3) Applications, 1980s - 2009: the 30-year error
The first time I applied to McKinsey was when I graduated from M.I.T. I did not even get an interview. However a year later with another company I was running a consulting team of six Harvard MBAs in Zurich, Switzerland. I decided to use this position as a springboard to join McKinsey. This time I not only got interviews, but also an offer out of the office in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Unfortunately the offer was not as an engagement leader, but as an entering (junior) consultant – and for only 80% of what I was earning in Zurich. My boss somehow heard that I had received an offer from McKinsey. He asked me about it. I answered, truthfully, that the offer had really surprised me, was entirely different from what I had expected. By that I meant “much less.” He assumed I must mean “much more.” After all, we were talking about the premier firm in consulting.
He made a counter-offer. He would double my salary and add significant perks and benefits for me to be the country manager for Iran to help grow the business there. Did I want to stand on the sidelines, be a spectator, as a consultant? Or did I want to be a real player, and make it happen as a line manager? Truth be told, I would have much preferred being a consultant, especially a prestigious McKinsey one. The creative challenge of coming up with new ideas, new approaches appealed to me much more than slogging away in the trenches to “make things happen.”
However the offer as country manager, with the benefits, came to well over double what McKinsey was offering me. And it was a large step up in responsibility, instead of a small step down. So off I went to Iran, as described in the previous loss, (2) Cultural, Iran. Besides, with the arrogance of youth, I was confident I could always re-apply to McKinsey later, to be welcomed with open arms.
After the Shah fell, I left Iran. I continued with another line management position, this time as an area manager responsible for business in 26 countries for Olin Corp., a Fortune 500 chemical multinational. Consulting still attracted me, however. On a business trip to New York City, an old college roommate invited me to an event at the Wharton Club, of which he was then President. I reluctantly agreed to attend. I far preferred spending an evening at home (or in a nice hotel room) reading than going to a party of friends, let alone of strangers.
However, once there, I bumped into a couple of McKinsey partners. They were really sharp, with a sophisticated global viewpoint and a wonderful sense of biting, sarcastic humor. I thoroughly enjoyed my long conversation with them. The very next day – the power of networking – I am interviewing with the head of McKinsey´s New York office.
However the interest on both sides is lukewarm. He wants entry-level people for New York. I am interested in entering the firm as an “experienced professional” in Europe. Furthermore, I thought a relative newcomer, Bain & Company, had a better business model. At the time, Bain was not quite as prestigious, or as hard to join, as McKinsey, but almost.
Enthusiastic about Bain, I spent weeks preparing an application. My masterpiece included a “white paper” about its then new offices in Germany, opened in 1982. The “white paper” was written in German. Naturally in the course of writing it, I had had the German proofed and polished by several native speakers. My German proofreaders, one of them with a PhD in Management Science, considered the final application package “awesome.”
Certainly it was far better than anything I had prepared for McKinsey in Düsseldorf, when I had received an offer there. I mailed away my work, satisfied of a job well done, to a German partner at Bain. His prompt response was unforgettable:
“Dear Mr. Hamilton,
Bain and Company has very high employment standards. We do not consider people with academic or professional backgrounds like yours.
Effortlessly, just by attending one event at the Wharton Club in New York City, I had secured an interview with a decision maker at McKinsey in New York – the power of networking! However my orientation is not towards social skills, but rather towards academic ones, which I view as my strength. So, seriously interested in Bain, naturally I went with my strength. I prepared a strong academic application, and submitted it blind – as a cold call.
What I should have done was make contact with Wharton, M.I.T., and Harvard graduates who worked at Bain. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, one of them would have appreciated my enthusiasm about Bain´s business model. That conversation would have led to others, and to guidance on what to submit, and to whom, to get an interview.
Lesson not learned
Working behind the scenes, anonymously exercising influence, (der graue Eminenz) is certainly an acceptable approach for an executive coach with a significant career behind him. However it is a very poor career enhancement strategy for someone trying to climb the corporate ladder. Jeffrey Gitomer has it right in his Little Black Book of Connections, cf. Eminnent Referrals.
Another repetition of this “lesson not learned, lack of networking” error was in 2009. I decided I would enjoy teaching some management courses again. As a former faculty leader (2004, of the Munich campus of European University) I was confident getting an offer would be straightforward. Therefore I spent my time in carefully considering where I wanted to teach. I decided that a relatively new MBA program (in English and German) at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich was the most appealing.
I briefly called its administration November 2008 – too early to apply for courses beginning September, 2009 (nine monrha lead time). I called February 2009 (six months lead time) – still too early to apply. When, then? Well, there could indeed be a need for an additional adjunct faculty member; that was true. I should try again in July. July, so late? Where they sure? Yes, no applications before July were wanted.
July I submitted a polished written application. Some weeks later I am called in for an interview by the Dean. An instructor had canceled. I was being interviewed as a back-up if the first replacement choice for some reason became unavailable. But, he continued, why on earth had I applied so late, in July, months after course planning? Surely as a former faculty leader I must know that teaching schedules were prepared far in advance? It was a shame I had gotten in touch with them so late, presumably as an afterthought. They certainly could have used me for a number of courses, but now the new staffing was complete and had been filled in depth, good for several years.
Obviously criticizing his administration for putting me off with bad information would have been counter-productive. The error was mine. I had relied – yet again – on “strong paper” and ignored the much more important step of making friendly contact with existing professors there: my fault, and my loss.
Most of us are aware of our strengths and weaknesses in theory, but in practice we still blunder on in “sub-optimal” ways. Jay Abraham is a marketing guru in the U.S. who allegedly charges $5,000 an hour for consulting. The quote below is from his most recent book, The Sticking Point Solution, 9 Ways to Move Your Business From Stagnation to Stunning Growth in Tough Economic Times, Vanguard Press, 2009, p. 104:
Anything that isn’t relevant, that you’re not competent in,
or that you’re not completely passionate about
should be delegated to someone else.
If networking, socializing – and selling (your ideas, yourself, or products/services) – are not what you are competent in, passionate about, seek to improve. A lack of these skills is “life-threatening” for your career – or your business. As you are improving, seek a mentor. If you are an entrepreneur, delegate the networking and sales, the lifeblood of your business, to people who love just that – and make sure they are properly, generously, rewarded.