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Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 1

02/13/05 v.3
[6,000 words]
Excerpt from "House of Lies: How
Management Consultants Steal Your
Watch and Then Tell You the Time,"
by Martin Kihn (Warner Books,
pub. date: March 21, 2005)

"Confessions of a Top-Tier Management Consultant"

WorldCom, Enron, have in common? all hired
top-tier management consultants . . . hidden
secret profession, whose mystery turns out to
be for a very good reason they dont want
anyone to really know what theyre up
to . . . well, Marty Kihn was an Emmynominated head writer for Pop-Up Video when
he quit to get an MBA at Columbia and join a
top-tier New York media consulting practice .
. . all the while taking notes and how can
show the world, for the first time . . .
welcome to the . . .What do Enron, WorldCom,
Martha Stewart Omnimedia and the Pentagon
have in common? That's right they've all
spent millions of dollars on blue-chip
management consultants. For decades, this
lucrative and powerful profession has been
shrouded in mystery until Martin Kihn,
Emmy-nominated writer-turned-Columbia MBA,
joined a top-tier consulting firm in New
York. What follows is his terrifying, true
story . . . as he welcomes you behind the
walls of the . . ."
[The Rainmaker]

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 2

It is said no one with any better ideas becomes a top-tier

management consultant. This is certainly true I took a
personality inventory in the 10th grade and it turned out the
career I am most suited for is maitred.
So it is always with some envy that I follow the maitred
at an exceedingly lavish restaurant such as this one, in the
Roosevelt Hotel on 54th Street near Madison Avenue to my
table, where the Rainmaker sits in a small booth at the back
with a nervous-looking man with a tan. The tanned man stands
immediately to make way for me. Its all a bit confusing.
Marty, says the Rainmaker, not rising. This is he
says his name, which I forget before hes finished he used
to work at the firm. Hes an older man, so he must be toiling
as they say in industry.
There is some shuffling as we negotiate one another and
the greetings and the seats. Then I settle and the perfect
service descends with an exquisite cup of coffee. The
Rainmakers coffee cup is turned upside down.
None for you sir?
I dont drink coffee.
He is famous for this: not drinking coffee.
So, he turns to me, Ive been hearing good things about
you. Very good. How are you liking it here? Oh, excuse me a

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 3

second Tina!
Suddenly, hes gone from the booth and projectiled across
the precious ivory Aubusson to a slightly frightened-looking
woman who just walked in. They shake hands, briefly, nodding
is it Tina Brown? No

. . .

no, after all, it isnt Tina, but

a larger woman with a remarkably similar honker.

I just had to say hello, squeaks the Rainmaker, rising
onto the balls of his feet.
Of course, of course
Have you seen any of Tommy lately? Tommy
. . .

. . .


Motolla? Middelhoff? Both are extremely impressive


. . .

Faux-Tina shakes her head and glances over at me.

What about Heinz? Klaus? I had Klaus in last week for a
oh my gosh, Im keeping you from your breakfast? You want to
join us Im with no, okay, okay
say hello

. . . . I just wanted to

. . .

See you soon, Monty and shes ushered off.

I think: Monty?! Is this a trick of acoustics, a simple
misinformation of the sound waves? The Rainmakers first name
is not Monty. Not even close. Hmmmm

. . .

Now, the Rainmaker is an important man and, like most

important men in New York City, quite short. I tower over him,

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 4

and I have never been accused of gigantism. He has absolutely

no hair and always smiles and dresses impeccably in Thomas Pink
shirts and the subtlest of suspenders but, because of a certain
schlubbiness of build, despite fastidious behaviors and careful
courtesy, he always seems a bit rumpled-up. He looks up at
people but he doesnt look up rather, in
. . .

