Archive for March, 2011

Lesson from McKinsey: setup for success

Despite the sleepless nights, 48-hour workdays and endless travel, I’m glad to have had my time at McKinsey & Company. There are a lot of reasons, but let’s focus on their pre-interview process.

As for the interviews themselves, they can be tough.

For example:

I walk into 555 California in San Francisco, go to the reception desk to get my visitor badge, and head up to the 47th floor.

In the elevator, I look down at my polished Kenneth Cole shoes, straighten my $250 tie (which I couldn’t have afforded, but was donated by a supporter), and I pat down my recently laundered suit to get off any rebellious lint.

Meanwhile, frameworks, calculations, and the populations of many of the world’s countries (Indonesia = 220m, Japan = 125m, UK = 60m…) are racing through my brain.

I’m nervous.

I get to the 47th floor, walk to the receptionist and introduce myself. She instructs me to sit, and I wait as calming music plays out of an old school boom box in the corner.

The partner comes out, introduces himself and we step into his corner office overlooking the San Francisco Bay. After getting over the view, I sit in a chair across the desk from him and he decides to calm my nerves by saying “So, Terrence, I hear you’re smart. Let’s see if it’s true.”


McKinsey Partner: Apple comes out with the iPod. It’s a success. Microsoft decides to do something similar.

He pauses and about 10 seconds pass….

Me: And…

McKinsey Partner: That’s it. Walk me through it.

I ask him a clarifying question and he responds with “I’m giving you nothing,” so I guess was on my own.

Within it about 5 minutes I’d sketched up what Microsoft should be thinking about, what types of facilities they might likely need and where they should be located (making it all up, of course). Then I was doing Net Present Value calculations in my head.

All stuff I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do today.

As I think back, I wonder how I got to that point. Before I started the interview process, I couldn’t have done most of this, and as I just said, I likely couldn’t do it now.

Truth is, my brain functioned this way during the process because McKinsey set it up that way. McKinsey doesn’t use the interview as a mechanism to trick or confuse (though it happens). Rather, they want to know how far your brain can stretch, and whether you’re effectively able to structure problem sets.

Before your first interview, they make sure that you have everything that you’d need to go through the entire process and get the offer.

Every candidate is given a “buddy” who explains the interview process and provides case coaching. You meet with your buddy 2 or 3 times before your first interview, and in-between rounds. Even on their website, McKinsey provides sample cases and interview tips.

Their goal is to ensure that the only reason that you don’t make it through is because you shouldn’t make it through. You have coaching, you have tips, you have insights, you have the freedom to ask all the right questions. Now it’s up to you.

This is a rare approach, but one we should all keep in mind.

For organizations:

  • When an initiative is launched, is it set up for success, or destined failure?
  • When an employee is promoted, do they have all the tools and resources to succeed?
  • When criticizing management, have you provided them with enough information to make effective decisions?

Outside of business, I see friends enter relationships where they’re not giving their boy/girlfriend any remote chance of success (baggage!).

For something to succeed, it has to be given more than just a chance. Take this lesson from McKinsey: we can all learn from it.

March 26, 2011 at 2:05 pm Leave a comment

Shout out to NFTE

In previous posts I’ve mentioned my involvement in NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship), an organization that focuses on youth entrepreneurship education around the world.

It’s an amazing experience and I’m privileged to be involved with this program. The strength of NFTE has really hit home over the past few weeks as I’ve been helping to lead a digital classroom initiative in two Bay Area public schools.

For the first time, two NFTE schools in this area are connecting and sharing ideas using technology. And I’d say that it’s the first time these students are getting a glimpse of what entrepreneurship is really all about.

NFTE developed an incredible curriculum that guides students through the ins and outs of entrepreneurship – marketing, finance, networking, etc. A very powerful and unique tool. However, it’s in school, so at the end of the day it’s still academic.

Students are encouraged to form sole proprietorships because the program wants to ensure that individuals are learning the basics of everything and receiving individual grades. Therefore, much of the focus is on opportunity recognition and getting the idea right, rather than teamwork and execution.

Makes sense, but that’s not entrepreneurship.

The base of successful entrepreneurship is getting the right people involved, and being able to execute with those people. It’s not about ideas, it’s about people and sharing. Sole proprietorships have almost no business in this type of learning environment, and I think that this is beginning to come through with the students. It’s incredible and inspiring to see.

Every other Wednesday we bring in guest speakers, via webcam, to provide insight into a different part of the startup world. One week is funding, one week is pitching to investors, etc. Students see that this “entrepreneurship stuff” that they’re learning about is real. People actually do this!

On the Wednesdays between speakers we focus on connecting the students. Here they see that their peers are hitting the same hurdles that they are, and they can work together to solve issues.

They’re learning that collaboration is key, and they’re seeing how technology can be used to enable and enhance collaboration without geographical boundaries. The world may be flat, but it’s nearly impossible to see that in high school.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, and the way that I’ve been inspired by the NFTE students is like nothing that I’ve felt before. I’m glad that I can help them, and I’m grateful for the help and inspiration that they’re giving to me.

