McKinsey Is Ultraprestigious. It’s Also a Blight on the World.

Garrison Lovely

McKinsey & Company attracts graduates from prestigious colleges in droves. But as a former employee tells us in an interview, instead of using their talents for good, the consulting firm sends them out into the world to make the planet more profit-driven.

Sign for McKinsey & Company management consulting firm in Geneva, Switzerland, April 12, 2022. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

In 2019, Current Affairs published an anonymously written expose penned by a former employee of the world’s most famous and prestigious management consulting firm. “I came into my job as a McKinsey consultant hoping to change the world from the inside, believing that the best way to make progress is through influencing those who control the levers of power,” wrote its author. “[But] instead of being a force for good, I found myself party to the most damaging forces affecting the world: the resurgence of authoritarianism and the continued creep of markets into all parts of life.”

Though famously secretive about its work, McKinsey & Company would soon find its way into headlines courtesy of then South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who quickly discovered that his association with the company was more of a liability than an asset given its work for the likes of Saudi Arabia and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Just recently, the author of 2019’s Current Affairs essay has begun to speak publicly about his work and decision to become a whistleblower. Garrison Lovely, who was recruited by the firm in his early twenties, last month published a lengthy cover story in the Nation entitled “Confessions of a McKinsey Consultant.” In the following interview, Lovely talks to Jacobin’s Luke Savage about his Nation piece, his work with McKinsey, and the inner workings of the secretive but influential business of management consulting.

Luke Savage

You start your essay in the Nation as follows: “In the summer of 2015, when I was 21 years old, I found myself working at one of America’s most notorious jails.” So, to begin at the beginning here, where exactly were you, how did you end up there, and what did you see?

Garrison Lovely

Yeah, I was working for McKinsey & Company as an intern. McKinsey’s client at that time was the New York City Department of Corrections. Our goal there was to reduce violence at Rikers Island, and McKinsey had been brought in a little bit before I got there. I was interested in prison reform, had done some work on it in college, and McKinsey dangled the opportunity to work at Rikers to entice me to work there.

Luke Savage

What specifically was the nature of the work and what were the fruits of this effort?

Garrison Lovely

It was “organizational transformation,” which McKinsey does a lot of. The idea is that the whole place needs to be changed: McKinsey’s going to come in, do a bunch of interviews, find out what the problems are — problems with the culture, problems with practices, whatever, and then help implement a bunch of fixes. So there was a fourteen-point plan to reduce violence within the complex. It was stuff like: keep weapons and drugs out of Rikers; make changes to the housing and how people were classified based on predictors of violence.

While I was there, it wasn’t obvious that it was going to be a failure. The thing I was most excited about was this effort to reclassify people based on more statistically informed measures of how likely they are to get into some kind of violent act with somebody else. After I left, there was great reporting from ProPublica that found McKinsey basically fudged its numbers and said, “Hey, we found all these reductions in this facility that we’ve been doing our programs in, and we can extrapolate this out to the whole island!” In reality, they had just taken a bunch of the people with the lowest likelihood of violence and put them together and then said, “Hey, this could actually be done everywhere else.”

The city government ended up scrapping that entire part of the project — which was, I would say, the bulk of the work. The city spent $27.5 million on this. And lots and lots of time on Rikers’ part and on McKinsey’s part that has ultimately come to very little. If you look at the statistics now, Rikers is basically as bad as it’s ever been. There are fewer people there, which is good. But the rates of violence and assaults on guards are near, if not at, record levels.

Luke Savage

Can we talk a bit about the history of McKinsey? When did it begin, how would you describe its general ethos, and what might be said in broad terms about the nature of its work?

Garrison Lovely

McKinsey started in the 1920s. It was not the first management consulting firm in the world, but it was the first modern one. The idea was to bring science to management, using evidence and quantitative methods. This guy Marvin Bower, who was not the first leader of the firm, but effectively its spiritual leader, implemented a lot of the things that made it what it became — made it into a profession in the way that white-shoe law firms are professional services firms. And from there, McKinsey has had its fingers in every pie you can think of. It helped create the chief of staff position at the White House, which has been replicated in many places. It claims to have helped create the barcode.

