What would Marvin Bower think?

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In 1937 James O. McKinsey, founder of McKinsey & Company, died, at age 48. The firm split into two parts. One part, A. T. Kearney, stayed in Chicago. Marvin Bower kept the part of the firm headquartered in New York. He kept the name McKinsey. And he set about turning McKinsey into something different.

Back then consultants were “efficiency experts,” roaming the shop floor with a clipboard and stopwatches. But James McKinsey had been an accountant and he had offered business advice to clients.

Bower wanted to take that one step farther. Before McKinsey Bower had worked at the prestigious Cleveland law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis and Pogue. That’s where his work with bondholder committees for bankrupt companies convinced him that businesses needed advice on organization, management, marketing and distribution as much as they needed legal and accounting advice.

He wanted to build a firm that was professional, like a law firm. But he wanted that firm to dispense advice on management issues.

Bower understood that being treated as a professional had as much to do with how you looked and talked and thought about yourself as it did with services rendered. Dress must be professional. Language mattered.

McKinsey was not a company, it was a firm, just like a law firm. They had clients, not customers. The firm did not take jobs. Instead it had engagements.

Marvin Bower Rule Number Two: Everything you say and do conveys a message to the world. It should be the message you intend.

That’s important, but it’s only Rule Number Two.

Marvin Bower Rule Number One is: Have values and standards and live by them.

Bower stressed integrity. He insisted that McKinsey consultants must always put the interests of a client ahead of their personal gain or McKinsey’s revenue. He fired people who did otherwise.

Bower wanted the firm to do only work that was necessary and that they could do well. He insisted on telling clients the truth and sometimes lost engagements doing it.

Bower retired in 1967. He died in 2003, at 99. He may have lived too long.

He lived to see consultants surrender to the pursuit of Gurudom. Doing what was right often yielded to doing what was easy or profitable. And spinning the message the right way was more important than telling the truth..

Marvin Bower can still be a model for us. In a world where many business leaders would rather enrich themselves than do the right thing, it’s good to know there is another way. In a world where business leaders pursue shareholder value at the expense of everyone and everything else, it’s good to know the other way can be successful.

Bottom Line

The story of Marvin Bower is about building a consulting firm and setting the standard for a profession. It is about delivering quality and value while looking out for your client’s welfare, before you check the bottom line. It is about speaking the truth because that is more important than any engagement. It is a story that tells us that people and integrity matter.

That’s a great model for building a consulting firm, or any kind of business, or even a life.

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