How do you get one of the world’s most secretive business organizations to cooperate with the writing of a book that promises to air plenty of dirty laundry? Apparently, a nod from Jamie Dimon doesn’t hurt.
In a conversation with business-spin watcher Jack Flack, author Duff McDonald explains the unique challenges of writing The Firm, a full history the inner workings and impact of McKinsey & Company.
JF: McKinsey is well-known in corporate circles but less so among the general public. What interested you enough to take on a book?
DM: It was Jamie Dimon's idea, in a way. While I was working on my biography of Dimon, we talked a few times of his highly critical view of executives who can't seem to function without expensive management consultants. When he stopped speaking, he took a breath and said, "Except for McKinsey. They're different."
JF: So how do you research a book on an organization that is actually famous for its secrecy?
DM: The same way that you'd research any topic. Though one thing was different. One of the most difficult challenges on most projects is finding people to speak on-the-record while criticizing an individual or a company. But in this case, it was actually the opposite -- it was harder to find satisfied customers to talk. That's part of the whole compact of strategic and management consulting, which is that McKinsey, or any other consultant, doesn't get to publicly claim credit for a great idea. That will always accrue to the CEO.
JF: Given McKinsey's reputation for secrecy, what was your research strategy? Did you start with McKinsey itself, or avoid them as long as you could to fly under the radar?
DM: I spent some time gathering straw before I contacted them - three or four months. But you can only get so far talking to people you can be sure won't alert the subject to your work. It turned out, though, that they'd known all along. I'd told some 21-year-old on a dive boat in Barbados about it, thinking it was a safe move. His father-in-law is a partner at McKinsey. These people are everywhere.
JF: McKinsey is feared by some as today's version of the Illuminati, with tremendous but invisible influence. Did that ever concern you?
DM: Not in the slightest. Some CEOs, alumni and others are legitimately afraid of crossing them, for fear of being blackballed out of a community with long reach and influence. But what are they going to do to me? Get me fired? I don't even have a full-time job. They're smart enough too, to realize that outright or overt attempts to make my job more difficult could just as easily backfire as do as intended. More to the point, this isn't a criminal organization or even one that I was accusing of doing illegal things. People have been criticizing McKinsey since McKinsey's been in business. They're used to it.
JF: So you’re not checking under your car? And your phone calls are getting returned?
DM: There have been no repercussions. Things tend to play out that way when you give both sides a hearing. Again, what are they going to do to me?