Are McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group really all that different? Having worked at both BCG and McKinsey, many people have asked me: What is different about BCG and McKinsey?

The simplest answer is not a ton. These are both incredible firms that are truly high-performance workplaces. Here are some similarities:

  • Incredibly curious and passionate people
  • Interesting work, but also grueling work sometimes
  • People-first, supportive cultures
  • Inspirational leaders
  • Strong global teams
  • Great perks
  • Fast, high-performance pace
  • Strong problem-solving approach

Now for the differences. If I were to compare the two companies in short:

McKinsey is obsessed with both distinctive thinking and building an incredible firm. I have not seen another organization come close to successfully thinking about building a long-lasting, strong and high-performance culture.

Boston Consulting Group is highly focused on delivering distinctive answers and partnering with clients to enable clients to deliver high performance. Office culture can vary from region to region, but the firm is closely aligned with a people-first approach to building a great company.

BCG versus McKinsey: Both Winners

Comparing BCG to McKinsey is like comparing Michael Jordan and Lebron James.  Both are incredible but are very different. 

If you look at ratings from current and former employees on Glassdoor, both McKinsey and BCG are consistently in the top 50 companies. In 2019, they both were in the top 20:

McKinsey and BCG are both top 20 places to work in the 2019 best places to work rankings

As background, I worked in the knowledge network for both firms, as an Analyst in the Operations Practice at McKinsey and as a Knowledge Expert in the Transformation practice at BCG. I worked for both firms in the United States.

Here are some of the things I noticed in my time at both firms:

Boston Consulting Group is smaller and feels smaller

When I worked at BCG, they were passing 10,000 employees and were grappling with a new phase in their scale. When I was at McKinsey, they had already passed 10,000 employees and didn’t seem to be going through as big a shift as BCG. This is probably due to the global perspective that each firm takes, which I’ll discuss below.

As of 2019, McKinsey says they have 27,000 employees and BCG, almost 20,000.  BCG and McKinsey have both been growing at rapid rates exceeding 10% a year, which is impressive given the average growth rates of most developed economies are around 2-3% per year.

Comparison of McKinsey and BCG in 2019

McKinsey’s “One Firm” Versus BCG’s Strong Local Office Culture

This could still be because of the size differences of the firms. But BCG felt more like a collection of global offices with unique cultures (but still very strong alignment). As compared to McKinsey, which truly feels like one firm. While this is still true at BCG, it is not culturally reinforced as often.  The phrase “one firm” is inscribed in McKinsey’s values and is a common phrase repeated over and over again at the firm. When working in Europe for BCG I found the local office a bit different in terms of operations and culture than I saw in Boston.

comparison of Mckinsey and BCG cultures

While not a major difference, I would say McKinsey is more centralized and BCG is more localized in terms of power, control and culture.

McKinsey is obsessed with Values

Every year there is an entire day called “Values Day” in which every office takes a day off to reflect on the firm’s values. I would bet money that any McKinsey employee who has been there more than three months can tell you a story or two about the values of McKinsey and recite a few of them by memory. BCG is definitely a values-based organization, but people cannot explicitly recall the values and not as much attention is paid to them.

BCG has a more analytical focus, McKinsey is more focused on structure and story

At both firms, I felt that that the quality of the work was incredibly high.  However, there is a dramatic difference in what people focus on in the day to day work.

At McKinsey, the firm is very oriented towards doing CEO level work and all its work is focused on structured problem solving and persuasive communication.  There are multiple concepts that are used and reinforced over and over again such as the pyramid principle, a McKinsey structured problem-solving approach, and MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive)

This is not to say that BCG teams do not create persuasive and compelling arguments.  They do, but there is less focus on the overall story and using any sort of structured approach for bringing together a narrative.  There are different styles that teams may use.  I found that BCG teams tended to be more rigorous around data and numbers whereas a McKinsey team may use the 80/20 approach to identify what is truly persuasive and focus more in-depth on that information.

