By projecting an image of expertise and empathy, McKinsey’s ‘thought leadership’ helps the firm preserve and perpetuate its power.
by Adam M. Lowenstein
February 15, 2022
The folks at McKinsey & Company want you to know that they care. Not just about their clients, partners, or employees, but about their communities, the planet, and global challenges like racial injustice and income inequality. And now, it seems, they care about kids.
In October 2020, the elite management consulting firm rolled out the first chapter of “McKinsey for Kids,” a semi-interactive page on the company’s website, featuring animated fish designed to match the firm’s “visual identity” (“The color blue means a lot to us at McKinsey”) and the BuzzFeed-meets-Nickelodeon headline “Hungry fish, baffled farmers, and what happened next.”
“You’re a kid,” McKinsey for Kids begins, appropriately. “You’ve heard of McKinsey—maybe your parent even works here—yet you don’t quite get what we do all day. You’re not alone—many adults don’t either. Basically, we help solve problems.”
These problems, the introduction explains, include education, climate change, and “design[ing] products that you and your friends might like.” From there, McKinsey for Kids moves, as consultants often do, into a case study—in this case, how McKinsey “helped some farmers in Latin America.”
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In a statement to the Prospect, a McKinsey spokesperson explained that McKinsey for Kids emerged organically during the first COVID-19 lockdowns. With families stuck at home, the firm arranged some “internal briefings” for McKinsey staff and their families. These briefings proved popular, so McKinsey’s publishing arm developed McKinsey for Kids as a way of helping employees explain to their children “what their parents actually do in their day jobs.”
But McKinsey for Kids is much more than a virtual “take your child to work day.” It represents the latest—and perhaps the most unsettling—example of two intersecting techniques corporations use to preserve and perpetuate their influence. One technique is known in the corporate world as “thought leadership”: articles, videos, podcasts, surveys, research reports, and other purportedly objective publications that a company funds and produces to project expertise and credibility, and to sustain the company’s narrative of itself and the work it does. (Disclosure: In a previous role, I researched and helped write thought leadership at one of the Big Four accounting firms, which regularly competes with McKinsey for work.)
The second technique, which follows from the first, is the perpetual campaign to reassure current employees that the work they do is meaningful and purpose-driven, and to convince future employees that the way to live a meaningful and purpose-driven life is to go not into government, education, health care, or philanthropy, but into business. Somewhere like McKinsey.
MANY OF THE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS McKinsey generates in revenue every year can be traced to the firm’s most valuable asset, its expertise—or, at least, the perception of expertise. Its brand, influence, prestige, and power emanate from the conviction, particularly among economic and political elites, that if your organization has a problem, McKinsey can solve it.
McKinsey is legendary for resisting disclosure about its operations. By its own admission, McKinsey’s clients include 90 of the 100 biggest companies in the world, but we know little about who those clients are and what services they receive. This long-standing policy makes it all the more notable when McKinsey does choose to reveal details about its work.
Based on the case studies featured in McKinsey for Kids, the firm makes the world a better place by helping fish farmers, reducing food waste, calculating the “value of nature,” helping people (“including kids”) anticipate the “future of work,” and strengthening global supply chains. But these selective disclosures are just that: selective.
They don’t mention, for instance, that the firm’s record involves helping the Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cut costs by spending less money on food and care for immigrants while “look[ing] for ways to accelerate the deportation process,” as The New York Times reported. Nor do they mention an internal report that McKinsey prepared in 2015 that the government of Saudi Arabia may have used to identify online dissidents criticizing the regime, including one who later sued the firm for revealing his identity. (McKinsey said it was “horrified by the possibility, however remote, that [the report] could have been misused in any way.”)
In addition to hiding its more unsavory work, McKinsey’s selective client disclosures also help it claim credit for tackling global challenges. McKinsey can explain in articles on its website “why investing in nature is key to climate mitigation” and how financial institutions can “align portfolios with climate goals.” This type of content makes it appear as though the firm is taking action to fight climate change, without requiring McKinsey to actually take action—such as, say, giving up its lucrative work for fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil, BP, and Saudi Aramco. (In an October op-ed, McKinsey’s global managing partner said that “[t]here is no way to reduce emissions without working with these industries.”)
McKinsey’s clients include 90 of the 100 biggest companies in the world, but we know little about who those clients are and what services they receive.
Much of McKinsey’s thought leadership borders on the banal. On March 23, 2020, just days after lockdowns began in the United States, two McKinsey partners leapt ahead with an article entitled “Beyond Coronavirus: The Path to the Next Normal.” The article outlined five “stages” through which “leaders across the public, private, and social sectors” would need to guide their organizations: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, and Reform. While the two partners offered a few paragraphs of text beneath each “R,” the article was overwhelmingly speculative and nonspecific.
