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A Senior Partner looks back on a 30-year career

In this video, Martin Hirt discusses his journey at the Firm, taking risks, building enduring relationships, and the central role knowledge plays in our client service.

Why Martin stayed for 30 years, a celebratory dinner with Marvin Bower, and moving to Asia (Beginning of video to 3:47)

Sven Smit: Hey, my friend. This is actually kind of a ‘goodbye’ to McKinsey, but I don't think you ever really leave. The first time I met you, you probably remember – let's see whether we have the same memory.

There was a project for a client that I served for a long time that had a major business where you were hanging out at that time, which was Taiwan. They needed to improve the business, and so we created a team that both of us were on, we were both the EDs --

Martin Hirt: That's true.

Sven: . . . well, we were actually playing AP, I think. We called it SEM, then, I think.

Martin: That's right.

Sven: And you've stayed now almost 30 years.

Martin: At the Firm 30 years, and in Asia 28.

Sven: So why did you stay so long?

Martin: I never had the plan to stay long. I never had the ambition to be a Partner at first. So one of the highlights of my career, actually, was when I went to EM training. At our celebratory dinner it was announced that there was a special guest. And the person who showed up was Marvin Bower, and I got to sit at his table. And he said something very interesting: "You’ve got to take care of your clients, and the Firm will take care of you."

Sven: So that's what kept you 30 years?

Martin: I think that's what I had to do for 30 years. I think what kept me for 30 years is the people. I think working with young, inspired, incredibly talented people is such a privilege that I was always inspired by that. And it turned out over the years that also the collaboration with senior colleagues, some of the knowledge efforts, were truly inspiring.

Sven: You were quintessentially ‘mobile.’

Martin: Because I wanted it. And I think most moves I made were against the explicit counsel of people that were close to me, who were telling me I was not an "entrepreneur." I was not considered to be entrepreneurial, and moving to Asia was crazy anyway.

Sven: You joined in Germany, no?

Martin: I joined in Germany, but my first conversation with a DGL called Horst Beck went like this. He said, "Hello, welcome to the Firm, what do you want to do?" And I said, "I want to get out of Germany." And he said, "Well, wrong answer. You’ve got to prove yourself first, my son." So it took me about one and a half years, and then I moved five times before I was elected Partner.

Sven: And that was from where to where?

Martin: I moved from Germany to the United States, and I was in the L.A. Office. Then I moved back to Germany. I had a transfer approved to India that then was cancelled. Interesting story, by the way: I was about to go, but two weeks before I was supposed to move to India, my old DGL, Ingo von Morgenstern, called and said, "This project that you did when you were an Associate here in the German Office: The SEM, or AP, left, and you're the only one who knows the client well. You’ve got to stay back here in Germany and do this."

And I was a bit disappointed, but I did it because sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. And it turned out to be a very interesting experience. It was disappointing because the India thing then had gone away. So, I transferred to Malaysia, from Malaysia to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Taiwan. It turned out that, 12 years later, Ingo showed up in China and became actually a major supporter and a factor in me getting elected Senior Partner.

How Martin created his journey through the Firm (3:47 to 4:14)

Sven: How did you "build your journey" through the Firm?

Martin: The truth is that I never had a plan. I was very open to opportunities – maybe that's the benefit of not having a plan. I always followed people who I admired or who I liked to work with, and I just kept working with those people. And that, I think, is the common thread.

How the Firm has evolved (4:14 to 5:09)

Sven: The Firm has evolved a lot during your tenure. Looking back at 30 years of the Firm, how would you say the Firm has developed?

Martin: What I tell my clients is that, even in the last five years, the Firm has changed more than in the 25 years before. I think the pace of change that we experience in the Firm – in terms of innovation, in terms of collaboration, in terms of the scale of things we're pulling off – is accelerating and is incredible.

The one thing that hasn't changed for me, at all, is the emotion I have towards the Firm. I feel the same pride, I feel the same reliance in values, I feel the same spirit among Partners to actually work together for the sake of clients, and in a highly collegial way. Nothing has changed there. So my sentiment towards the Firm has actually not evolved, but I see that the Firm is doing more and more amazing things.

What it means to be a Senior Partner -- and why junior colleagues are so important (5:09 to 6:54)

Sven: And if you think about the future, do you have any advice?

Martin: When I was elected Director – that's what Senior Partners were called when I was elected – I didn't know what that meant. It was sort of – you got there, and then what does it really mean? So I made it a routine for the next year, roughly, that wherever I went I set up a meeting with some retired Director, or a really senior Director that everybody knew and admired.

And I asked them that question: "What does it mean to be a Director?" But one really stuck, and that was with Ted Hall in Silicon Valley. And he said, "Martin, it's very simple: Being a Director in the Firm means that your Partners give you the license to use the Firm's resources to do great things."

I think that would be my advice to anybody in McKinsey: To say, "Hey, do it, you can: the Firm is behind you, do great things." For more junior colleagues, there is sort of a variation to that advice. I think most junior colleges do not appreciate the power they have in the Firm.