. . .



like the worlds most oily general practitioner with the

vaguest sense of space. Squinting and smiling, underwhelming at

first, and at second and third, but so so powerful I cannot
imagine how he got that way but there it is: a powerful,
powerful man with a heart like a cufflink.
I liked him immediately. He is the reason that I joined
the firm. It is he who is King of All Media (Consulting
Division), the best-known media consultant in the world and
perhaps not perhaps, definitely the best-known consultant
consultant in the City of New York, an orbit where some 12,000
men and women work for firms that do nothing but render
opinions on other peoples problems. Clients are billed some $3
billion annually for this privilege, and the Economist reported
recently that the job most coveted by graduating MBAs remains
top-tier management consultant.
Yet it is, in subtle ways, an industry in ruins. Its best
days lie in the past, like a memory of love five years in the

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 5

past, to be precise. For if the New York economy felt a chill

during the ill winds of 2001-2002, fancy consulting all but
died. The number of professionals at the ten or so top strategy
firms McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group and Bain being the
best-known tripled during the 1990s to about 60,000. Two
years later, that number stood at 49,000. Revenue at the top
ten firms, after more than doubling in the 1990s, fell some 40%
over the first two years of this decade, to about $10 billion,
while average starting salaries for new MBAs nosedived from
$120,000 to $95,000. At one point it was estimated 25-30% of
the industry was out of work, with an average 12 months to find
a new job (usually not in consulting). It wasnt until 2004
that the top firms grew again, tepidly, and started to hire.
Revenues remain well below 2000 levels. So movers at the big
firms may still suck in million-dollar paydays, but theyre
having to work harder and harder for that second million
Which brings us to the Rainmaker, who is behind a pillar
now, up and down on the balls of his feet, buttonholing a man
who looks vaguely but not entirely like Harvey Weinstein at
Miramax. No consultant is truly well-known, of course, but the
Rainmaker tries

. . .

oh, how he tries. He was profiled in

the New York Times Sunday Magazine, of all places; he was

profiled in GQ. He is quoted all the time, and he wrote a book.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 6

There I was, working as an Emmy-nominated head writer for the

MTV Networks Pop-Up Video program, so sick

of pop-culture I

couldnt sleep at night, and I picked up a book on the New

Releases table at the sixteenth street bookstore and read the
inside jacket copy. It cited the Rainmakers impressive
personal achievements and his team of more than two hundred
consultants based in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris,
Tokyo, Munich, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo.
Oh, to be one of those two hundred consultants! To travel
to Shanghai and scurry around doing well, I wasn't quite sure
what, exactly, but how hard could it be? Its media and
entertainment, industries erected upon a pile of steaming crap.
It seemed a dream come true, but did I have what it took, did I
really have it?
It turned out, yes, I did.
It also turned out, no, the jacket copy wasnt purely
accurate. In the old British parlance, it was a tissue of lies.
Seventy-five words how many of them the truth? When I first
read them, I was not in a position to know. Now, I am. Lets
take a look:
consultant(a) to the worlds top media
and entertainment companies(b). He is
the founder(c) and senior partner of
the Media and Entertainment Group(d)
at [my top-tier firm], the largest

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 7

practice for these industries(e). His
team(f) of more than two hundred
consultants(g) are based in New York,
Los Angeles(h), London, Paris, Tokyo,
Munich, Shanghai(i) and Sao Paulo(j). A
graduate of Yale University(k), [he]
lives in Greenwich, Connecticut(l).
(a)Probably true.
(b)Of the 6 major global media companies, he had
been hired by only 2.
(c)There was another co-founder, who was forced
out of the firm under mysterious circumstances
a few years earlier.
(d)There was no Media and Entertainment Group
the division was called Communications, Media &
Technology (CMT), and Communications (mostly
telecom clients) was the largest category.
(e)Probably true, if you dont count financial
consultants (e.g., Allen & Co.) and technology
consultants (e.g., Accenture).
(f)The other 25 global partners in the division
would not appreciate his taking ownership of
their entire staff.
(g)The biggest whopper of the bunch at its peak,
in late 1999, his retinue comprised 3 partners,
3 principals, 4 senior associates, about 8
associates and 3 consultants. Since senior
associates, associates and consultants were in
the general pool and werent allowed to align
to any one practice, he shouldnt really count
them. And since all partners are part-owners of
the firm, they dont work for anyone, no matter
how short. So instead of 200, there were more
like 3 people working directly for him.
(h)A tiny office dedicated almost entirely to
aerospace, not media.
(i)Office closed before the book came out.
(j)He didnt speak Spanish, much less Portuguese;
this office, a strong one, was self-directed.
(k)Unlike every one of his colleagues, the
Rainmaker does not have an MBA; his degree from
Yale is a BA.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 8

