Your sources of revenue (and income) say plenty…mind them closely.
The New York Times released an article this week on McKinsey’s work with authoritarian and otherwise dangerous regimes across the world. The article raises some questions on McKinsey’s choices on whom to serve and how such choices align with McKinsey’s Firm values. There have been further revelations even today that McKinsey has a partner under arrest in the Saudi kingdom (a partner who was “acquired” by the firm through a company transaction, and so not one who was “vetted” up through the ranks, but a partner nonetheless).
While the Times article is less than flattering to McKinsey–a firm that has faced an unusual number of embarrassing press items recently– it deals in very gray areas around client service. How does a global firm make choices on which governments to serve (or serve under) and not serve? How does a firm decide on engagement or disengagement as a statement of its values?
In short, the article raises the most basic of questions: How do our values relate to our income?
This question goes far beyond McKinsey (a firm that I admittedly still have a very strong positive feeling for)…it goes right to the very soul of all of our work. In the business world, your professional profile is highly correlated with how you earn your income.
You are what you eat.
Do you earn your income by creating new ways for authoritarian governments to impose their will on their populations? That makes you an accessory to oppression.
Do you earn your income by depending on a steady stream of working poor people to borrow/buy/rent from you? That makes you dependent on the existence of the working poor.
Do you earn your income by creating technological addiction in order to sell more ad space? That makes you dependent on addicts.
Do you earn your income by serving tyrannical or amoral leaders who use people as objects? That makes you his or her enabler in their career.
These aren’t hard concepts to chew on as we get ready to dive into the new year: Do the things you get paid to do–in the main–produce more good in the world, or not? Do your sources of revenue contribute to a better society or not?
McKinsey’s case is not cut and dried–few are in the business world–and the New York Times was sensational bordering on unprofessional in its insinuations. Still, it isn’t a large leap to assume that serving authoritarians is enabling them. It is also not okay to blame such client service choices on “growth” or “influence.” This is especially true when you consider that McKinsey is a firm whose iconic leader examined this very vein of thinking many years ago. As I have written before, Marvin Bower wrote to the McKinsey partnership on how income and growth could lead to poor client choices. He said:
“If an individual consultant has
to make a professional decision
on the spot and he has too many
obligations, I worry that he is
likely to make a decision to attract
a client who shouldn’t be
So…What is a client who shouldn’t be attracted to you? What is a source of income that isn’t worth the hit to your integrity?
To me, and in my firm, it’s basic: Does the client or source of income depend on or produce states of the world that I would not sleep well at night knowing that I have proliferated? Admittedly, it’s a personal test…but I have given hints as to my own limits above.
As we ponder the new year, let’s ponder the fruits of our labors, and know that we are what we eat.
Now it’s your turn, share a bit about how you match purpose, values, and income. What do you think?