Marvin Bower, considered the founder of McKinsey’s corporate culture and of modern-day McKinsey. (McKinsey & Company via Wikimedia Commons)

And the company has also been part of some things that are not as good. Runaway executive compensation was a result of a McKinsey partner noticing that CEOs — or management — were getting smaller raises as a percentage of the company’s growth than labor. Firm consolidation, privatization of government assets, you name it: McKinsey’s probably been involved in it and maybe even started the process.

Maybe the most interesting thing about what it’s done is that it was the first firm to really decide, “We should find young, smart people who don’t necessarily have a ton of experience. Just get them in the door, and then we will train them and partner them with more experienced people.” In the past, you had to get a graduate degree or work for a while before you could get a job like this, and if you look back to the ’60s, you saw a higher percentage of students going into public service jobs, working for the Peace Corps or things like that.

Now you see at the most elite universities, at least in the United States, the plurality of students working in consulting and finance. It’s the default high-prestige job if you don’t know exactly what you want to do. A lot of people will tell themselves they’ll just do it for two years and then move on to better opportunities — work at a nonprofit, go to grad school, or whatever it might be. Some do leave after two years. But a bunch get golden handcuffs, and get used to the fancy hotels and expensed meals.

I think that the most significant impact McKinsey’s had on the world is diverting a lot of these young, talented, and somewhat idealistic people away from careers that help the public toward ones that help big companies.

Luke Savage

As I understand it, the official branding of McKinsey is that it recruits bright young people in particular to work for the betterment of society. But would it be fair to say that a large majority of its clients are simply corporate clients as opposed to, say, nonprofits or other things that might be associated with progressive policy goals or objectives?

Garrison Lovely

When I was there, I was told that something like 90 percent of McKinsey’s clients were for-profit companies, and the remaining 10 percent was a mix of what they call the social sector — like nonprofit and government. Within that 10 percent, I would guess government is the vast majority of it, and government is not always good.

The biggest government client at McKinsey is either Saudi Arabia or the US federal government. And within the federal government, not all clients are great either. So it’s hard to say that most of the work the company is doing has a prosocial bend. It’s mostly just in the service of greater profits.

Luke Savage

In early 2017, the company next sent you to ICE — which I suppose had not quite acquired the reputation it has since has. But what you describe in the piece is characteristically appalling. What were you and the McKinsey team tasked with doing?

Garrison Lovely

I was initially assigned to help with another organizational transformation, and the specific part was to figure out talent management within ICE. It was basically like a human resources project to make it a better place to work for people. ICE had a bunch of culture issues, much like Rikers, and I was going to help do an organizational health index, a big survey of everybody, to find out what was driving these problems.

I started just before Trump took office, and when he did take office, he issued two executive orders related to ICE. One was to direct the hiring of ten thousand additional deportation officers, which would’ve nearly tripled existing levels of deportation officers there. The other was to more or less make every single undocumented immigrant a target for deportation.

These two things were just codifying the rhetoric that we’d seen from Trump already, which is that he was going to crack down on immigration and immigrants themselves. McKinsey said in response to that, based on reporting in the New York Times and ProPublica, that “Oh, we didn’t actually change our priorities based on Trump coming to office. We already had this preexisting contract negotiated when Obama was president, and we were just continuing that work.”

That’s just bullshit. It was all-hands-on-deck to help make Trump’s vision a reality. And I went from doing the organizational health index to coming up with the hiring models to figure out how we actually hire these guys to meet the standard of this executive order. I was just terrified of what it would be like to hire ten thousand people for Trump’s ICE with a remit of targeting anybody who was undocumented.

