Abstract: Masters of the Universe After All? Consulting Alumni in Business and Politics

Matthias Kipping


This paper represents a first attempt to gauge the importance of the network of former consultants occupying leading positions both in corporations and government/public administration. This is particularly the case of McKinsey alumni, whose influence has been discussed on an irregular basis in the business press, often in conjunction with scandals like Enron, where CEO Jeff Skilling had previously been a director at McKinsey (and is now serving a prison sentence). But this important phenomenon has yet to receive the appropriate attention in the academic literature. If mentioned at all, it is usually in relationship to the way consultants "market" their services—that is, McKinsey alumni are seen as a way build strong relationships with potential clients. There is also an interesting case in which McKinsey hired a high-ranked civil servant as a director in the United Kingdom to gain access to government clients. I start with a brief historical sketch of the development of McKinsey as a management consulting firm and the introduction of its "up-or-out" policy, which is behind the creation of the alumni network. Drawing on publicly available sources, I will then present an overview of the actual extent of this phenomenon, providing some estimates for the overall number of former McKinsey consultants now in business and public roles, and a list of some of those in high-profile positions both in the past and the present, focusing in particular on alumni who have crossed the business-government divide. Next, I will discuss possible interpretations of this phenomenon, drawing on extant frameworks in the relevant literature. These include the possibility that working for a consulting firm is mainly a career accelerator, a kind of MBA squared; the consulting alumni network as a kind of hidden interlocking directorate, spanning countries and sectors as well as the business-government divide and also reaching into academia; or the former consultants as "cosmocrats": a culturally—and ideologically—homogenous transnational elite.