Consulting is intense. Before hiring you McKinsey, BCG and Bain will want to make sure that you know why you want to become a management consultant. And why you want to work for them and not for their competitor. "Why this firm?" is one of the most frequently asked fit questions, and also a topic you are expected to tackle in your consulting cover letter.
So let's discuss whether there is really a big difference between McKinsey, BCG and Bain. And if there isn't a big difference, let's analyse how you can still give a strong answer to the "Why this firm" question.
At the “firm” level, McKinsey, BCG and Bain have a lot in common
Some other blogs have tried arguing that there are important differences between consulting firms. However, in our experience, top consulting firms actually have a lot more in common than they have differences. In fact, if you ask MBB consultants, most of them will acknowledge there aren't huge differences betwen their firm and competitors. So let's step through the most obvious reasons that's the case.
Roles and career paths
First, the three MBB firms have structured their career path in very similar ways. Each firm uses a slightly different terminology but the consulting roles they offer are largely the same. At a high level, your consulting career will be a succession of three phases:
- Doing analysis. In the first two to four years of your career you will be in charge of doing the analysis for your project. You will be what McKinsey calls a Business Analyst or an Associate.
- Managing. Once you are a safe pair of hands with the analysis, you will then start managing projects and clients. This is what you will do as an Engagement Manager and also as a Principal.
- Selling. The last skill you will develop as a consultant is selling projects. This is what top-end Principals, Partners and Senior Partners focus most of their time on.
All consulting firms have structured their career path following this logic. The high-level professional trajectory you will experience as a consultant will therefore feel very similar from firm to firm.
However, note this is only true for traditional consulting positions. Some firms including McKinsey have started hiring for a broader set of positions over the past few years such as: Implementation coaches, Oil & Gas or Agriculture specialists, Data scientists, etc. These roles and their corresponding career paths are specific to each firm and therefore slightly more unique.
Firm organisation and project work
The second reason working for McKinsey feels similar to working for BCG / Bain is that all three firms are organised in a similar way. Consulting firms typically follow a matrix organisation and have two types of practices:
- Vertical practices. Verticals are groups of Partners who all focus on the same industries. For instance, McKinsey, BCG, Bain and most other top consulting firm all have vertical branches focusing on the following areas: financial services, retail, transportation, utilities, etc.
- Horizontal practices. Horizontals are groups of Partners who are known for specific capabilities instead of industries. Top consulting firms typically have horizontals that cover the following topics: Pricing & Marketing, Transformation & Restructuring, Corporate finance, Operations, etc. A Partner who is specialised in restructuring would do that type of project across industries (e.g. financial services, retail, etc.)
Partners and Principals from these different practices spend a good chunk of their time pitching projects to potential clients. When they manage to sell a project they then assemble a team of Managers and more junior consultants to help deliver it.
Managers are typically part of one or two practices (e.g. financial services and pricing & marketing). But junior consultants aren't part of any practice. Instead, they are part of a central pool of resources Partners can draw from on a project by project basis. This is why junior consultants work across so many industries at the beginning of their career.
All MBB firms have this matrix organisation at the Partner level and this central pool of Junior consultants. And this is one of the main reasons working for these different firms largely feels same.
Finally, salaries at McKinsey, BCG and Bain are actually quite similar. We've analysed data from Glassdoor in the past and as you can see below salaries from the top firms are withing 10% of each other.
This is yet another reason why working at McKinsey feels a lot like working at BCG or Bain. But if the three companies are so similar, how can you provide a strong answer to the "Why McKinsey / BCG / Bain?" question?
At the “office” level, the real differences start showing
The three MBB firms are quite similar at the overall "firm" level. But if you take a closer look at the "office" level, that's where some of the differences really start to show.
In our experience, a great answer to the "Why McKinsey / BCG / Bain?" question is extremely SPECIFIC. Here is a good example from our template consulting cover letter:
|Example - Why McKinsey?|
McKinsey appeals to me for three reasons.
To start with, the different people from the company I have met and worked with all told me they had truly enjoyed their time there. For the past two years, I have worked for Michael Smith a former Engagement Manager from the London office who now works for Big Finance Co.
Additionally, I regularly read McKinsey’s reports on financial services and think the insights delivered by Sarah James and others in the Finance practice are truly superior to that of other consultancies. By joining McKinsey I therefore think I would have an opportunity to work with and learn from the best consultants in the industry.
Finally, the fact that McKinsey was selected by Finance Supercorp to shape its digital strategy also played an important role in my decision to apply. This was a first-of-its-kind contract in finance and it shows that while at McKinsey I could get the opportunity to work on truly unique projects.
Note: in a normal cover letter the four paragraphs above would be collapsed into one paragraph. But we have split them out here for better readability.
Notice how the answer above focuses on a specfic OFFICE: McKinsey London. And how this focus enables the candidate to make very UNIQUE arguments about why they want to work for McKinsey.
In our experience, a good answer to the "Why this firm?" question should focus on three elements:
- The people you have met from the office you are applying for. A surprisingly big part of answering the "Why this firm?" question is about NETWORKING. Your interviewer wants to know if you have done your homework and have talked to anyone from the office you are applying for, or at least from the firm in general.
- The projects and industries the office you will join focuses on. Having talked to a few people is not enough. Your interviewer also wants to know if you understand what type of projects the office you are joining works on. If you join the McKinsey New York office for instance you will likely work on financial services or media projects because these industries are big in the city. But if you want to work in oil and gas New York is not the right destination; instead you should probably apply for Houston.
- The reports and other intellectual capital produced by the office you will join. Finally, you should be aware of the recent reports published by the partners from the office you are trying to join (e.g. New York) and the practice you are interested in (e.g. Financial services). This will demonstrate to your interviewer that you have a genuine interest in a specfic area that the office they belong to works on.
If you cover 2 or 3 of the points above in your answer, your interviewer will think: "That person has already talked to a few of my colleagues. They also seem to be interested in Financial services which is a big part of the work we do here. They could be a good fit." You've ticked all the boxes, your interviewer will now move on to ask you case interview questions.
A good test to make sure that your answer is specific enough is to try to swap "McKinsey" with "BCG" or "Bain" in your pitch. If your answer still makes sense after swapping the names you need to iterate it until it doesn't.
A lot of us instinctively feel that McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are actually more similar than they are different. And that's certainly the case when looking at the career paths and salaries they offer as well as the way they are organised and run projects.
As a consequence, the right way to answer the "Why this firm?" question is to really focus your answer on the office you are applying for. And to talk about the people who work there and the type of projects they do. This approach will really enable you to set yourself apart.
Let us know your thoughts
Do you agree with our way of answering the "Why this firm?" question? Or do you think there are actually big differences between the three firms?
Let us know in the comment section below!
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