why McKinsey?, consider the types of clients you want to work with, and the type of problems you want to solve.

Offices can also have a different split of in-town work versus travel. For example, McKinsey’s Singapore office doesn’t have a lot of in-town projects, so consultants are expected to regularly travel to other Southeast Asian countries for cases.

This may not be important to you, but if it is, you should know what the split between in-town and travel is early in the application process.

Who Have You Met Through the Recruiting Process Who You’d Love to Work With?

Particularly in the second round of in-person interviews, your answer to the “Why McKinsey?” question should be a personal one.

Who have you met through the recruiting process that you connected with and would love to work with? Who does the type of client work you find interesting? Who would you not mind being stuck in an airport with?

The “Why McKinsey?” interview question is a fit interview question. It’s a two-way street. Your interviewer is looking for new consultants he or she would be interested in working with, and you should be looking for experienced consultants you’d like to work with as well.

This is why attending a consulting company’s in-person or virtual presentations and conducting informational interviews is important.

They give you the opportunity to meet people from the firm and figure out whose personality and problem-solving approach resonate with you. Ask yourself if you can imagine putting in late nights before a client presentation with the people you meet.

When you’re asked the “Why McKinsey” interview question, talk about the McKinsey consultants you’ve had good conversations with. This specificity will show your passion for working not just in the consulting industry, but for McKinsey in particular and for a specific office.

Sample Answers to the “Why McKinsey?” Question

“I had an informational interview with Ben, who told me about the firm’s operations practice and the work he did streamlining the warehousing and distribution operations of an online retailer. I’m interested in helping to make businesses greener and more efficient. I’d love to join McKinsey and do work like that.”

 

“I read a McKinsey Quarterly article on the impact that the COVID pandemic is having on the retail clothing industry and how both the industry’s marketing and supply chain functions will need to adapt to compete in the future. I’m very interested in the future of retail apparel and would love to learn more and to help clients reshape this industry.”

What My Consulting Offer’s Ex-McKinsey Coaches Say When Asked: “Why McKinsey?”

Goldielyn: I love McKinsey because: 

  1. The “Make your own McKinsey” culture pushes you to identify what you’re passionate about, yet there is assurance that McKinsey is there to support you every single step of the way.
  2. There are lots of good paths laid out for you if you join as a BA, and before you make Associate:
    1. Paid MBA (2 yrs),
    2. Fellowship in an industry you’re interested in (1 yr),
    3. Geographic mobility (1 yr): move to the office of your choice, provided they accept you, and
    4. Secondment to client (1-2 yrs): so you can gain industry exposure.

Because McKinsey is the oldest management consulting firm and has the widest network, it’s also able to encourage more entrepreneurship and offer more interesting options to its consultants.

Other Resources

For more on what makes McKinsey different, read the company’s statement on the firm’s purpose, mission, and values.

Still have questions?

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