When McKinsey comes

By Stanley Bing

(Fortune Magazine) -- It begins as a rumor of impending destruction, the way a Category 5 hurricane first appears on a radar screen as a smudge off the west coast of Africa. "I was in a meeting with Chuck," somebody will say, eyes lowered to hide his expression, "and he said something about McKinsey." He looks up then, and in his face you see the terror, the fear of the unknown, the sense of injury at the cruelty of existence.

There is silence. Then somebody will say, "Aw, he brings that up every year at this time." The period being autumn, when the budget is laid out, like a patient etherized upon a table.

"Yeah," says the bearer of bad tidings. "But this time I think he's serious."

It's a visit to the doctor when he tells you news you don't want to hear ... a phone call at three in the morning when one of the cars is missing from the driveway... a news bulletin while you're on vacation that your island is in the way of a tsunami. All is quiet. But everything is about to change. McKinsey is on the way.

I wish I could tell you not to worry. But now is not the time for wishful thinking. Now is the time for preparation. You must understand what lies ahead. It may not help you survive, but it may let you meet whatever the consultants have in store with dignity.

There are five steps that you will have to negotiate, with your peers and by yourself, for in the shadow of McKinsey we are all essentially alone. Here is what you can expect.

First, shock. How could this be? Only last month we read in the internal newsletter that Chuck was so proud of us! Now this!

Next, denial. In this stage, people congregate in cafeterias, elevators, lobbies, making fun of McKinsey, laughing bravely. McKinsey will come, McKinsey will go, and life will be much as it was before, with maybe a consultant or two left behind like visitors from another planet to seed the human population with the next alien generation. What's the big deal? This lasts until the first blue pinstripe holds the first mandatory self-criticism session.

Then, anger. Why us? What did we do to deserve this? What sense does it make to pay millions in consulting fees and exit packages with the lifeblood of the weak and teeny? We have to fight! Hide behind the credenzas and pick them off as they come swaggering down the hall!

Next comes bargaining, as we look about for ways to escape the inevitable. Some of us will eat nothing but organic vegetables, only to be struck down by E. coli. Others will take the low road and make friends with their new McKinsey pals, ratting out colleagues, working within the new, irrational system to establish some modicum of personal control. But they, too, will fail to find safety. Proximity to the void does not minimize its peril. The machine grinding away in its depths will feed.

Inexorably, then, we make the descent into depression. How sad it is! Our friends will be gone. Our department structure will be screwed around with until it makes no sense at all. Power rightly accrued will be dispersed. Things of value will be strangled of funding and dumped. Huge lumps of dough will be spent on retreats while the thirsty masses will lose the free soda in the little fridge down the hall. A curtain of gloom descends. Darkness and decay and McKinsey hold dominion over all.

And yet the sun does rise, even after the worst disaster. Green shoots push through the devastation, reaching for light. Itty-bitty woodland creatures poke their wet noses out from their burrows, feeling the fresh air on their rumpled fur. We look about and begin to find new ways of hunting, gathering, competing on the new terrain. See that hillock? It's smaller than it was, but it still provides a good vantage point. And that canyon where we used to trap our enemies? It's painted differently, and the hiding places are gone, but we can make new ones. And so we test the reconfigured environment, and in that testing lies a new feeling that we can make it.

And finally, for those who are lucky, comes acceptance. Joy is once again possible, and friendship, and passionate engagement in the organization, in spite of its periodic foolishness. After all, this is our home. It is where we spend the many hours that fate and our own hard work carve out for us. True, forces may come at any moment to take it away from us, but while we are here there is so much to be thankful for. We can go on, as businesspeople do, with energy and grit, until the true nature of existence is once again laid bare in all its brutality, irrationality, and ugliness.

Until then, God bless us, the living. And let's get back to 3 work.

STANLEY BING's new book, 100 Bullshit Jobs... And How to Get Them (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.  Top of page