Why McKinsey became a problem for Pete Buttigieg

Now that Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has received permission from McKinsey & Co. to disclose details of his work at the big consulting firm, it seems likely that the “questions” (veiled accusations) about his job there will die down. Buttigieg, now the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., worked at McKinsey from 2007 to…

Why McKinsey became a problem for Pete Buttigieg

Now that Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg has received permission from McKinsey & Co. to disclose details of his work at the big consulting firm, it seems likely that the “questions” (veiled accusations) about his job there will die down. Buttigieg, now the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., worked at McKinsey from 2007 to 2010, when he was in his late 20s; he would have been a very junior consultant doing grunt work for the people who had actual authority over the company’s recommendations to clients. It only sounded interesting because the nondisclosure agreement he signed upon leaving conferred an entirely undeserved air of mystery.

Why did this become such a problem for Buttigieg that he had to beg McKinsey to break its normally ironclad customer confidentiality? Look no further than a question tweeted last week by Graeme Wood of the Atlantic: “why, when you are a Rhodes Scholar and all-around privileged smartypants who can do ANYTHING, would you opt to work as a management consultant?”

You can sort of understand why people go into investment banking, that other default choice of America’s educational elite: If you can hang on for a few years, you will be paid large multiples of any conceivable social value you create. But consultants aren’t nearly as lavishly overpaid. Why do so many people with elite degrees make their living telling other people how to run their businesses, rather than, say, just cutting out the middleman and running a business?

As it happens, I have an answer for that. In 2001, on the verge of completing an MBA, I accepted a job with a boutique strategy consulting firm. I never actually started work — the dot-com bubble collapsed, and they started laying off instead of bringing on new hires — but I remember well why I wanted to work there so badly.

For one thing, the hiring process soothingly replicates the process of admission to an elite school. You slide down a well-greased chute from informational mixers to on-campus interviews, through second- and third-round interviews, and smoothly to a job offer, sometimes more than one. After a brief period of agonizing, you choose a firm — generally the highest-status destination, for they have a known hierarchy, as colleges do. And just like that, your future is settled for the next few years, without the arduous labor of figuring out what industry you’d like to work in and finding a company that will hire you.

Nor are you going to be asked to run a call center, as a friend who went into a management training program was. You’ll spend most of your time around other people just like you, doing pleasant and at least moderately interesting work. After a few years of that, you can pick a likely industry and slip into a middle-management position on the strength of your résumé, without the tedium of learning a business from the ground up.

In other words, these jobs are custom-designed for maximal appeal to the upper-middlebrow conformists who excel at navigating elite education. I suspect that Buttigieg’s consulting experience stirred up so much antagonism because he and McKinsey were standing in for that whole class of people whose lives revolve not around any particular competency but simply around “being smart” — with “smart” defined as having leaped a certain number of educational hurdles in the prescribed manner, after which you earn the right to tell everyone else their business.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat identifies this as a weariness with experts who don’t deliver, but I think this slightly misses the mark. For one thing, for all the flak they take, consultants actually do often deliver for their clients, just not necessarily what critics want them to.

I think of a consultant friend who assisted with a complex analysis for a commodity producer. The analysis calculated that the client’s best return on investment came from lobbying the government — which was probably correct but arguably immoral.

More prosaically, there are the consultants so often called in when something is badly wrong. Often management understands how to fix the problem but needs an “objective” outside voice to say aloud what everyone already kinda knows but would stir fierce internal resistance, such as “shut down this badly underutilized facility.”

The problem isn’t necessarily that these self-appointed experts are wrong; often they’re right about something we’d rather not hear. And one can understand why the more rooted and less high-flying resent hearing it from the very folks who refuse to make the binding commitments to one place or one business that might leave them vulnerable to exactly the kind of economic disruption they’re paid to deliver.

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