I start work on a Monday in May, 2001, five days after

graduating from Columbia Business School, and three days after
my firm chose to fire every single non-MBA on the staff.
Happily credentialed, I go out to lunch with another
associate, an affable guy who got out of Columbia a year ahead
of me. Hes purely media; media consulting is what I want to
do, its why I joined this firm and only ever wanted to work
here. Thanks mainly to the Rainmaker, they have the biggest
media consulting practice in the city. I go to lunch at a
Japanese restaurant around the corner from my offices near
Grand Central Station, talking small. Hes a small fellow, this
Associate. His words are small, his feet, his hands they
punch the air in front of him like hes making room for
something and hes bald, much balder than you remember, and
Everyone is heavier. Its a heavier firm.
Weve been waiting for this we knew it was going to
happen for a couple months now.
Yeah they didnt tell us anything they, in most
contexts, is a shortened form of the partners but we could

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 9

kind of tell.
How so?
The deferrals, for one. Theyd been deferring new
associates since January. The take-it-or-leave-it offer was
wait six months to start work or take $15,000 and say goodbye.
The economy is so dismal now, the alternatives so untasty and
infrequent, most everyone opted for time off. I wasnt deferred
because I was the only person who volunteered to start in May,
without even a week off after school. At first school friends
called me crazy, and then they stopped.
What did they say about that?
Nothing much. They had a conference call, we all called
in. They said there were some capacity issues in North America
and they were going to make a few adjustments so they didnt
have to do anything later on anything like layoffs, they
They said that?
Im not sure they said it exactly, but it was definitely
presented like a one-time thing. That was that
Then they fired all the consultants. (At my firm,
consultant is the term used to describe an associate without
an MBA.)
They fired all the consultants maybe twenty people. Not

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 10

so much.
Is that it then? Now its over?
The waiter comes up and I let my friend order for me. I am
very bad at Japanese food. Like all recent b-school graduates I
revere the Japanese to the point almost of idiocy but I are
very, very bad at Japanese food. Whatever he orders, I am not
going to like. Silence follows the waiters retreat, and that
whiff of mild elation, the one that comes with knowing youve
got something coming to you.
He says, I dont think so.
I dont think its over.
I heard some things. Theres a ton of people on the beach
[i.e., not billing work]. Louis told me theyre something like
eighty percent below plan for the year. Louis was a senior
partner an Ohioan with an oddly Southern cadence and a pals-y
manner he was known as the friendly partner. There was only
Eighty percent?
Or something. Its really bad.
Maybe the plans too high.
My friend lowers his voice, glances around. I would get

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 11

used to this combination, repeated like a dance: glance around,

lean forward, lower voice, eyes forward. The number I heard
was twenty more, he says. By June.
June is like its like two weeks away.
Thats right.
Who told you this?
Cant say.
I leave it there with two follow-ups: (1) My friend
chose wisely, even the little orange gooey thing with the skin
on it was quite tasty; (2) He is right about the month, wrong
about the number it is 24.
He is one of them.
A few weeks later, I find out why strangely enough, at
the very same sushi restaurant, where I repair to have lunch
with my mentor. At least I think hes my mentor; the firm has
restructured so many things so many times over the past few
years, the mentorship situation is entirely clear to no one.
Since my mentor also isnt sure he is my mentor hes heard
something about four-man mentor teams somewhere, -- hes not
sure he has a mentoring lunch budget, so hes not sure he can
pay, so I necessarily make my way to someplace cheap.
I may have changed, but the restaurant has not.
I let my mentor order.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 12

Now I make a mistake. A quite conscious mistake.

