Sunday, November 10, 2013

What it means to "get smart" on topics at McKinsey and 5 Key Things to Learn

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Has your McKinsey boss asked you to "get smart" on a topic?  In this post I'll explain what that means and highlight five subjects to focus on...

What does it mean to "get smart" at McKinsey?

To "get smart" means to quickly learn the most important aspects of a new topic.  You can apply a t-shaped approach and learn a little about a lot, then go deep on your specific workstream, but it's not enough to just pick up the basics that you can find on Wikipedia.

What are the critical areas for getting smart?

You can make the most of your time and effort by applying the 80/20 rule and focusing on the vital or critical few subjects when getting smart.  There are a handful of things you can learn that will give you the biggest bang for your buck...

1.  Lingo and acronyms

Every industry has a language that all of the participants use.  Each client also has client-specific terminology that you'll have to learn.  Think about the places you've worked before and all the obscure terms and TLAs (three-letter acronyms) that you used without even thinking about them.  It's not enough to know what these terms mean - you'll also have to add them to your working vocabulary and be able to "talk the talk" of your clients.

2.  Organizational ("Org") Structure

Each client is organized differently and their organizational (aka "org") structure colors the way they see the world and conduct business.  Even if your workstream is focused on a single business unit ("BU"), you'll need to understand how your client's BU fits into the bigger picture.  There might also be differences in how people are organized - no two companies org charts look the same.  For example, in many companies, "Directors" are the layer between Managers and Vice Presidents.  But at McKinsey, Directors are Senior Principals and the most influential people at the Firm.

3.  Company Culture & News

Company cultures are not just unique - they are often sources of tremendous pride for clients.  As a result, missteps in this area can damage credibility and/or the relationship with the client.  It's important to understand what's important to the company, your clients, and other employees.  It can be any number of things including company history, reputation for excellence in something, how they treat customers, or how they treat each other.

Especially if a company is currently in the headlines, current events are going to be top-of-mind for many clients.  Even if there hasn't been big news, you should familiarize yourself with whatever the company has been going through - good and bad.

4.  Competitive landscape

It's important to understand both a) who the major competitors are and b) the company's position in the industry.  Your work should always take competitors and relative position into account.  Otherwise, your recommendations could come across as naive or just plain wrong.  For example, your recommendations will be very different if your client is in a monopoly position, competing in an oligopoly, or one of many players in a highly fragmented industry.

5.  Competitive Dynamics & Industry Trends

It's also critical to understand where the company and the broader industry are headed.  Your recommendations will differ if your client rising fast, lagging behind peers, or the entire industry is in a boom or bust cycle.  Competitor incentives will vary, too.  Consider how strategies would need to vary when competing against hungry upstarts who are willing to be aggressive or complacent industry leaders who want to maintain the status quo.

Why is it important to "get smart"?

Clients are paying a lot of money for McKinsey engagements, so they have high expectations for the team and the work performed.  Clients don't want teams who don't know anything about their companies and situations.  So, in order to build and maintain credibility with clients, it's important that McKinsey consultants be able to get up to speed and "get smart" on topics quickly.


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