Why McKinsey, BCG, & Bain Lead Consulting Excellence

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Last Updated on February 9, 2024

In the competitive world of management consulting, three names stand out as the epitome of excellence and prestige: McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain & Company. These firms, collectively known as the “Big Three,” have set the gold standard for strategic consulting, advising the world’s leading corporations, governments, and institutions on their most critical challenges and opportunities.

Their reputation for delivering transformative solutions, combined with unparalleled industry insight and a deep bench of talent, places them at the pinnacle of the consulting world. This article delves into the reasons behind the unparalleled prestige of McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, exploring the unique attributes that distinguish these firms from their competitors and cement their status as top-tier consulting powerhouses.

A Decade-Old Debate

In exploring the elite landscape of global consulting, many professionals and students find themselves asking, “Why McKinsey is the top consulting firm” and how it stands in comparison to its formidable peers, particularly in the “BCG vs. Bain consulting” debate? These questions delve into the heart of what makes these firms the coveted destinations for ambitious minds seeking to impact the world’s leading corporations and institutions.

This discussion not only sheds light on McKinsey’s unparalleled approach to solving complex business challenges but also highlights the distinctive strategies that set BCG and Bain apart in their quest for consulting excellence. By understanding the nuanced differences and unique strengths of each firm, from their culture and values to their client engagement models and impact on global business practices, readers can gain a comprehensive view of what propels these firms to the pinnacle of management consulting.

Let’s first discuss each firm individually before diving deeper into their common and shared success factors.

McKinsey & Company


McKinsey & Company is a partnership and is widely acknowledged as the most prestigious consulting firm. It was founded in 1926 by James O. McKinsey, however, underwent a significant transition through the leadership of Marvin Bower, who established the principles of the McKinsey for which it is known today. 

McKinsey is hired by the world’s leading organization, be it in the public, private, or NGO sector on all matters and functions of business. All of its work is done with a strong commitment to confidentiality.

McKinsey consultants have an obligation to dissent, even from junior levels onwards whenever they feel that something is not right. This is only one part of the three-part code of conduct that puts client interests ahead of those of the firm, giving superior service and maintaining the highest ethical standards.

A big difference in McKinsey compared to other firms is the ‘one-firm’ partnership model. The firm operates as a single, global entity with a very strong shared culture and norms.  This allows for both bringing the best of the firm to clients as well as truly global staffing for its consultants. The degree of international mobility is the highest among its peers (with the obvious downside of a less sustainable lifestyle).

Compared to the other two strategy consulting firms, McKinsey has the biggest expenditure on research through their internal knowledge-developing efforts as well as their external arm, the McKinsey Global Institute.

McKinsey also invests significantly in maintaining its alumni network. The firm has also developed the biggest number of Fortune 500 leadership executives, with whom it still has close ties. McKinsey regularly organized knowledge and networking events with alumni and current consultants alike.

Currently, McKinsey employs close to 35.000 people and is rapidly expanding both organically as well as through the acquisition of high-profile niche specialists in technology, analytics, design, and many more areas. The role of traditional consulting is definitely changing.

McKinsey has a very favorable leave policy. Consultants can take up to 3 months of extra unpaid vacation per year. In many offices, consultants can take an educational leave to continue their studies with a Ph.D., or MBA, engage in social work, or take on a secondment.

If you want to read more about the daily life of a McKinsey consultant and global salary levels, check out our report and interview:

Experience Report: McKinsey Consultant in Germany

McKinsey & Company Hierarchy and Salaries

Common feedback about McKinsey from its employees:

+ “Large impact at a very early stage of your career.”

+ “Incredibly smart colleagues and interesting type of work.”

+ “Huge learning curve, best reputation, and very good compensation”

– “Long hours and weekly travel.”

– “Very high pace and constant pressure.”

– “Clients and leadership are very demanding.”

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Boston Consulting Group (BCG)

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BCG was founded in 1963 by Bruce D. Henderson, it quickly grew to one of the most influential management consulting firms, constantly expanding its functional and industry expertise. Contrary to McKinsey, it was initially focused on external processes that affect a business. As a consequence, BCG became the pioneer of business strategy, developing several famous business concepts such as the BCG 2×2 matrix. Over time, Henderson turned BCG into a partnership.

Similar to McKinsey, BCG launched a think tank, the Strategy Institute, to investigate and provide solutions for challenges of global magnitude. Today, BCG has ~20,000 employees in close to 100 offices around the world.

BCG tackles the lifestyle question with a program called PTO, which stands for predictability, teaming, and open communication. The program should allow its consultants to get a better sense of control, and accomplishment as well as reduce their working hours.

If you want to read more about the daily life of a BCG consultant and global salary levels, check out our reports and interview:

Experience Report: BCG Consultant in Germany

BCG Hierarchy and Salaries

Common feedback about BCG from its employees:

+ “Good career trajectory at higher levels.”