I ask: You know the last time I was here?

. . .

I came with here I say the name of the little bald

fellow, the one who was axed. He was Mr. Media, and my mentor
is known as something of a Mr. Media himself. Like all the
media specialists at the firm, he knows almost nothing about
show business one cannot learn from a 10-K filing. My mentor
was seen as something of a friend to the bald man; they would
stand side by side at recruiting events (they both went to
Columbia). This was pretty funny, since my mentor is an
enormous man, someone whom people ask quite seriously if he
ever played professional football. He always says: I tried
but they dont take Jews in the NFL.

. . .

Why was he let go? I thought he was great. Indeed, that

was the rumor: he was great.
Well, its complicated

. . .

I dont understand this. There are a lot of people worse

than him.
Not anymore.
Sure there are. It seems almost like they picked people
at random.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 13

Not quite. It was pretty careful.

That guy was always working. He went to every recruiting
thing. He helped everyone who asked him. I saw those decks he
put together they looked really good to me. Whats the
criterion theyre using?
He was behind on some development needs.
Which ones?
You have to compare him to his peers it was a ranking
order and on some of the dimensions he was coming up a little
How short? Which ones?
My mentor seems a bit uneasy: I have been pushing too
hard. It occurs to me he might have been in the room when the
decision was made. Associates are not allowed in any room when
any decision is made, but my mentor is a senior associate on
the verge of becoming a principal. He may have been in the
room. He may have been in the room and said something like what
he says right now, a thing that startles me and grows me up:
Look, Marty, he was the last one on the list so the
big guy was in the room after all it was really close. It
isnt easy at all to pick these people but the partners give
us a number, you know, we, we have to honor it. He speaks in a
low, slow, almost soothing voice; it starts to rise. What

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 14

happened was we had some other people on the list but they had
defenders, there was some partner or principal in the room
spoke up for them. We went alphabetically. We got to him and no
one spoke. I should have said something but I dont know. It
was hours wed been in there, I was hungry.
The food arrives. It looks disgusting.
I say: You guys were best friends.
Come on, Marty.
Are they gonna do it again? Next appraisal cycle?
I dont think so. This is one time and move on.
I realize that my mentor, who seemed so genuine and real
when I worked at the firm last summer the only Mr. Media with
these qualities has changed too. He has been vectored into
the House of Lies.

To be a management consultant is to be always on the

defensive. Clients attack your credentials What do you know
about my business? Competitors attack your experience
Theyre really just an IT implementation shop. Colleagues
attack your analyses, your logic Theres no way inventory at
the stores can be higher than inventory in the warehouses;

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 15

check your math.

But these besiegings are as nothing compared to the utter,
irredeemable, unknowing cruelty of ones parents, siblings, and
friends when they ask as they always do when they ask,
quite coolly but not without a certain challenge to their tone:
So what do you actually do?
This is a wickedly difficult question one that cannot be
answered in full, because if management consultants are skilled
at anything it is the ability to conceal the truth about their
Consultants are not hired as experts. This is a
misconception common among non-consultants: that they are hired
for their knowledge. They are usually hired to accomplish in
rapid order a discrete piece of fact-finding and analysis that
they are then required to present in clear and convincing form
to their client. There may or may not be an element of
strategic thinking in the presentation; there may or may not be
a series of recommendations. The recommendations are there, in
the end, to make the consultant feel more like a manager and
less like the hired help, but they are generally entirely
ignored. The client knows where they came from, after all.
Compounding the stress fractures among clients and their
consultants are, of course, those fees. On their face, theyre

