Opinion - Business News

Op-Ed: The McKinsey I hope the world gets to know

Kevin Sneader, global managing partner of McKinsey
Kevin Sneader speaks on stage during #BoFVOICES on November 30, 2018 in Oxfordshire, England.
John Phillips | Getty Images

In 1989, I started work at McKinsey & Company as a newly minted graduate from the University of Glasgow. I expected to work hard; do what my clients asked; and, perhaps, learn some skills along the way. I was surprised to encounter a firm where values, ethics and principles were debated as often as spreadsheets and presentations, and where the question "What is the right thing to do?" was discussed regularly.

But this is not the McKinsey that has been portrayed publicly over recent months. The coverage – based on a small fraction of our work – has called into question our values and who we are as a firm.

While we have pointed out significant inaccuracies in the reporting, we understand the motivation behind the scrutiny. Many of the themes raised by the media mirror our internal debates about how to apply our values in our work. For instance, are the short-term benefits of a decision outweighed by the long-term costs? Are we making enough of a difference to justify our fees?

These decisions are rarely black and white, and the world is changing fast. Businesses are rightly being expected to play a role in advancing the needs of society, and business itself is no longer positively seen by many as a source of jobs, personal dignity and opportunity but is increasingly viewed with suspicion. This has prompted additional internal reflection about whether we are making the right choices. And that reflection has prompted changes.

We have become more selective about our work and the clients we serve. In July of last year, we put in place a process and guidelines to better scrutinize which clients we serve and what we do. Before we take on new work, our client service policy now requires the assessment of existing and potential clients across multiple factors relating to the country in which the work would be done, the topic being addressed and the individuals who would be involved. This has led us to reject projects that fall short of the new policy whether for existing or new clients and in particular in areas such as defense, policing, security and intelligence in countries that score poorly on democracy indices.

We are also taking a more comprehensive view of the outcomes that our work can have beyond the direct financial and operational benefits. Many colleagues have pushed for this. That's why we have launched an effort to more systematically and consistently apply a lens that includes broader societal impact when we assess how we are serving our clients.

As we make these changes, we will also seek to be more open about who we are: a firm that serves over a thousand clients every day through 30,000 colleagues drawn from over 120 nationalities, speaking 135 languages, working from 130 locations across the globe with backgrounds that reflect an enormous diversity of educational experience, professional interest and world-view.

We will also share more about what we do. A full account of our work would reveal the way we play a positive role in developing and implementing the latest, strategic, technological and operational thinking around the world. Our colleagues have helped bring innovations to market that have created thousands of jobs; they have helped companies launch products that make every day life better; helped businesses survive, restructure and prosper in the face of unprecedented changes; and helped governments deliver services that are more efficient and effective for taxpayers and citizens alike. We also do a lot of work that could appear boring and mundane but is important: helping a company reduce working capital by optimizing inventory levels is typical of much that we do even if it is hardly the stuff of a good movie script.

A full account would also include the investments we make in the form of pro bono work on a raft of issues from gender equality to making technology a force for good, as well as our direct charitable giving; annual support for over 600 non-profit organisations that are addressing some of the world's most pressing social challenges; help for multiple disaster relief efforts including ebola, MERS, Zika and the new coronavirus; and the founding of Generation, an independent non-profit to combat youth unemployment. Moreover, the McKinsey Global Institute has been widely recognized for several years as the leading private sector think tank for its research on issues that are of broad societal significance. Most recently, this has included reports on climate change, inequality, re-skilling, the future of work and affordable housing.

The McKinsey I know is not perfect. But the McKinsey I know is a firm that attracts talented people who are passionate about helping others achieve their professional and personal goals. A firm with a proud record of making a difference to organisations large and small on their toughest issues. A firm that takes seriously the responsibility to help the communities in which we live and work. A firm that is committed to change and improve.

This is the McKinsey I hope the world gets to know.

Kevin Sneader is the global managing partner of McKinsey.