Luke Savage

I was particularly interested in your comment in the Nation piece that you were “functionally the equivalent of full-time ICE employees” and even had ICE email addresses. It seems like you were pretty deeply integrated with the organization, and the reason I bring this up is because that line in your piece immediately made me think of that famous exchange between Binyamin Applebaum and Pete Buttigieg at a New York Times editorial board meeting (“You worked for a company that was fixing bread prices”). What was your reaction when you saw Buttigieg try to differentiate the work that McKinsey did from the firm itself?

Garrison Lovely

It really is the case that when you’re on a project, you are a full-time equivalent for that client, and you’re honestly working more than a typical person working for that company. They might be working nine-to-five and you’re working eight-to-seven and then doing more at the hotel. You have your own email address. You are connected to their systems. And you are essentially on the hook for what those clients are doing or the parts of it that you’re working on.

Another thing that was funny about Buttigieg’s arguments about McKinsey is he claimed, “My hands are tied! I signed an NDA [nondisclosure agreement]! I can’t name my clients!” But I looked at my NDA, which is probably about the same as what he signed, and it doesn’t say anything about naming clients. This is actually just a norm within McKinsey that you don’t name your clients. But it’s not prohibited legally or by the contract that you sign.

Another interesting thing about this embedding in the client solely is that you will make your slide decks in the format of the client, and you will not mention McKinsey anywhere. So if you are just getting information documents from a client from ICE or something based on a freedom of information request, it might just look like ICE presentations. But if you’ve worked at McKinsey or you’re familiar with their work, you’ll recognize the kind of waterfall slides they use, that all the font is the same size, and each title of the slide is a full sentence. So they’re just trying to cover their fingerprints and trying to be basically unseen, even if people access this information, as is their right as citizens.

Luke Savage

Let’s return now to your story. What was kind of the beginning of your exit from the company? And why did you leave?

Garrison Lovely

I had a really bad experience on the ICE project. I just felt miserable about the work we were doing. I learned a lot more about what ICE did and was just generally feeling extremely horrible about Trump being empowered. And these people who I thought were the adults in the room were just doing nothing to stop it and even facilitating it. But I basically rolled off the ICE project at the expected time. The partner on the project wanted to keep me on, but my manager was like, “No, this is killing him.”

I did a few other projects. The next one didn’t go very well for mundane reasons (I just wasn’t very good at the Excel modeling at the time), and then I just basically missed a meeting and missed an attachment on a project at the very end of my time there. I was already on thin ice, so they basically did this thing called “counseling to leave” or CTL where they say, “Hey, you can choose to leave, and if you don’t choose to leave, you’ll get kicked out.” I was a bit embarrassed because I didn’t last as long as people usually do. But yeah, I started working for these private sector clients where I didn’t care about the mission, and both the Rikers and ICE projects were upsetting. And after those I just couldn’t really get motivated to do the work.

Luke Savage

Sometime after your exit you anonymously wrote that essay in Current Affairs, which I read at the time. What made you decide to be a whistleblower?

Garrison Lovely

I was a fan of Current Affairs, and I had read some solicitation of pitches on a very long list of topics they put out — one of which was McKinsey. Well, I knew something about that, and I also felt like I should tell this story. I think McKinsey is a very powerful institution that very few people understand — which is a choice that they’ve made and been very good at achieving that kind of mystery around themselves — and I wrote the article anonymously.

I was afraid of coming after this really powerful organization publicly and announcing myself as the type of person who attacks their employers in the press. But then I participated in this book by Michael Forsythe and Walt Bogdanich called When McKinsey Comes to Town, which investigates a lot of McKinsey’s bad work. And the Nation piece was just a chance to tell my story more candidly than I’d ever told it before.

McKinsey thrives in the shadows — I know that sounds dramatic — but it is able to do what it does by avoiding public scrutiny, and it should be really hard for it to do the things that it does. It should be accountable for the actions of its clients, and the actions of its employees when they’re working there. I’ve started to see that happen a bit, and I think anything that we can do to put the company’s feet to the fire and expose the public to its behavior is a good thing to do.

