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March 25, 2018

What is the difference between McKinsey, BCG and Bain?

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McKinsey & Company, The Boston Consulting Group, and Bain and Company - known collectively as MBB or the “big three” - are the most prestigious and influential strategy consultancies. Ask anyone trying to break into consulting and you likely won’t find a single individual whose top preference isn’t one of these three firms.

There is no denying these companies are similar – the kind of clients they work with, the kind of work they do and the salaries and working lives of their employees are all much closer to one another than to other firms.

However, this is not to say that these companies are identical. As similar as they are at their cores, there are some important differences between the MBB firms you should be aware of.

Disclaimer: Location, Location, Location

The MBB firms are global and strive to maintain worldwide standards and an integrated approach. However, as with any business, they remain the sum of their individual staff. This being the case, different offices will show some variation in terms of culture, focus, etc.. For instance, whilst the  London office of BCG might be very elitist and do a lot of public sector work, the Lagos office might have a more relaxed culture and focus heavily on oil & gas. As such, you should take all the generalizations we're about to make with a pinch of salt. We'll effectively be discussing averages across the firms. There will never be any substitute for speaking to someone from the specific office you are interested in.

Differences in the selection process for McKinsey, BGC and Bain

First things first - for you the applicant, the most immediately important differences between MBB firms are in the selection processes which you will have to make it through to land a job with them.

The most notable difference is in the type of case interviews conducted: McKinsey uses a candidate-led approach, while BCG and Bain opt for an interviewer-led cases.

Like the MBB firms themselves, though, the case interviews the three companies employ are really a great deal more similar than they are different. This is important to realise early on as, whilst you should be sure to practice some cases of the particular kind you will be facing (there are plenty in our free case bank), your case interview prep should be pretty much identical, regardless of which firm you are applying to.

One of the most common mistakes candidates make is to focus on how to crack or beat a certain interview type. Preparing for consulting interviews is not about gaming the system, but rather acquiring the real consulting skills these interviews are designed to test for.

The idea that you can learn special “tricks” to let you exclusively beat one kind of case interview is frankly nonsense. Any success by such means will be by luck rather than judgement. The hard truth is that the only way to reliably solve cases is to invest the time and effort to learn the same fundamental skills real consultants use on the projects your cases are based on. Thisis what we teach in our case interview course and this is why our users have an 80% success rate.

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There are other important differences between the firms’ selection processes. McKinsey is famous for its Problem Solving Test- also known as the PST. This is a screening test used to assess candidates’ problem solving skills, cutting down the applicant pool before interview. McKinsey also have two to three rounds of fit interviews, which are typically more intense than the other two firms. Otherwise, Bain is famous for their pressure test to check on the integrity of the interviewee, whilst BCG notoriously conducts their interviews using curve ball questions to assess how quickly candidate
s can respond to provide reasonable solutions.

Specialty and Industries

Now, we’ve dealt with the difference between the firms as far as selection goes, but what about after you make it through and actually get a job offer? How do the companies differ in term of their actual work?

The MBB firms work with the largest companies and organizations of the world, from British Airways to The Vatican. All three solve challenging issues across divergent sectors, geographies and corporate units. However, the firms do show some differentiation:

  • McKinsey has historically been very strong in strategy, organization and operation work, and has the larger footprint in the Education, Public Sector and Telco space. That said, by virtue of its larger size, McKinsey usually has the deeper roster of client relationships across most industries. 
  • BCG sells itself as focusing on corporate development, innovation and business growth.
  • Bain has the deepest expertise in working with Private Equity funds and other principal investors.

Size & Geographic Focus

McKinsey leads in terms of overall size and reach, with over 9,000 consultants globally. This is followed by BCG, with7,000 consultants, and then Bain, with 4,000 consultants. By virtue of being considerably bigger than BCG or Bain, McKinsey boasts the most diverse footprint and larger office network. This disparity is most strongly felt in emerging markets, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, where McKinsey has built a much stronger local presence than BCG or Bain. Across Europe and North America, the differences are less pronounced, but it's wise to check the office sizes for your desired cities before making decisions (for instance, BCG is particularly strong in some German cities).

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Organization and Company Culture

In terms of how they organise their operations and in what they demand from their staff, MBB firms are generally very similar. Certainly, whichever you join, your working life will be broadly identical - with long hours and intensive travel guaranteed. All three firms also utilize the one project per consultant staffing model to ensure that each consultant is focused on only one project at a time.