McKinsey is obsessive about targeting CEO level

While there, every document is analyzed as if it were going to be pitched to the CEO. One of McKinsey’s values is “Follow the top-management approach.”  At McKinsey, I remember reviewing a document that was going to be internally facing for our practice and a manager asking me how I would change it if I were communicating to a CEO. The perspective at McKinsey forces you to think about running a complex organization from the top no matter the topic.

BCG targets the top levels of the organization, but it does not permeate every single project the way it did at McKinsey.

BCG talks a lot about the partnership with the client at all levels

While McKinsey is more explicit about being focused on the top of the organization, BCG is focused explicitly focused on positioning itself and acting as a partner with the client at all levels of the organization.  At BCG the Partner is seen as someone that partners with client executives and might make decisions together.  At McKinsey, the Partners seemed more like an “advisor” giving strong and objective advice, but letting the client make the final call.  This is a subtle difference, but one that plays out in a very different language of how clients and the work are described.

McKinsey Loves Elite Achievements

When I was at McKinsey I searched “Harvard” in the internal database and found that 1,000 of its 10,000 employees had some affiliation to the University.  As someone that was one of two alums from my “non-target” school, this was a bit shocking.  Internally, credentials are much more important at McKinsey and there was often talk of people’s accomplishments (“he climbed Everest”, “he’s a Rhodes Scholar”, “former Surgeon”).

At BCG, people still had these kinds of accomplishments, but they were talked about much less.

McKinsey’s built a robust “Knowledge Network” much earlier than BCG

This is due to McKinsey getting a head start on building its own internal knowledge function several years before BCG.  While Mckinsey really started investing in this during the early 2000’s, BCG did not start building out its knowledge network until after 2010.  When I was recruited to BCG, I was hired in part because of my experience as part of McKinsey’s knowledge network. Given this, some of the challenges BCG had in terms of integrating knowledge researchers into the culture and operating rhythm of the company had already been tackled at McKinsey.

McKinsey’s Knowledge Network Is More Physically Separate But Had A Higher Bar Of Performance

While there was a strong physical and subjective separation between consultants and researchers at McKinsey, the training and high bar of performance was very similar.  The research teams went through the same training as the consulting teams and often participated in many of the practice meetings, training, and events as the consulting teams within their practice.

Researchers at BCG would often be more tightly linked to local offices (sharing space with consultants), as opposed to McKinsey’s research hub model.  The training, however, was often different and seemed to have a lower bar of performance than the consulting team.  When I left in 2015, BCG was working to improve the level of the training as well as moving more towards knowledge hubs globally instead of locating researchers in local offices.

While there were exceptions, the culture within the Knowledge Network at McKinsey had much higher expectations around the quality of work than at BCG and the people I worked with were much more impressive.

BCG is more inclusive of alumni

Since I was a member of the knowledge network of both firms, there is a dramatic difference in the alumni experience.  With BCG, I am treated as an alum and for McKinsey, I am treated as an almost-sort-of-but-not-really alum.  While I was able to get access during a special trial to the alumni site of McKinsey that was opening it up to the knowledge network, they have had little to no embrace of non-consultants.

This has been pretty disappointing and quite the disconnect from the “one firm” culture I felt while part of the firm.  It’s sad to have had such a positive experience at a place that doesn’t really consider you an alum.  A recent article from MD Kevin Sneader alludes to the fact that they might be more inclusive, but time will tell.

At BCG I am a no-questions-asked full-fledged alum.  While I’ve never been invited to a non-research McKinsey alumni event, I have been invited to several as a BCG alum.  I’ve come to appreciate BCG even more since leaving, especially their spirit of “partnership” which plays out in inclusion and the type of mindset that is increasingly important in today’s business world.

McKinsey Is Seen as #1 – At Both Firms

While at McKinsey, no one EVER talked about BCG. It was purely focused on being an incredible firm. Whereas at BCG, the talk about what McKinsey was doing was very prevalent. It was a healthy paranoia, but there was a clear sense that we were #2.

Overheard at McKinsey and BCG

Neither firm ever talked about Bain & Company very much.

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