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 16

insupportable. For instance, a new associate some 27 year-old

with a few semesters of marketing courses under her belt is
billed to the client at $225 per hour. (Of this amount, she is
paid about one-quarter, with the rest going to overhead and the
partners.) By the time our associate becomes an entry partner,
shes billing $700 per hour. By comparison, top-flight
emergency room physicians bill about $150 per hour, and worldfamous attorneys such as David Boies and Johnny Cochran charge
around $500.
How can this be? The answer lies, of course, with the
clients. Of the $20 billion-plus spent on strategy consulting
services in the US last year, most came from four sources:
telecommunications and technology, financial services, health
care, and the US government. Note the absence of, say,
retailing, packaged goods and the fine arts. Conclusion? The
sad truth is, people who hire consultants are the ones that
can afford them the ones with ample free cash flows to match
the ample fees. Consequently, companies that hire consultants
are often not the ones that need them the most, but the ones
that need them the least.
So consultants are not hired as experts, but they can
never appear to be anything less than expert-like. The critical
phoneme is like. Its an act, a charade, a delightful pas-de-

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 17

deux. But it is absolutely essential.

Sometime during my first months I learn a valuable lesson
in handling clients when I know absolutely nothing not even
their name. My job manager comes into my cubicle and says, We
have a call right now.
And I say, Okay.
And she says, Its right now.
Do you want to do it here?
Do you know what its about?
Youre telling me about it.
I dont know. Did I schedule it?
I dont know anything about it.
Who scheduled it? Wheres Ken?
Ken is the principal. He is in the air right now between
LaGuardia and LAX. He is totally unreachable and it occurs to
me that he is the person who scheduled the call.
Hes traveling, I say.
Oh shit.
Whos it with?
Some guy named Brian.
When is it?
Two minutes ago.
Do you have the number?

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 18

Yes I have the number how can we call without the

number? All I have is the number.
She is getting hysterical, which seems like an
What do we know about Brian? I ask her, in what I hope
is a calming tone.
Fuck all. Nothing. We know his name is Brian and heres
his number and were calling him.
I look at the printed out email with this information. It
is from Ken.
Can we reschedule? I ask.
We have to call him. She is dialing, stabbing at the
digits on my phone. The area code and prefix means he is in the
clients headquarters building in L.A. Who is he?
Brian here, he answers.
Your job manager has put him on speaker phone.
Hi, Brian, this is Lisa Han from [my top-tier firm], we
had a call right now.
Thats right.
Sorry were late. Im here with my colleague Marty. Is it
okay to use the speaker?
There is a silence. Unfortunately, he doesnt sound very

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 19

friendly, and he seems to be waiting for us to pick up the

Are you familiar with what were up to, Brian? I ask,
Very familiar.
Have you seen the the July 11th update?
Have it right here.
Great. Then we wont need to to walk you through that
No you wont.
This is very bad we cant ask him who he is without
sounding incompetent, and I cant really talk to him without
knowing who he is. In the back of both our minds is the
terrible feeling he is somebody very important. There are a
handful of people on the client team who have the power to snap
their fingers and make consultants vanish just like that. Is he
one of these?
It is then that Lisa, bless her, gets an idea.
We were wondering, Brian we dont want to take a lot of
your time. But weve been working various angles of the problem
trying to figure out how to put together a solution with you
guys. I mean you're the subject matter expert here. And we
wanted to basically, to get your reaction to the way this

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 20

thing is going.
My reaction?
Yeah we wanted to know what your thoughts were if you
took a step back for a second what you thought about the
overall direction were headed in and if you had any ideas
any tweaks for something different?
He waits. Maybe we have lost him

. . .

But no: Youre asking for feedback?

