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The boomerang who returned after 23 years

Brian Goffman shares his journey from the Firm to startups and back again, and how the Firm of today compares to the one he left in 1994.
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When Brian Goffman left our Firm after a stint as a BA, he set out to immerse himself in Silicon Valley’s early but soon exploding Internet industry. Business was booming, and he rode the wave with two successful startups, but a historic bust soon followed.

Having lived the highs and lows, Brian shifted his focus to venture capital and later product and general management roles at startups and more established companies like Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Samsung, eventually selling a company he co-founded to Marketo (now Adobe). In 2017, he brought his operating and counseling expertise back to our Firm.

The colleague-turned-alum-turned-colleague-again (a “boomerang” in McKinsey speak) sat down with McKinsey News recently to discuss his experience as an entrepreneur, eternal optimist, and relationship builder among clients and colleagues.

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

So, when did your McKinsey career begin?

1989. That’s when I came to McKinsey, right after undergrad. Back then, our Firm was a lot smaller. I think we had five BAs in the Los Angeles office, and probably 40 across the entire Firm.

I had an unbelievable experience. I helped open our Seoul office and was serving some of our first clients in the region. Over the next few decades, I watched from afar as some of those companies helped transform the country’s economy.

Wow. That must have been incredibly formative.

Absolutely. There’s this concept of a “career anchor,” which is a job that shapes someone’s approach to all future work. For me, McKinsey was unquestionably that. It’s evident in the way I approach team leadership, and the way I look for talent. What I learned in my first job has informed the way I’ve approached problem solving over my career.

But you left your anchor?

I left. I intended to come back after leaving for business school, and I surprised myself by not returning. The reason I made that choice was that I felt a strong pull towards software.

This was at a time when the Internet was booming. I was passionate about software and entrepreneurship but didn’t think it was possible to explore those things at our Firm. Now, of course, it’s not just possible, but encouraged.

So, what brought you back to McKinsey?

In some ways, I never really left our Firm. I had maintained connections from my time as a BA, and during my time away I’d also been a client of McKinsey.

What really brought me back, though, was seeing how New Ventures was growing in our Firm around 2015. There was an enormous amount of innovation happening, and significant software investment. I felt that if I could bring what I’d learned outside of our Firm to the McKinsey environment, where I really respected the people, Values, and ways of operating, it’d be an incredible opportunity. And it was. I worked in Solutions until 2019, before making the switch to expert consulting.

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How has your experience outside our Firm come in handy now that you’re back?

As CEO and co-founder of a company, I had to recruit the first employees, sell people on the vision, raise funds, and so on. So, when I meet with a senior executive, I can imagine what they’re going through trying to figure out how to take what we’re proposing and turn it into real operational change.

Many times in my experience, I serve clients who haven’t worked with consultants before, let alone McKinsey, and are a bit skeptical about what we can offer. I use my background to show them that we’ve walked in their shoes and have the perspective needed to get them what they want out of a collaboration.

Over the years, my perspective towards failure has also become much more optimistic. There are times when it won’t feel that way, like in 2001 when the world seemed to be falling apart in tech, or in 2008 when the markets were collapsing, and few could raise funding. But it always turns up, and everything always works out. The challenge is that you rarely know when. Especially as an entrepreneur. You can run out of money before the turn.

What does entrepreneurship look like back at our Firm?

At this stage of my career, I believe it’s both about how we deliver impact as well as about how we use our networks to work with new clients or establish new partnerships with external organizations. Having worked in tech for two decades, having been an investor and an entrepreneur, I have a vast network. If I don’t know someone, I likely know a person who does. If a colleague says, “We have this underexplored area of client service and would like to start conversations with these clients,” I’ll look at my LinkedIn to see if I know anyone. The tech industry is surprisingly small.

Often, we think, “McKinsey serves CEOs.” And we love to do that. But the lack of hierarchy in many tech companies means that we can do high-impact work by connecting with relatively mid-level people already in our networks. And those mid-level people eventually become senior-level people.

Entrepreneurship also means working with large, established companies. How can we bring them a new value proposition? How can we serve a new function, like engineering or product management? There are many, many ways to be an entrepreneur at McKinsey.

How did you go about building relationships after you rejoined?

When you’re not part of a BA class, developing sponsorship can seem daunting. Luckily, coming into Solutions, I had a strong network just from my interviews where I met upwards of 30 colleagues. Sometimes people aren’t wild about the long, involved interview process, but my interviewers are the ones who gave me a thumbs-up and the people I now work with. That shaped the new beginnings of my Firm network.

To succeed here, you must invest in your network. I make it a priority, client work permitting, to attend Firm events to forge new connections and develop old ones—even if it’s a 5-minute conversation about a potential client, a blue currency project, or something we could collaborate on in the future. Even if it’s about what someone’s weekend plans are.

The most important connections at our Firm are the people you work with on engagements. They form the core of your working relationships and sponsors, and I aim to work those people again and again.

Your entrepreneurial background must come in handy in your role working with clients and building teams.

One thing I’ve learned is that even if you are competent in many skills, it’s best to have a couple of areas for which you are known. Basically, your value proposition. This expands over time as you contribute to more engagements and develop relationships. Getting opportunities to prove your strengths, though, comes from knowing your value proposition and how to explain it.


It feels very awkward at first, but just imagine you’re in the elevator with a Senior Partner who asks, “Who are you and what do you work on?” You must be able to sum it up quickly and memorably—then, you can develop a longer spiel that delves more into your expertise and passions.

Listen in as Brian gives his value proposition “elevator pitch” in 10 seconds flat, followed by a more thorough description for when the conversation allows a minute.

What have you learned about putting together teams of your own?

It takes a village to serve our clients—a village of people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise. Some of my clients are growth companies that need support across many topics over time. We might start with sales optimization, then embark on project management improvements, and then lead a global expansion. Each of those projects, even though they’re serving the same client, require different skills. It takes a variety of people to make that happen, and I always remember that as I build my teams. In my case, as part of our SoftwareX team, that means working with product managers, engineers, designers, and a diverse set of skills built around a classic CST.

How is the Firm today similar or different to the one you left in 1994?

Today’s Firm is a lot more comparable to the Firm I experienced as a BA than I would have expected. Client service is still the core. We’ve maintained a consistent focus on holistic client impact that goes beyond just the financial. Our Values still come first. Even internal traditions, like memorializing our client work with team cartoons, have remained. The bar for talent has remained super high, but what’s changed is we have a greater variety in the types of skillsets from which we hire.

We’ve also changed the types of clients we serve. When I was a BA, most of our clients were in banking, telecom, energy, and defense. Today, we serve software companies, startups, decacorns, and unicorns; we serve multinationals in basically every industry in nearly every country. We have more guidance on how to ensure we are not just a good fit for our clients, but that they are good fits within our Purpose. It’s an exciting time to be here.

Any final thoughts?

Part of what makes McKinsey’s model unique is having engaged alumni, whose future contributions are welcomed at our Firm. Of course, we want great people to stay, but this mindset gives our talent the assurance that they can leave McKinsey and come back and build on what they’ve learned. I’m thrilled to be back here now and am super excited about the road ahead.

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