Luke Savage

Neither the growing chorus of whistleblowers nor the stream of reporting on the firm’s activities has seemed to hurt its recruitment. As long as demand remains, you write, and as long as there is a pipeline of Ivy League graduates to be tapped, its work will continue unabated. I think it’s worth probing why that demand exists at all, and what it says about liberal consultancy culture. Why is it, when the company’s work often fails to deliver and when it’s facing increased scrutiny, do so many governments and private companies around the world still retain it? What is the value add here, if indeed there is one?

Garrison Lovely

It’s a really good question, and I think there are a lot of different perspectives on this. Some people, especially in response to my piece and accompanying Twitter/X thread think, “McKinsey’s obviously a waste of money and they’re idiots and they can’t actually solve the problems.” Others think that McKinsey is like the Illuminati: it’s pulling all the strings and is the real reason that all these companies are bad or evil.

The best explanation I can think of is that McKinsey has, if not a monopoly, a very large quantity of very smart people who work really hard. And a lot of these governments and Fortune 500 companies just can’t really get the best and brightest to work for them. So they’re kind of just renting brainpower from these other organizations because they don’t have the money or the culture or habit or whatever of hiring these young, wonky, sharp people or whatever.

But I don’t really think that totally explains it. I think a bunch of it is social because McKinsey is the most prestigious of these firms. It’s this exciting thing to be able to hire them. If you’re in the government or if you’re a CEO or a head of a division at a company, you might have some kind of chip on your shoulder about the McKinsey guys. But then you can hire them to work for you, and then they have to do twelve-hour days for weeks on end and beck and call to your every whim.

McKinsey is also just very good at making you feel special. And the partners who are most successful are very good at winning you over socially. There’s a strong relationship component to these things. Each partner has a platform where they serve a specific set of clients, or maybe one client if it’s big enough, and they’ve formed a deep relationship with multiple people who have the ability to decide to hire them. And so I think these social things are driving toward keeping McKinsey around even if they’re not being successful.

I think the company actually is pretty good at doing a bunch of things that are pretty mundane. One of the big advantages of a firm as old and big as McKinsey is that it’s rare that it hasn’t come across the problem it’s been tasked with trying to solve before. So there’s this large internal network of documents and data that’s anonymized or whatever, saying, “Okay, we want to reduce temporary labor costs in the American Southwest for this type of thing.” And you can actually go find benchmarks that McKinsey developed and see what’s been done in the past.

Luke Savage

You ended your Nation essay by calling for the “full de-McKinsey-fication of society.” I know you were being a bit tongue in cheek with that turn of phrase, but what would this look like to you?

Garrison Lovely

The specific things I call for are not revolutionary, just because I think it’s hard to imagine what would actually be plausible. It’s getting universities in particular to kick McKinsey and other consulting firms off campus so they can’t recruit there anymore; to provide dossiers of their bad practices as a countervailing force to the glossy pamphlets that McKinsey and others will give out touting their great work. It’s also government regulating these things more and investigating their work, looking for conflicts of interest, maybe requiring McKinsey and others to disclose who they’re working for and the work that they’re doing. These are reformist kind of reforms.

And I think what they could amount to is that, if somebody saw that you worked at McKinsey, it would be like seeing that you worked at Enron or FTX: one of these failed companies where everybody knew that you were part of something bad. You have a worldview that does not prioritize the social good, does not prioritize helping others by having worked there by default. You focused on markets and keeping the status quo as it is, which we know is just not acceptable to the vast majority of people.

Maybe that’s naive or excessively optimistic. But for me, it still helps my resume. It helps everybody I know who worked there. It’s this weird thing where no matter what they do, no matter what bad thing, it will still be a good thing for you to have worked there. I want there to be a world where it’s no longer a resume booster but instead a source of shame.

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Garrison Lovely is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He cofounded Cornell’s Prison Reform and Education Project. He hosts the podcast The Most Interesting People I Know.

Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin. He is the author of The Dead Center: Reflections on Liberalism and Democracy After the End of History.

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