It appears that the point of the article was merely to give an impression of McKinsey’s unique ability to peer into the future and anticipate the unknown—and to make clear to potential clients that you, too, could access such foresight by hiring the firm. Despite the lack of specificity, the “next normal” article has been cited at least 65 times outside of McKinsey, including in peer-reviewed journals such as World Neurosurgery and the Journal of Business Research. The McKinsey spokesperson told me that the firm’s publications were cited in the media more than 5,000 times last year alone.
The spokesperson added that the firm “has always sought to help leaders understand and navigate the changes and trends that they and their institutions face,” and that “publishing original research and analysis” remains “core to that mission.” This reveals thought leadership’s most fundamental purpose for McKinsey: as a credential. It assures its employees, competitors, and current and potential clients that McKinsey possesses what one former McKinsey consultant described to me as the “illusion of expertise.” It doesn’t necessarily need to be based in evidence or offer specific solutions. The credential is not what the thought leadership says but simply the fact that it exists.
McKinsey for Kids checks each box. It’s slickly produced by the same team that produces the firm’s most prominent content. It combines glossy presentation with curated anecdotes that paint the firm in its ideal light—namely, as a company full of “smart, curious people” who “like helping people solve big problems.” And it makes pronouncements on a range of issues, from global trade to the circular economy to artificial intelligence, which convey competence, expertise, and foresight.
LIKE MUCH OF THE AGGRESSIVELY on-brand content you find on corporate websites, McKinsey for Kids appears to have another target audience: prospective employees. Making thought leadership an effective recruiting tool isn’t as straightforward as projecting McKinsey as a fun employer with cool perks and good benefits. Instead, it’s part of a deeper, multi-decade effort to define McKinsey as the place to learn valuable skills and contribute to solving the world’s problems, while adding some prestige to your résumé.
The series’ first installment interrupts the saga of the fish-farm client to describe who some of your colleagues would be if you went to work at McKinsey. “Some of us are engineers,” it reads. “Others are designers. Others are scientists, or doctors, or researchers, or even writers and editors.”
Readers can click through six jobs at the company, including economist, project manager, and data scientist. “What would you do if you worked for McKinsey as a consultant?” the page asks, before linking to the company’s “careers quiz.” (The McKinsey spokesperson said that the audience for its publications is not children, but primarily “a global business executive audience and our own colleagues.”)
In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, the journalist Anand Giridharadas observes that Wall Street and management consulting firms “have persuaded many young people in recent years that they provide a superior version of what the liberal arts are said to offer: highly portable training for doing whatever you wish down the road.” This includes public-sector projects that sound a lot like the case studies in McKinsey for Kids: helping a Chicago food bank, perhaps, or developing a “‘business case’ for nature.”
McKinsey’s website, research, social media channels, media appearances, and recruiting materials can create the impression of a for-profit social justice enterprise that uses the tools of the market to fight inequality and food insecurity. But many of McKinsey’s clients are companies that hire the firm to help cut costs, build new IT or HR systems, or advise on the nebulous concept of “strategy.” For most consultants, the job involves a lot of corporate jargon, PowerPoint presentations, and management hierarchies. That’s a far cry from the green-tinged world-bettering many are promised.
Yet McKinsey’s powerful alumni network routinely testifies to its ability to attract young and ambitious world-savers. Consider U.S. transportation secretary and former McKinsey consultant Pete Buttigieg. During his presidential campaign, even as he sought to distance himself from McKinsey and disavow some of its “upsetting” work that had made headlines, Buttigieg stayed characteristically on message when asked about the firm. Buttigieg went to McKinsey because “I was looking for a place where I could learn as much as I could by working on interesting problems and challenges in the private sector, [in] the public sector, in the nonprofit sector,” he told The Atlantic. “And that’s what I got to do.”
THE DIVERGENCE BETWEEN HOW a company portrays itself and how it makes money poses a dilemma. One way to reconcile it would be for McKinsey to change the work it does so the firm’s business model genuinely aligns with the company’s stated purpose of “help[ing] create positive, enduring change in the world.” An easier option would be simply to change how the firm talks about what it does.
While the latter approach has the benefit of not disturbing existing client relationships or revenue streams, it comes with its own risks. McKinsey has attempted in its thought leadership to urge businesses to be a force for good, but that prodding contrasts with its own role in such tragedies as advising the pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma about how to “turbocharge” sales of Purdue’s highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. McKinsey’s role in the opioid crisis ultimately led the firm to agree to a $573 million settlement in early February 2021.
The settlement did not require McKinsey to admit “wrongdoing or liability,” but Kevin Sneader, the firm’s global managing partner (and co-author of the post-COVID “next normal” article), sent a letter to McKinsey’s 30,000 employees saying he was “deeply sorry” for the firm’s conduct. “Today’s focus is on opioids,” Sneader wrote, “but we have also faced other issues that have made clear the importance of improving how we act everywhere that we operate.”
Not even three weeks after McKinsey announced the settlement and Sneader issued his public apology, McKinsey’s senior partners voted to oust him from the job of being the public face of the firm. Sneader became “McKinsey’s first global managing partner since 1976 not to win a second three-year term,” the Financial Times reported.