March 25, 2011 at 10:20 am Leave a comment

Are the Smartest Guys in the Room?

Photo courtesy of SFO CP on Flickr Some rights reserved

A couple months ago I was scanning LinkedIn Answers and came a across a classic question:

What do you think of meetings? Mostly useful or mostly useless?

My response included: “make sure only necessary attendees are present.” Good thought, and mostly right. However, “necessary attendees” is too ambiguous. It’s true that meetings must be pruned down to the bare minimum number of attendees, but who are they?

The brief non-answer is necessary attendees = anyone responsible for the intended decision. Fair enough, but it’s really hard to get that list right. Most people just choose the obvious.

The common recipe goes something like this: throw a bunch of VPs in a room, sprinkle in a Senior Director or two and you’ve got the right mix, right? Probably not.

Those in the room must include those with decision-making authority, as well as those that have a firm grasp on the basis for that decision.

This became vividly clear during my recent marathon extravaganza of Fox’s 24. 24’s CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) nails the decision making process in meetings.

24’s rules of decision making:

  1. Make it 100% clear who owns the decision – the Director of CTU
  2. All decisions are to be completely data driven (time-permitting)
  3. Everyone is clear on their role in the meeting
  4. No throwing around of superfluous opinions (there’s no time for it – the world’s on the brink of destruction!).
  5. Those closest to the data are always in the room

I get that sometimes decisions must be made without the inclusion of all those close to the data. However, this must be the exception, not the rule.

We’ve all seen decisions made without the person (or people) with the most knowledge of that topic even aware that the decision was happening. This does not end well. It mostly leads to a loss of credibility for, and a general distrust of, management. <—to be avoided

This is not to be confused with "Why Wasn't I Consulted" (Paul Ford recently wrote a great post on WWIC). It’s more like HWIC (How Wasn’t I Consulted). Or, more simply stated, WTF.

In the end, the decision maker always has the last say. However, without the input of those that understand the content, how much is that decision really worth? Invite only the necessary, but make sure all the necessary are there. In short, before your next meeting ask yourself, “Are the Smartest Guys in the Room?”.

March 15, 2011 at 1:51 am 1 comment

Empower, don’t encourage

Photo courtesy of Kapungo on Flickr Some rights reserved

To risk, or not to risk, that is the question.

Empowerment is a buzz word thrown around a lot. I’ve seen it used too lightly in most circumstances, generally being defined as allowing someone to make their own decision. Technically, that may be an appropriate definition of the word, but it’s a weak one.

Empowering someone means setting them up to succeed. It does not mean simply telling them “you can do anything you set your mind to.” It’s about support, knowledge, resources, tools, guidance, confidence, and faith. All of the above.

Encouragement is not empowerment, and confusing these notions is careless and dangerous.

I’m all about empowering youth. And I’m all about entrepreneurship among youth. I’m not all about young people taking misguided risks. If you’re in the business of helping young entrepreneurs, then make sure they know the potential costs, as well as benefits, of what they’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love risk…I thrive on it. Throwing myself to the wolves is what makes me happy. So I’m not trying to tell young entrepreneurs not to accept, and even embrace, risk. Rather, I’m sending a message to those supporting these young entrepreneurs to ensure that they are truly empowering them to succeed.

Successful entrepreneurship is as much about knowledge and learning as it is about hard work and persistence. Learn from mistakes, and learn from failure, when they happen (when…not if).

Ideas will fail. Ideas come and go. People are what matters. And my goal is to empower people so that they can succeed with any idea, not just the one that their current business plan is built around.

I work with young entrepreneurs everyday, whether at work, or in my side gig at NFTE. The most frequent mistake that I see is emphasis on the idea. How do I market this idea?…How do I project revenue for this idea…How do convince investors that my idea is worthwhile?

All valid questions and, of course, I guide them through this learning process. However, I add the most value by convincing young entrepreneurs that I’m not here to empower their ideas, I’m here to empower them as people. And part of that empowerment is educating them about the costs of both success and failure, and making sure that they’re ready for each.

Not all time is equal. This is why many will encourage people to start companies early in their careers. I support this, and it’s why I choose to call Silicon Valley home. However, as Vivek Wadhwa points out, those over 40 “are far more likely to be the founder of a successful technology company than most of you understand.”

The obvious reason is that they’ve led both successful and failed operations in the past. They’ve got that experience to build on. This is true, but it’s learning from that experience, and not just the experience itself, that makes the difference.

It takes active thought to learn from what’s happening around you, and the most successful young entrepreneurs will be those that can absorb, learn and adapt the fastest.

So the next time you’re in a position to empower, don’t just give them the keys and a push out the door. Tell them what to do when the car breaks down, and make sure they know what alternate routes they can take. Empower, don’t encourage. It’ll go a long way.

March 12, 2011 at 6:38 pm Leave a comment

About Me

I'm a San Francisco-based strategic thinker who believes that life is only as great as the people you choose to interact with. I love people, and studying business has given me greater insight into how to most effectively develop myself, and my personal relationships. I look forward to discussing people and business with those that find this area as fascinating as I do.

Recent Posts