Marvin Bower - An Outstanding Leader

Marvin Bower - An Outstanding Leader

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McKinsey & Company has a unique culture, and it makes a huge difference in the way we perform our job.
Just briefly, our mission is: “to help leaders make distinctive, lasting and substantial improvements in performance and constantly build a great Firm that attracts, develops, excites and retain exceptional people”.
And our values are:
As professionals, we: 1) Put the client’s interest ahead of our own. We focus on making our clients successful, because our success is measured by theirs 2) Uphold absolute integrity 3) Tell the truth as we see it. We remain independent and able to disagree, regardless of the popularity of our views or their effect on our fees. 4) Operate as “One Firm.” No matter what office in what country, our consultants maintain the same standards of quality and ethics. 4) Deliver the best of our Firm to every client cost-effectively.
To attract and retain exceptional people, we: 1) Hire the best, across all fields and from all backgrounds. 2) Support our people. We provide a nurturing environment of mentorship and training 3) Commit to our people’s growth. As a Firm, we work hard to provide the greatest opportunities for our consultants to stretch themselves and grow—as both professionals and people. 4) Promote people based on performance, measured by leadership and impact.
This mission and set of values were defined by an outstanding leader (in my point of view) called Marvin Bower. It is not exaggeration of my part to say that Marvin built McKinsey the way it is today. He was a member of the Firm and its guiding influence from 1933, when he joined, through his retirement in 1995 and until his death in 2003 at the age of 99. He served as managing director from 1950 to 1967. The set of guiding values presented before and that he instituted, enabled to distinguish the Firm by how we work, rather than simply by the work we do.
1) Marvin had the courage to follow his dream –what he felt he could be the best in the world doing it
Marvin had a B.S. in economics and psychology from Brown University in 1925, a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1928 and a MBA from Harvard Business School in 1930. During the Depression, he regularly served as secretary of bondholder committees that had taken control of failing companies. These committees were usually made up of investment bankers who tried to put the financial affairs of the companies back in order.

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Marvin noticed that something was missing. The committees gave the troubled companies adequate assistance with legal and financial problems. But what about basic management issues: strategy, volume, profit outlook and organizational effectiveness? No one was considering the key issues that allowed the companies’ downfall. “No one asked why these companies had failed — or how much earning power the new bonds could support”. No one, it seemed, except Marvin. “I saw the need for a professional Firm that could give independent managing advice the way law companies gave legal advice.”
Bower turned the idea over in his head for several years, looking for a way to put his thoughts into action. Then, in 1933, on a business trip, he met James O. McKinsey. McKinsey, a former University of Chicago professor, had founded James O. McKinsey & Co. in Chicago in 1926, a Firm of accountants and engineers. McKinsey liked Marvin’s ideas about a professional management Firm and offered him a job. Marvin was torn. If he accepted McKinsey’s offer, he would lose a secure job and a bright future at the law Firm. Yet he was certain he was right about the need for true management consultants. He took McKinsey’s offer. “My colleagues in Cleveland thought I was out of my mind when I left a leading law Firm to join an unknown Firm in an unknown field,” he said, “but I was confident that I was taking advantage of a great opportunity.”
2) Marvin was not afraid to change the status quo, and set different standards for the industry
He started making changes in the way McKinsey did business almost immediately. At the time, for example, consulting Firms typically hired people with industrial management experience who were in their mid-40s. The theory was that on-the-job experience mattered more than education. Age and experience would add credibility in what was a young industry. But Marvin was prepared to go against the prevailing wisdom. He felt that these middle-age hires brought baggage with them. “I respected intelligence as much as, if not more than, practical experience,” he said. “We needed intellect in the Firm as consulting was becoming an increasingly thought-intensive process.” What he looked for in new hires, he said, was “outstanding character, intellect, responsibility, initiative and imagination.”
3) Marvin was a true values-based leader – He set the values and lived them
At Marvin's retirement, former managing director Ron Daniel said that McKinsey's impact, reach, power, and influence are directly traceable "to Marvin – to his vision, his energy, his relentless determination, and his selfless commitment to making his Firm – our Firm – the preeminent institution it has become." Warren Cannon, a consultant from 1949 to 1988, said that Bower "picked these principles, not because they were God-given, but because they were principles he really believed in. In almost every case that I know of, he was absolutely right. They were in the long-term interest of the Firm.”
Bower didn't just preach values, according to Dick Cavanagh, a former principal, now President and CEO of the Conference Board, "He practiced them. That's the most effective way of teaching. He was a teacher as well as a leader.”
Jack Crowley, a retired director, recalls the time that Bower, in a client meeting with a CEO, "bellowed out, 'The problem with this company, Mr. Little, is you.' And there was a deathly silence. It happened to be totally accurate. That was the end of our work with that client, but it didn't bother Marvin."
Individuals in the Firm who worked with Bower told stories about how he turned down opportunities to counsel prominent business leaders such as Howard Hughes, and when he refused to help the U.S. government devise a bailout plan for American Motors. If he felt it was not in a company's interest for McKinsey to serve it or that top management was not committed to change, Bower wouldn't accept the company as a client.
These attitudes had a profound impact to shape McKinsey culture. According to a former partner: "You don't have to be a business leader to know that it is a good thing when people speak directly, when they stick to their values, when they mean what they say."
4) Marvin didn’t trade Firm values for growth
During his tenure as managing director from 1950 to 1967, the annual revenue grew tenfold, from $2 million to $20 million. Despite the monumental growth, he remained focused on retaining high quality and warned against growing too big too quickly. As McKinsey grew, Marvin had ways to assure its principles were applied consistently in its offices around the U.S. and later the world. Under Marvin (and still today), McKinsey shunned merging with, acquiring or forming affiliations with other consulting Firms. “When we want to expand, we gather together a partner and a small group of experienced people who are willing to move, and we send them off to a new location. (As a result,) everyone at McKinsey follows the same principles and provides the same services, whether he or she works for us in the U.S. or abroad, and they all trust each other,” Marvin said. “Thus, even with our global reach, we are still one Firm.”
5) Marvin had a true passion for the Firm and set the example to shape its long term success
When Marvin turned 60, he sold his shares back to the Firm at book value. Selling them at their real value would have forced the Firm into debt. Marvin also knew the value of being personally invested in any venture. He ordered that no partner could accumulate more than a small percentage of the company’s shares and older partners had to start selling their shares to younger partners long before they retired. “Young people have got to get some shares,” Marvin said. “They have to gain a sense of ownership.” The precedent of selling shares back set by Bower continues today at McKinsey.

In the end, Marvin was able to create a legacy that, for sure, paid off. Today McKinsey has more than $4.0 billion in annual revenues, advises 100 of the world’s 150 biggest companies, has about 90 offices in more than 50 countries around the world. More than that, McKinsey has a strong culture and a clear set of values that we are proud to live every day.

McKinsey webpage (
New York Times, January 24, 2003
Investor’s Business Daily, November 9 and 10, 2000
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