Her McKinsey Consulting Career

An interview with Sharon Hoffman, a Practice Manager with the famous management consulting firm McKinsey and Company.

Ms Hoffman and Her Career

How did you career begin? How and why did you become involved in consulting?

I was working at an oil company in international marketing and strategic planning. Our profitability had dropped, and McKinsey and Company (a management consulting firm) was brought in. Fortunately, I was selected to be a part of their teams and so had the opportunity to experience the consulting process up close.

You’re now the practice manager for McKinsey and Co., how did your professional experience prepare you for this position?

The time I spent with McKinsey teams allowed me to understand the style, the vernacular, and the problem solving required for consulting. By the time I interviewed at McKinsey, I was seen as a cultural fit.

What has been your key to success?

Enthusiasm, flexibility, and tenaciousness. I saw an opportunity with McKinsey in Europe, and I called them directly, explaining that I would be in the vicinity and would like to interview for a position. I essentially made it easy for them to say yes.

The consistent comments on my evaluations were that I am enthusiastic-employers like positive people that can get things done quickly. In addition, the ability to accept ambiguity is essential. Busy executives need people to navigate the way forward, not to stand paralyzed because the rules have not yet been written.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

My greatest success was being hired by McKinsey. This has changed my life in more ways than I can count.

My biggest setback, or so it felt at the time, was when I was turned down for a job at Shell Oil in London. I was extremely disappointed and let down. This is where tenaciousness comes in, as I picked myself up and eventually found a better job at McKinsey.

Would you do anything differently if you could re-live your career up to this point again?

Yes, I would have gotten serious far earlier. I did not really get traction on my career until my early 30s.

The Actual Work

Tell us what you do. What are your responsibilities? How much of your time is spent in the office, compared to meetings, travel, etc.?

McKinsey works with top companies to make lasting changes by helping them with strategy, operations, or building new businesses. I manage the Global knowledge infrastructure of the eCommerce Practice.

My role is to leverage the Firm’s knowledge to the McKinsey consultants through a global team of researchers, webmasters, and knowledge specialists. I set the strategy for knowledge codification and dissemination in the eCommerce domain.

With a robust knowledge base and delivery processes, the consultants can leverage the knowledge and use it to solve problems and create changes for our clients. As such, I travel about 30-40% of the time across the globe, working with my various teams and moving our agenda forward.

Describe a typical day of work for you.

In at 8 am. Conference call with Research Group for an hour or so. Another hour going through email and ensuring that the various requests are handled. I will then move on to a special project, whether it is the new version of our website, preparing a practice overview for our Leadership, preparing for a conference, writing up minutes from a European leadership meeting, or creating an educational module for my peers. Many individuals come by in the day-I interface with the Accelerator network here, the Recruiting/HR folks and consultants.

There is no typical day-that is what I love about it.

What would you say has been your most challenging duty, and how did you accomplish it?

Probably the most challenging duty I have had in my career was doing the entire business plan for a refinery in Hawaii. It meant being tied to a computer and pouring through numbers day in and day out. I did not enjoy it, but it was a useful experience. I accomplished it by plodding through it day by day. I did realize that my strengths are not found in isolation-I believe I am a leader, thus, an introverted analytical position is the absolute wrong place for a person like myself.

What advice would you give on how to properly manage a team? Do team-building exercises work?

Teambuilding works somewhat. Essentially, people need to understand the strategy, and then they have to be coached on how to succeed in their role in the overall blueprint. Clear communication is essential.

Education Information and Advice

Tell us about your education. Do you feel that Pennsylvania State University and Carnegie Mellon University properly prepared you? Why?

I received my BS from Penn State, which I view as a liability because it is a low level state school and is not viewed highly by the top consulting companies. I received my Masters of Public Administration from Carnegie Mellon – CMU is fabulous, as it is now a center of eCommerce knowledge and highly respected by McKinsey.

Not all of you degrees are directly related to management. What kinds of undergraduate or graduate majors can lead to a career in consulting or management? At what point should students start to narrow their focus?

I lucked out…I had the industry knowledge and the management skills for my role, which is not a client-facing role. For the most part, I think students who want client-facing consultant roles need to hone their problem-solving skills, do extremely well in analytics, and also take major roles in extracurricular activities. The bar for McKinsey is incredibly high. Focus early on is key.

So, is that to say, any major will do as long as these skills you mentioned are well-developed through business experience?

As McKinsey has a variety of practices spanning most all disciplines, most majors (except arts and philosophy) probably have direct application. However, it is business knowledge (I suggest gained through an MBA) that is critical. We do hire people with deep knowledge with business experience, but our young consultants mainly have top drawer problem-solving and little or no actual business experience.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing their school?

Look who recruits there. Big names count. McKinsey likes to interview at Harvard, Insead, Wharton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the five most respected and prestigious business schools/departments that really make a difference for graduating students?

The ones I mentioned above:

  • Harvard Business School
  • European Institute of Business Administration (ISEAD)
  • Wharton School of Business
  • Stanford Business School
  • University of Oxford, Saïd Business School
  • University of Cambridge, The Judge Institute of Management Studies

What should business, or management students try to get out of their education?

A sound foundation of business and analytics opens up many career possibilities, but also a business network that can be tapped for future employment.

Job Information and Advice

What kinds of jobs are available for students graduating with a degree in management?

“Management” is quite a vague term. A business degree I understand… I don’t think any graduate can go immediately to management, as it takes understanding the fundamentals of the business you are in plus an ability to lead and coach people to become a manager.

If a school does not offer a management degree, what would be the next best major for a student to focus on in order to get a job in management?

I think an MBA is still one of the best degrees possible.

What is the average salary for graduating students in the US who are starting out in consulting? What are people at the top of this profession paid?

Entry consultants are paid about $130,000 per year. Top Directors can make$2-5 million per year.

What are the top five employers to work for if you are a graduating management student?

I am going to answer this for consulting (management is way too broad). The top are:

  • McKinsey & Company
  • Anderson Consulting
  • Booz-Allen & Hamilton
  • Bain & Company
  • A.D. Little
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers

What are the best ways to find a job in consulting? How can graduating students gain an advantage?

The Firms recruit at the Universities. Students need to sign up for any presentation or recruiting event offered and make the connections. Alternatively, they can send CVs through the website.

How available are internships in this field?

In McKinsey, not at all. We have a junior level called Business Analysts – these tend to be top of the class pre-MBAs. If they are good, we pay for their MBA and have them come back to work at the Firm.

How is the job market now for the consulting industry? What do you think the job market will be in 5 years?

McKinsey hires as many consultants as it can get-the problem is that their standards are so high, the pool to hire from tends to be somewhat limited. I think consulting overall is still going strong.

Industry Trends

How has the popularity of e-commerce affected your profession?

I gravitated toward it, as I see it at the epicenter of commerce. I changed my focus from oil and gas to eCommerce because of the future I believe would be associated with the Internet.

What are some of the trends that you see in the management world, which could help students plan for the future?

In terms of management, I think there will always be a need for strategically minded people, leaders. Gone are the days of “middle management”-just overseeing people and transactions. The Internet has allowed sufficient disintermediation. A manager has to bring distinctive value now.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the consulting or management fields?

The consulting world, I believe, is far less volatile than the industries it serves! Having worked in academia, industry, and consulting, I have enjoyed the most personal freedom and intellectual stimulation at McKinsey.