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Consultants, Universities and When McKinsey Comes to Town


When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm By Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe

Published in October 2022

For people with higher education, a book about McKinsey is not one we read for general knowledge. We read about McKinsey for research.

Consulting firms like McKinsey are part of how university strategies are built. With the power of consultants’ ideas seeping into the subconscious minds of trustees, presidents, CEOs, and vice presidents—or through direct engagement with a major consulting firm—what McKinsey and their colleagues think and do matters for higher education.

There will be a reading When McKinsey comes to town help university leaders make better decisions when evaluating possible interactions and reading the documents and reflections of large consulting companies? The answer to this question depends on how you approach the book.

My goal was to better understand the culture of McKinsey and other organizations that consult with senior ed. I’m interested in how partners and analysts at top consulting firms think and how the companies they work for work. This knowledge, I hope, will allow for better decision-making and more informed judgment when evaluating potential future interactions and when reading the research that these organizations publish.

In general, I would say so When McKinsey comes to town only partially successful as a user’s guide for consumers of great consulting services and ideas. The purpose of the book is not to help organizations work more effectively with consultants, but instead to reveal the impact and reach that McKinsey has had in business and government.

One read in the book is a scathing indictment of a consulting firm whose stated values ​​do not match its track record. McKinsey appears to have been at the center of a number of unsavory developments in recent decades, from advising the House of Saud on maintaining its power to helping big pharmaceutical companies reap huge profits from prescription opioids.

Paradoxically, in every chapter about McKinsey’s role in creating the housing bust (helping to invent mortgage-backed securities) to environmental degradation (consulting big coal companies), the firm appears more influential than immoral.

The authors’ intention is to expose the hidden influence that McKinsey has had in companies prioritizing profits over people and the environment, and in governments for imposing austerity measures that have penalized the poor and vulnerable and fostered greater inequality and concentration welfare. All these stories about McKinsey being on the wrong side of history are troubling. But the book confirms, above all, that McKinsey has a seat at the table.

In reading When McKinsey comes to town, I kept waiting for stories of when working with the firm was a win-win for all parties involved. I suspect the story would have been more nuanced if the authors had spoken to university clients and the McKinsey people who work for them higher education practice.

One can certainly question whether the cost of working with McKinsey or one of their fellow consultants is worth the investment. The answer will be yes in some cases and no in others.

It would be most interesting to explore the conditions under which a partnership with McKinsey (or similar) makes sense for a university. And when a school partners with McKinsey, how can they get the most out of this investment?

When McKinsey comes to town may not provide a road map for seniors planning to hire a consultant to work in areas related to institutional strategy. What the book provides is an insight into McKinsey’s culture and operating structure. This insight will help higher education institutions evaluate proposals and understand the specific results and generalizations of McKinsey’s research around the world.

What is your experience with McKinsey or any other large consulting firm?

What are you reading?

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