Uh huh. On the overall direction.
Oh, he says, much less belligerent. I can do that

Consultants Panic Buttons

(1) Flatter the client
(2) Ask for their opinion

Each profession has its jargon, of course; its a

mechanism for inclusion and, more important, exclusion. Private
languages are used by gangs, by married couples with their baby
talk and cooing, by pediatricians and bartenders and venture

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 21

Consultants are no different. No, actually, they are for

their jargon must exclude without being unapproachable. It must
function along very slender dimensions, creating a patina of
authority and internal wisdom while also seeming quite clearly
to say something to the listener, the industrialist, who has
their own language of choice.
For instance, imagine your top-tier consultant said
something like this: "When we ramped up the pod and began to
iterate on the so-whats, we architected a baseline without
boiling the ocean or reinventing the wheel. At the end of the
day net net our key takeaway was that the environmentals
in this space are target-rich, and with the right learnings we
could chunk out a deck that laid out the red light/green light
to top-line growth. We knew this gap analysis was no grand
unifying theory, but we liaised with the stakeholders and put
a chinning bar up. After a few revs, we got some reasonable
pushback that our hypotheses were sporty, and perhaps even off
the reservation."
At the end of the day, what did she really say?
Something like this: "We think you're in a troubled
industry and we might be able to help. But we showed you some
ideas, and you didn't like them."
Net net.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 22

A few weeks after my breakfast-like meeting with the

Rainmaker, I find myself working rather late in the office.
Where a month before I started there had been 250 client staff
in the New York office, there are now about 200. Were you to
annualize such a rate of shrinkage, the firm would be gone by
But it isnt gone, and I am working late. It is midnight
or quarter-after, my wife has gone to sleep, most of the other
teams have gone home. I sit in my office, all alone.
Occasionally, one of the doomed summer interns will call me
from the 19th floor; but even these calls are not unwelcome.
The summer interns are nice kids; I dont like to be all alone.
I need some decaf. The Chicago office has eliminated its
free gourmet coffee caddies from the pantries, but New York has
priorities: coffee caddies first, jobs second. So the jobs are
gone, but the caddies remain. Right now, I am glad. I stand and
genuflect in the direction of the Met Life building, then begin
the perc walk.
The halls are quiet, but not utterly so. Only on a Sunday
morning, early, is a consulting firm entirely unoccupied.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 23

Partners are never present late at night, but associates and

summers often are. In professional services, there is a wellknown inverse correlation between length of tenure and time
spent in the office.
Which is why it is so surprising to find a partner at the
coffee caddy. He pushes the little self-brewing pouch into the
slot and closes the door with a click, stepping back.
Hi there, I say.
He gasps whaaaha! and hikes back.
God. Sorry, I say.
It is the Rainmaker, of course. He looks at me, not
returning my smile.
What are you doing here? he asks.
Working. Late. How about you?
He doesnt answer. The machine sputters and spits its
last, and then he takes the warm cup in silence.
I stand there.
Later, around 2 or 2:15, when Im going back for another
cup of decaf, I see him again. Hes carrying a large box in the
direction of the elevator bank. Through the glass doors leading
to the elevator lobby, I can see another box. It sits under the
call buttons.
The next day, I get in around 8:30. At 9:17 an email is

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 24

sent firmwide from the New York offices managing partner. It

starts: As many of you are already aware, [the Rainmaker] has
resigned his position within the firm, effective immediately.
The email fails to mention the most salient point, the one that
transformed the Rainmakers abrupt departure from a major blow
into a form of ritual humiliation.
He has left to join McKinsey.
Why is this so humiliating? In a business environment with
minimal laws of decorum and scant emotional sense, there exist
two inviolable rules: (1) If an MBA did not attend Harvard
Business School, do not ask them if they applied; and (2) If a
management consultant is not working at McKinsey, do not ask
them if they interviewed there. These rules stem not from some
atypical fear for another persons feelings, of course.
Nobody cares about those. No these rules are in place for the
entirely pragmatic reason that the answers are known a priori.
My first encounter with the Machiavelli of consulting
firms was in the course of a group information session on the
second floor of Uris Hall at Columbia Business School. The
McKinsey guy was a young man, certainly younger than me.
Perhaps twenty-five. A new associate, a slick and small person
originally from South Africa. He talked about himself with such
precision I could see right away it was his favorite topic.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 25