However, the MBBs’ internal structures and cultures do show some distinct features. The organization in McKinsey is a bit more traditional, formal and hierarchal, while BCG is flatter and more collaborative. Bain, on the other hand, is effectively a mix of both McKinsey and BCG, and the employee culture is a bit more "fratty". Of course, the three firms draw from the top schools worldwide - particularly top 10 business schools for their MBA hires - so there is a substantial overlap in the profiles of their hires.

In terms of travel, McKinsey has the most "global" approach. This means it's more likely for consultants from that firm to be staffed in projects based in offices other than their own. This is good if you enjoy the jet set lifestyle and accumulating airmiles - but sub-optimal if you want the stability of staying close to your home country. Regardless of firm, though, most consultants travel for four days a week, so it is simply a part of the job you will have to get used to.

Salaries, Career and Opportunities 

Perhaps this is the part you really wanted know – who pays most? Certainly, you will work very very hard whichever consulting firm you start with and it’s only natural to want to properly remunerated for your efforts.

In practice, though, when controlling for experience and level of seniority, there is very little difference between salaries from top consulting firms, with all being highly competitive.

Now, another proviso around geography. There will not be significant differences in pay between the firms within a single city. Equivalent employees at McKinsey, Bain and BCG in London, for instance, will all earn pretty well the same amount. However, across offices of the same firm, the difference can be very material. For example,you can expect to pocket more than double the money if you're based in Dubai than if you are with the same firm’s office in Madrid.

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Exit Opportunities

In contrast to salaries, there are some meaningful differences in exit opportunities between the MBB firms. As the strength of particular firms’ networks vary across different industries, so your chances of breaking into those industries will vary as a result. Bain has the deepest network with PE and hedge funds, while McKinsey has broader connections with most traditional industries and public sector organizations. It's wise to do a quick LinkedIn check for alumni of each firm in industries you're interested in, based in the city you aim to work in.

Keen to get that offer?

Of course, getting one MBB offer is difficult enough and you will have to work very very hard to get to the point where you are choosing between jobs with these firms in real life rather than in theory. Especially if you haven’t prepared properly, worrying about whether you would prefer to work for McKinsey, Bain or BCG before you have your first interview is going to be much like worrying about getting too rich because you bought a lottery ticket – it probably won’t be an issue…

To get to the level where these are choices you can realistically expect to face, you need to be the best of the best. Crucially, you’ll need to walk into interview knowing you can cope with whatever the interviewer can throw at you. The good news is that MyConsultingCoach has you covered here! –Working with a team of MBB consultants, we've developed a comprehensive set of resources, giving you everything you need to successfully navigate the recruiting process  from start to end – all in one place!

Our case interview method

Our MCC Academy case interview course was developed with a single goal in mind – to help candidates succeed by teaching them to think, act and communicate like a world-class strategy consultant. After completing our course, you’ll be equipped not only to ace the interview process, but also to hit the ground running on day one of the job.

The idea getting hired by acquiring the fundamental skills associated with the job might seem obvious. However, our approach is actually in stark contrast to the old-fashioned case interview systems you have probably have run into already.

These other methods simply have you memorise perhaps a dozen or so basic frameworks. This short list of generic recipes are supposed to allow you to answer any case question the interviewer comes up with. This is in spite of the fact that that cases will be based on real engagements where major firms were forced to call in consultants as they couldn’t solve the problem in-house… In short, frameworks are unlikely to give you the correct answers.

Our unique Problem Driven Structure approach allows you to tackle each case on its own merits, developing a bespoke solution to capture all of the problem’s unique complexities – just like a real consultant! We equip you with everything you need to know, starting from the ground up. Specifically, we can support you in:

  1. Understanding business fundamentals: Get your mini-MBA with our Marketing, Strategy and Economics, Accounting & Finance modules
  2. Learning how to crack a case:  Identify the problem, build a bespoke problem driven structure, lead the analysis and how to provide recommendations.
  3. Accelerating your approach with our building blocks: Master profitability analysis, competitive dynamics, pricing

Our coaching sessions

Coaching from a real MBB consultant can help even the best candidates pinpoint their weak points and turn them into strengths. As well as helping you master case studies, a coach will give you a new self-awareness of your profile and how best to position yourself for an MBB offer. Just as importantly, they will give you the confidence to know for sure you can succeed against such a formidable challenge!

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