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Case Study: From Associate to CEO

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Dominic Barton is certainly an all star in the corporate ranks. McKinsey partners are known for advising Fortune 500 CEOs and as McKinsey’s CEO, Barton is no exception. He led the firm by expanding in Asia and guided it through the worst crisis in its 88 year history. But how did he climb up the ladder and get to be a corporate superstar? What can we learn from his journey for our own career paths?

Push yourself

Barton is a voracious reader and loves to learn. Like many high performers, he set himself apart early on by being just one of six students in his high school of 200 to go to college. After joining McKinsey, he was passed up for partner twice. Consulting firms have an “up or out” policy where you either get promoted or you will eventually leave the firm (either you get fired or you resign when you understand you won’t get promoted). Not reaching partner twice is essentially a sign that you should leave, but Barton wouldn’t leave because McKinsey was all that he knew and he liked the daily problem solving challenges. He decided to set his bar higher than McKinsey’s expectations for partner. And the next time he was up for promotion, he made partner!

Some time after he became a partner, he felt his career plateaued. Like other high performers, he looked for ways to climb up the ladder and decided to take a position in Korea which resulted in him leading one of the firm’s most promising divisions, given how quickly Asian economies were growing and their need for management consultants.

Patiently wait for opportunities

Most young professionals believe their rise to the top will be fast. After all, once you complete a project successfully, why shouldn’t you get promoted right away. But things take much longer in real life.

It took Barton 23 years to becoming McKinsey’s Global Managing Director. That’s actually pretty short compared to a lot of other CEOs and he was helped by the mandatory age restriction (60 years old) McKinsey places on managing directors. You could expect your path to the C-suite to take longer.

Before he was anywhere close to the C-suite, he worked a lot of unglamour projects. His thinking, like many young consultants, was that he would be sitting in a room with CEOs and making big management decisions. Instead, his first project was to find the optimal number of pieces of chicken to put in a KFC basket. (The answer is four in case you ever get asked that in an interview!) Just like him, you’ll have to go through a few unglamorous projects, and you should complete them with a good attitude. Proving yourself with good work on boring projects is how you get better projects later on in your career anyway. Be patient!

Your career path isn’t predefined

Barton never intended to stay at McKinsey forever. He got a masters from Oxford and figured he’d get a little business experience before going to academia permanently. Well, he ended up liking the problem solving process and working on many different projects so he stuck around for a while. He even stuck around when he didn’t make partner twice. When the opportunity to move to Korea came up he wasn’t sure what to do. Former McKinsey consultant David Klein says: “He needed not just a comfort with the unknown, but to be OK with not having all the answers before acting. That is, he couldn’t quite put his finger on why he had to go, but that didn’t stop him from going. Finally, he needed not just an acceptance of potential failure, but a certain faith that things would work out, even if Korea didn’t. That is, he was OK with the possibility of things not ultimately panning out at McKinsey – he had accepted the potential negative consequences of his decision.” He certainly didn’t know where his career was going, just like you.

Career paths are never predefined. The best we can all do is to take things one step at a time and make the best decision in the moment. Also, get used to the possibility of failure. Many things will fail over your career, but everyone will only remember the successes. Just take things one step at a time and keep your options open when new opportunities arise.

Get some good luck

I’m not going to lie to you. It takes some luck to become a CEO. Yes you need to be good at your job, but you also need to be in the right place at the right time. Someone too old who could only be CEO for two years before retiring probably isn’t getting the job. If you are an internal candidate, your predecessor needed to do a good job. If they didn’t, the Board will hire someone from outside the organization to shake things up. And if your predecessor did a good job and the Board will hire someone internally, you should have run one of the key business units.

Those were all true for Barton. By taking the position in Korea and helping Korean banks through the Asian financial crisis, he set himself up to lead one of McKinsey’s most important divisions in the future. With Asian economies growing, someone who could expand McKinsey in Asia would be a great choice for Global Managing Director.

He also knew how to play politics right. At McKinsey, politicking for the top post isn’t going to get you the job: “Lobbying for the managing director’s post is counterproductive at McKinsey, which disdains self-promotion over the collective. Elections at the firm have been compared to papal conclaves: low-key, deeply secretive, but intensely political. By the fall of 2008, it was down to Barton and Michael Patsalos-Fox, a longtime contender who runs the New York office. Barton had charisma, intelligence (he’s an Oxford-educated Rhodes scholar) and global bona fides (he was raised in Africa and British Columbia, and has lived on four continents). But what put him over the top was his experience running the Asian operations.”

He had all the skills and was in the right place at the right time. If you want to reach the C-suite, you’ll need to do your job well, be patient, learn to play the political game well, and get some luck too.