McKinsey's Dominic Barton on his road to the top

Published: Feb 26, 2010


Interested in reading about the top dog at the firm our readers love to hate? Never failing to land the No. 1 slot on our consulting surveys, McKinsey is constantly disparaged by consultants as "smug," "overrated," "overinflated" and "flashy with little substance." (Of course, it also garners comments like, "Ivy League," "elite" and "still the standard.") This week, I came across an interesting interview with the firm's managing director, Dominic Barton, which highlights some of the qualities necessary to succeed in today's business world.

The interview tracks Barton's career development, but its most interesting points are those that reflect his failures and bumps in the road. When Barton was in the running to become partner at McKinsey, he was rejected twice before making the cut, having been told that his problem-solving skills need work and that he had "some serious issues" to deal with. And when he felt like he'd reached a plateau in his career, rather than just staying put in a comfortable position, he uprooted himself and moved to McKinsey's office in Korea.

From these challenges, Barton's key strengths emerge: He does not fear failure or the unknown, he's willing to take risks and try new things (sometimes even against the advice of his mentors), he's always looking to challenge himself, he's constantly striving for growth, he has confidence in himself and he trusts his instincts. Barton says, "What's your feeling? It's going to be very important, as you get more senior – you're not going to have time to analyze everything. You're going to have to have an instinct towards it."

Often, when we hear of successful business leaders, we're inclined to think that they have some innate spark that helped loft them to that position. We generally don't hear about the hard work that person had to do to land the top spot, and this interview is a humbling reminder that, while success doesn’t always come easy, hard work frequently pays off.