Ive never been to Columbia before, he said. When I was

growing up, I dont think I ever heard of it. The only school
we really heard about down there was Harvard.
Where did you go to school? someone asked him.
In Cambridge.
You went to Cambridge?
No in Cambridge. Allston.
You went to Allston?
No Harvard.
Oh. Undergrad or business school?
This was a moment he loved. He paused to savor it then
inhaled just a wisp, just a sip of this glorious earth. Both
I went to Yale, I said.
I hear their business school is improving.
A few months later I attended McKinseys official
presentation to the student body. It was most memorable for a
single slide showing that the firm experienced 20% annual
growth in both revenues and professional staff throughout the
1990s. And we expect to keep this up for quite a while, said
the presenter, ominously. Whipping out my standard-issue HP19BII pocket calculator, I punched in a few numbers. And then I

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 26

got scared. It turned out the slide implied quite clearly that
McKinsey was on a path toward total world domination.
Starting at its then-current base of about 10,000
consultants, growing at 20% annually, McKinsey would employ
every single man, woman and child in America as soon as May
2060. Fifteen years later, the firm would have to look to other
planets for its clients, for every person on earth would be a
McKinseyite. I thought: I will be very old in May 2060 but it
wont really matter. Theyll have to hire me. (Turns out there
is an alternative to 20% annual growth the size of McKinseys
professional staff fell from 12,000 in 2000 to about 7,500 in
2002, the year the firms president was quoted saying, We had
no professional layoffs.)
I do not go to work for McKinsey, of course, but I do have
occasion to work with them, shortly after the Rainmaker joins
their choir. The reason, oddly enough, is September 11th.
After that tragedy, the top consulting firms are asked by
a non-profit development group called the New York City
Partnership if they wouldnt mind donating some time and
expertise to productive work the only kind they can really
contribute. Namely, research and speculation. The result is a
massive multi-firm effort to analyze in rather minute detail
the effects of the attacks on the economy of greater New York.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 27

It is also thought the firms might make suggestions for how the
city could rebuild itself more quickly. Seven major firms agree
to donate their staff and resources, and each is assigned a
particular area of the economy to examine: real estate,
insurance, financial services, health care, media and so on.
The output of the effort is to be a report presented directly
to people in a position to act, like the Deputy Mayor and
Senator Hillary Clinton.
Perhaps because of its status as top-tier consultant of
choice to the City of New York, McKinsey commands the economic
model. In any consulting engagement, the model pronounced
The Model is the nexus of power. It is an Excel workbook, or
multiple workbooks, that is erected carefully over a period of
weeks with an elaborate cross-mesh of references and formulae
so complex it is only really understood by its Maker, and often
not even by Her. The Model is a holy thing, like the Nomad in
Star Trek. It accepts your offerings and issues its cryptic
response, which is never questioned, only puzzled over.
McKinsey is the Maker, and it is never happy.
The Model is a mathematical re-creation of the New York
City economy, specifically its overall Gross City Product. The
inputs demanded from each subteam are employment numbers and
total output, or value-add. These inputs are demanded weekly,

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 28

sometimes bi-weekly, in little groups or big groups by month

and then by year, according to a complicated schedule and set
of templates McKinsey claims it disseminated early on but no
one seems to be able to find.
I talk to the McKinsey guy quite often. The conversations
go like this McKinsey: When are you going to send in your
templates? Theyre late. Me: What templates? McKinsey: Is
English your first language Im kidding, listen, do you need
help with this? Me: When do you need it by? McKinsey: I can
give you guys longer. I usually do, right? Me: When did you
give us longer? McKinsey (getting angry): Its just . . . we
prefer to work internally.
Four weeks of this makes me feel really stupid. I begin to
believe I dont deserve to work with McKinsey. I really dont
have what it takes, and this is a depressing and liberating
thought. I have found my people: the truly second-rate.
I believe this until I see the final presentation and read
the final report.
McKinseyites dress in black. They wear black suits and
crisp white shirts and thin black ties and walk together like
the men in Reservoir Dogs. They are the Men in Black. Long
after others abandoned jackets and ties, they persist. BCG,
Bain, Booz Allen Hamilton the three Bs they consider their