It's not that they need the Firm. The Firm needs them. We need the most talented people. And, yeah, in the first two years you're sort of trying to figure out, "What the hell is happening here?" But as soon as you're an EM, you're in demand, you're like a very scarce resource. And that means, like I did, you can shape your own path, you can go anywhere, you can do anything: It's really, really cool. You just go to do it.

How Martin managed work/life balance (6:54 to 7:38)

Sven: How did you stay grounded and keep a good work/life balance?

Martin: I think that's actually deliberate. That doesn't happen by accident. I think “by accident” you can easily get into trouble on that side. My only rule, actually, for work-life balance was that I never work weekends. I mean, I was not uncompromising: If something had to be done, that's fine, but then I took a Monday off. But, regardless of where my clients were, regardless of where office or Firm events were, I was back for the weekend. And I think that was an anchor so that there was a very focused and clear family life.

A few career highlights, including the Gluck Award (7:38 to 9:28)

Sven: Take yourself through a few highlights of your career. What would be your top three?

Martin: Moment number one, the one that that sort of brought it all together, was when I unexpectedly, and probably undeservedly, received the Gluck Award last year, and where a number of people said very nice things about me.

[Cut to video of the event where Martin received the Gluck Award:

Pedro Rodeia: "It is a true honor, and a privilege, to share that our recognition goes to you, Martin."

Andrew Grant: "The judging panel really called out that they wanted to celebrate your thought leadership over a 30-year career in the Firm. You've been an institution-builder in and around our knowledge and capabilities that is just truly special. And, finally, you've been a real pioneer."

Bob Sternfels: "'Courageous,' 'curious,' 'collaborative,' and 'caring.' I think that compliments the 'what' that you talked about, and maybe brings to life for the room here the 'who' of who you are. And, also, you're just a great friend."]

Martin: To actually be at the end of a career with the Firm, after 30 years, and to be sent off with very positive and appreciative remarks, I think that was definitely a highlight.

[Our work on] COVID was a highlight because I worked with friends like you around the clock to try to help the world, and I think we did. Some of the language we coined has been established now worldwide: "Lives and livelihoods" comes to mind. I think that was definitely a highlight.

The third highlight, I think, which was one I didn't expect, was the book [“Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick, authored by Martin, Sven, and Chris Bradley]. Looking back, having hundreds of meetings with CEOs and their teams, sharing insights with them that they clearly didn't have and that they found incredibly compelling in helping them run their business better: That, in hindsight, feels like a real accomplishment.

Knowledge-building at the Firm and serving clients (9:28 to 10:43)

Sven: You said the advice from Marvin was: "You’ve got to serve clients." We talk about “capability," we talk about "knowledge," we talk about "building the Firm." You spent a lot of time for the Firm building knowledge. How do you look at that? Was Marvin off when he said it's just, ‘You’ve got to serve clients’?

Martin: I think Marvin was spot-on: We are a client service firm; we shape the world through our clients. That's what makes us so influential and powerful. Because it's not just us doing things, it's us doing things through our clients in the interests of our clients.

The question is: How do you get to serve clients? And how do you get clients to give you a license to serve them on the most important topics? That doesn't come easy. In a world where knowledge is more and more commoditized, where many firms are vying for the time with and ear of the senior executives, they, of course, only spend time with you if you add value.

So even in that role, you have to have something to say that's truly insightful, distinctive, not something they read in a book they pick up at the airport or that some other guy tells them. It takes real time and real dedication to actually get to the bottom of things and learn these insights.

Martin’s most difficult moments at McKinsey (10:43 to 11:48)

Sven: What kind of moments were a little tougher? Why were they tougher? And then how did you come out better?

Martin: McKinsey is tough. What we do is very tough because our clients’ expectations are extremely high. So McKinsey's always tough. But I think you're asking this in a little bit of a different sense. The moments I think that I recall were the hardest for me at McKinsey were moments when there was conflict with colleagues.

And the way I got out of all of these situations was to reach out to peers, to friends, to share it and sometimes orchestrate support, sometimes just get emotional support. But I think the worst mode you could get yourself into is to sort of hunker down and try to do it yourself. You know, if your client program falls apart, the failure mode is to try and resource it yourself.

Sven: So your point is you reach out, and then the Firm helps.

Martin: You reach out, people around you help. The concept of the Firm – it's the people around you. That's what's magical.

"We can be confident of a great future for the Firm" (11:48 to end)

Sven: Any parting thoughts?

Martin: We are people who are very critical. We are trying to see problems. We are trying to see problems with clients so we can help them solve them, because every problem is a gold nugget, and if you find enough problems, you have a pile of gold. So that's a good thing.

But we also are very critical about ourselves. We are very critical about the Firm. And that's also a good thing because it keeps us on our toes, and we're getting better all the time. What I do think, though, is that when I look at the shape the Firm is in, the performance – there are problems, of course, but it is truly impressive.

I spent a lot of time with newly elected Partners at the new Partner orientation in Oman. And when I looked at that group, how impressive these people are, I actually feel that we can be confident about the great future that the Firm has ahead of it. And I'm actually very confident that Marvin's last wish for the Firm will come true: That this Firm will go on forever.

Sven: Thank you, Martin.

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