One consequence of McKinsey’s power and reach has been an infusion of McKinsey-like thinking into different aspects of politics, culture, and society.
The opioid crisis and other high-profile scandals mostly occurred before Sneader got the top job. What McKinsey’s senior partners appear to have objected to were not the scandals but rather the new policies Sneader attempted to put in place after the scandals, including rules governing whether the company could take on certain clients. “There was an emerging consensus in our senior leadership that we were too acknowledging of our culpability with certain crises,” a former McKinsey consultant told me, and that reforms were happening “too fast.”
(A McKinsey spokesperson referred me to two interviews with Sneader’s successor, Bob Sternfels, who told The Wall Street Journal that “we have taken big steps on client selection” and hired a chief compliance officer, and that “we’re not going backward.”)
In March 2021, the month after the firm settled its opioid liabilities and its senior partners booted the guy who had led the settlement and apologized for the conduct that necessitated it, McKinsey returned with the second installment of McKinsey for Kids. “Many people who work at McKinsey do it because they like to solve big, hard business problems,” the article read. The firm enjoys taking on problems like food waste “because it also makes us feel really good about solving both a business and a community issue.”
WHY, EXACTLY, DOES ANY of this matter? Because McKinsey’s influence is everywhere, and what the firm does affects more aspects of our lives than we might like to admit.
Over the years, McKinsey alumni have left the firm and gone to work in and lead other companies, governments, nonprofits, and organizations of all sizes. Duff McDonald, author of The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, describes its network of 34,000-plus alumni as “without a doubt the most powerful the world has ever seen.”
Many former McKinseyites—some of whom, knowing the value of the McKinsey brand, still advertise themselves as “ex-McKinsey”—had their worldviews and their understanding of power dynamics shaped at the firm. Many genuinely believe the firm’s idealistic promise that management consulting is, as then–Yale student Marina Keegan captured in a 2011 essay, a “training ground” for developing the skills you need to save the world. In their subsequent roles, many naturally look for opportunities to do business with their old firm (and hire other alumni), part of the reason McKinsey invests so heavily in its alumni network.
One consequence of McKinsey’s power and reach has been an infusion of McKinsey-like thinking into different aspects of politics, culture, and society, from government agencies and corporate boardrooms that pay for its advice to media outlets that cite its research to business schools that regularly send a quarter of their graduates into consulting. For decades, McKinsey’s work and methods, as well as those of its elite competitors, have, in the words of Yale Law School’s Daniel Markovits, “put management consultants at the epicenter of economic inequality and the destruction of the American middle class.”
The cost-cutting efforts that McKinsey and its competitors have helped execute and standardize include mass layoffs, the undermining of private-sector unions, and the reduction and elimination of worker benefits and protections. Meanwhile, much of what the firm refers to as “reorganization” or “optimization” has happened alongside other efforts that dramatically boosted the pay and power of CEOs and their fellow executives.
Ironically for a firm bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from governments around the world, McKinsey’s public-sector work has helped the firm position itself at the forefront of a global effort to portray business, rather than government, as society’s premier problem solver and provider of public services. This shift from public to private has contributed to a steady extraction of money, experience, power, and decision-making authority from democratically accountable institutions to private firms. A former McKinsey consultant I spoke with put it bluntly: “The function of consulting in society is to accelerate wealth transfer and make already rich people even richer.”
McKinsey is clearly not all-powerful. The firm is not masterminding some coordinated global scheme to outsource democracy. “It’s not a criminal organization,” Duff McDonald, author of The Firm, told me. McKinsey has simply stumbled into a business model that works extraordinarily well, at least for those who find themselves on the right side of it.
The promises of this model are seductive: If you hire the right experts, if you measure the right things, if you pay the right price, you can access the right answers. With the right metrics, you can eliminate uncertainty. With the right analysis of the past, you can predict the future. With the right innovations and efficiencies, you can fix society’s problems without disrupting the status quo or making the people at the top uncomfortable.
And if this is what you’ve come to believe, whether because you genuinely believe it or because your business model demands that you believe it, McKinsey for Kids starts to make more sense. If this is how you understand the world, as McDonald put it to me, “why wouldn’t you want to teach it to the kids?”
While McKinsey for Kids may be uniquely unsettling, its approach is far from unique. Law firms, financial firms, consulting firms, public relations firms, accounting firms all have a similar goal: to keep things the way they are by portraying themselves as experts who care.
Plenty of individual employees are experts and do care, of course, but their wants and wishes are ultimately subservient to the wants and wishes of the organizations and structures in which they work. And those organizations and structures will never allow care to impede profits.
Adam M. Lowenstein (@amlowenstein) writes “Reframe Your Inbox,” an email newsletter of essays and interviews about politics, capitalism, and corporate power. He is at work on his second book.
February 15, 2022
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'McKinsey for Kids': An Insidious Tool Kit for Spreading Corporate Influence – The American Prospect
By projecting an image of expertise and empathy, McKinsey’s ‘thought leadership’ helps the firm preserve and perpetuate its power.