+ “Interesting mix of people who are committed to doing great work.”

+ “Good compensation and learning opportunities.”

– “The lifestyle is very unpredictable.”

– “Slower promotion opportunities at the junior level.”

– “Long hours.”

Bain & Company

the image shows the logo of bain and company

Bain & Company was founded in 1973 by Bill Bain, a partner who left BCG to start his own consulting firm. While they have a slightly smaller client base compared to McKinsey or BCG, their clients are of similar caliber. Bain excels in the advisory of private equity funds, where its client base represents 75 percent of global equity capital. In fact, Bain was the first of the top three to consult PE funds and supported more than half of the largest buyout deals over the last couple of years.

Compared to the other two, Bain is very big on measuring success. The firm claims that 85 percent of its performance improvement projects make the client 10x the consulting fees. Merger integrations generate 20 percent higher excess returns when Bain is involved. The firm also claims that its clients’ stock prices are 4x the ones of non-clients, which is not surprising when considering that the top-performing organizations usually hire the most prestigious consulting firms. Everyone else would not be able to afford them. Keep that in mind when interpreting such numbers.

Additionally, Bain uses a prediction system for every project to measure and manage risk as well as realize more consistent results. This is tied to the concept of success-based fees. Other firms such as McKinsey are slowly adopting a similar fee-at-risk fee structure on selected engagements.

Among peers, Bain is considered the best for work-life balance. Consultants travel less due to a more local staffing model.

If you want to read more about the daily life of a Bain consultant and global salary levels in the firm, check out our interviews and reports:

Experience Report: Bain Consultant in China

Bain & Company Hierarchy and Salaries

Common feedback about Bain from its employees:

+ “Engaging and challenging work.”

+ “Good leadership engagement and nice people.”

+ “High impact and growth.”

– “Slow organization when it comes to change.”

– “Tough lifestyle”

– “Lose a good amount of competitive proposals to McK and BCG.”

What Separates MBB from Other Consulting Firms

In the competitive field of management consulting, McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain & Company stand out for their reputation and influence. These firms, often referred to as the “Big Three,” set themselves apart from the multitude of consulting companies around the world. But what exactly elevates them above the rest?

Elite Clientele and High-Stakes Mandates

The “Big Three” cater to an elite clientele, comprising over 80% of the world’s major corporations, governments, and influential NGOs. Unlike their counterparts, they focus on serving the needs of large-scale entities, engaging in mandates directly from the C-suite. This exclusivity ensures that their projects are not just assignments but pivotal missions shaping the future of global business and governance.

Impactful Projects with Global Repercussions

The work undertaken by McKinsey, BCG, and Bain has a profound impact, directly influencing the strategic direction of the world’s leading corporations. Their involvement typically signals a commitment to resolving significant challenges, with solutions that reverberate across industries and markets.

A Rigorous Selection for the Brightest Minds

The recruitment process at these firms is notoriously rigorous, filtering for candidates who not only excel academically from top universities but also demonstrate exceptional leadership qualities. Forbes Magazine’s acknowledgment of McKinsey’s interview process as the most challenging underscores the intensity and high standards expected of applicants. All three employ challenging aptitude tests like the Solve Game, the Online Case, or the Sova Test and all three have candidates go through case interviews and fit interviews.

Unwavering Commitment to Excellence and Trust

What truly distinguishes these firms is their unwavering commitment to excellence and the trust they foster with clients. This is achieved through a relentless pursuit of quality and adherence to professional values across all levels of service, ensuring consistent delivery across geographies, industries, and functions.

Premium Pricing for Unmatched Expertise

Reflecting their premium status, the “Big Three” command higher fees, justified by the unparalleled expertise and results they deliver. This financial model not only speaks to the value they provide but also supports their capability to attract and retain the best talent in the industry.

Alumni Networks and Career Pathways

The alumni of McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are highly sought after, often transitioning to influential roles in the world’s largest and most powerful organizations. This network of former consultants underscores the transformative impact of their tenure at these firms, both on personal career trajectories and the broader business landscape.

Investment in Knowledge and People

A significant yearly investment in research and employee development sets these firms apart. From fostering industry and functional expertise to providing exhaustive training programs, they ensure their consultants are equipped to lead and innovate. Publications like the McKinsey Quarterly further cement their position as thought leaders, driving the management agenda worldwide.

In summary, the distinction of McKinsey, BCG, and Bain as top-tier consulting firms is not merely a function of their client roster or the complexity of their projects. It is their holistic approach—combining rigorous talent selection, a steadfast commitment to quality, significant investment in knowledge and people, and a deep-rooted impact on global business practices—that places them at the forefront of management consulting, items that are often difficult for other firms to replicate at scale.

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3 Responses

  1. […] that was completed in 1979. The company offers management consulting services and is part of the big three management consultant firms alongside McKinsey and Bane. BCG operates over 90 offices around the world. As of 2019, it had […]

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