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 29

closest competitors all three have built b-business-casual

workplaces. But not McKinsey. They are taller, smarter, betterlooking and better-dressed.
But are they really better?
Their work is certainly simpler than my firms. Despite
being the only management consultancy with a full-time graphics
guru on staff, McKinsey churns out presentations as plain as
any on the planet. There are few words on the page, in large
fonts. There are graphs and boxes here and there with straight
lines and a minimal use of color. Clip art is vanquished.
Curved arrows and starburst patterns so beloved of cubicle
jockeys are avoided.
Other firms, much less secure, tend to put all the
complicated hard work on the page, where the client can
actually see it. Maybe this is a mistake.
A typical McKinsey slide might look something like this:

Robust analysis must f ocus on the follow ing elements of leverage:




Collect financial data on current 7 territories

Continue to identify consolidation opportunities
Assess the financial impact
Address any outstanding issues
Outline key decisions
Update timeline for what we need to do


Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 30

Whereas a typical slide produced by my firm would look

more like this:

Tourists and daytrippers play a critical role in

Manhattan retail, while other boroughs cater mainly to
local residents
NYC Borough Retail Traffic
Population (2000):
1.5 M
CAGR 1990-2000:
Avg. HH
Income: $111,000
Sales by
by Segment
Commuter ($1 .5 B)
Touris t ($1.8 B)
Daytripper ($2.8 B)
($15.9 B)

1.3 M
Avg. HH
Sales by
NYC Resident
$4.7 B

Total = $22.1 B

Population (2000):
0.4 M
CAGR 1990-2000:
Avg. HH
Sales by
NYC Resident
$2.8 B


Population (2000):
CAGR 1990-2000:

Population (2000):
2.3 M
CAGR 1990-2000:
Avg. HH
Sales by
NYC Resident

Population (2000):
2.2 M
CAGR 1990-2000:
Avg. HH
Sales by
NYC Resident
T ourist

(a) Estimate for 2000 based upon Clar itas, Inc. sales mix data by boro ugh, and BA&H customer segm entation analysis.
Source: New York Co nventi on an d Visitors Bure au (NY & Comp any); NYC Com ptrollers Office, Bureau of Asset Managem ent; US Census; BA&H analysis


Which is better? It depends on the content, of course;

McKinseys aura allows it to get away with a lot less content.
Doubtless the firm has done brilliant work for its storied
clients for United Airlines and Kmart and Enron and
DaimlerChrysler, for General Motors and the Toys R Us, and so
on. But top-tier consulting is a secret industry, conducted in
the dark, and I have not been allowed to see this brilliant
work. All I have seen is the work McKinsey does for the New
York City Partnership.
In the end, McKinsey enrages all six other firms by
entirely rewriting the final presentation the night before it
is to be delivered to ex-President Bill Clinton, among others.
Were consulting our graphics expert, they say. The final
result has almost no graphics.

Kihn / "House of Lies" - Page 31

Afterwards, my principal says: My key takeaway from this

project is were better than we think we are.
Its sad, how bad we think we are. Consulting is, in the
end, an industry staffed with the self-loathing. For instance,
one Anand Raghuraman, a leader of the AT Kearney team
participating in the project, was quoted in the New York Times
in late November: My wife is an elementary-school teacher, and
when I talk to friends I always used to say, at least one of
us does something good for society. Here, for the first time,
I could say I was actually doing something for society.
In the end, I believe the New York City Partnership
consulting coalitions findings were ignored by the City, and
not a single one of its recommendations was adopted.
By December, my firms New York office approaches half its
former size. Two of its five floors are leased back to the
buildings landlord. My office, once home to five busy media
strategy consultants, holds only me for the duration of the
NYCP job. And then I am demoted two floors, as the 24th floor
is abandoned forever.
The Rainmakers old office is gutted by the next tenant, a
bankruptcy-law firm.

The End