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Interview With Dr. Julian Raabe, Partner at McKinsey

In Germany alone there are around 20,000 consulting companies. A few, such as Roland Berger, BCG and McKinsey & Company, have been at the top of the consulting industry for years. Why is that? A few weeks ago I spoke with Julian Raabe, Partner at McKinsey, and he gave me some very personal insights of his way into the consulting profession and his view of it. We talked about the key success factors of the top consulting firms, new career paths and the intersection between consulting and entrepreneurship.

Orientation phase

Finding the perfect course of study is often not a simple matter. Julian had a similar experience, as he was interested in many areas. “For a relatively long time it was completely unclear what I was going to study.” Consequently, he looked into different fields of study and visited many universities in different cities. In the end, the McKinsey partner ended up studying business administration rather by chance: Julian and a friend wanted to attend the orientation day at WHU in Koblenz, but turned up a day early. However, the schedule mistake proved to be an advantage. Some students offered them a private tour. Julian quickly realized that he liked the people and opportunities that the university offered. In the end it was not so much the subject, but rather the university and everything that went with it which was the decisive factor for Julian’s choice of study. 

Several practical phases in his studies gave him orientation. It was precisely because Julian was this open that he wanted to gain experience in many areas: “I wanted to get a broad exposure to different businesses and topics.” Eventually he was in the new economy, the old economy, private equity and consulting.

“After all this time, I personally decided that I enjoyed consulting the most, because of the speed and the ability to shape topics,” Julian says.

He was particularly fascinated by the exciting top management topics. “We developed things that could be implemented, and were able to create massive value for the company.” Then it was clear to him that he would like to work in consulting after his studies. 

Student and entrepreneur 

There was little gastronomy in the small town in which Julian studied. This seemed unacceptable to Julian and a few friends, who were about to graduate. They were missing a bar to party at night and a coffee shop where they could drink coffee during the day. A rough idea quickly became reality. Together with four other students, Julian founded his own company in 2004. “We found cool premises, renovated them, raised money, and wrote a business case.” He opened just one night before he received his diploma. Julian remembers: “There were more people at the opening party than the university had students.” 

Julian could take a lot with him from his time as an entrepreneur. The first thing he learned was what it means to follow through with something, from the idea to running it as a business. “The second big learning was personnel management, because little by little we had about 12 employees. Besides, it was hard to find the right people in the beginning.

Joining McKinsey

After his studies and time as an entrepreneur, Julian applied for a job at a selected number of major management consultancies. In 2005, he accepted the offer to start at McKinsey. He has been working there for over 15 years now. To Julian, the direct entry into consulting had many advantages:

“I believe that in very few jobs you can get deep insights into how companies work so quickly. For example, I was with the company for only 2 years and worked on a study that was highly relevant for the top executives of our client. I had the opportunity to join the weekly board meetings.”

Additionally he learned to overcome his shyness about hierarchies and to have the courage to have a different opinion on things. “That helps no matter what career path you want to take.”

Changes at McKinsey and in the consulting industry  

Although Julian himself followed the typical career path at the time and obtained his doctorate, he talks about many innovations in the company and in the consulting industry in general. ” There is no longer just this one career path, and there are no longer just “strategy” consultants. We have senior hires, specialists for operational topics, specialists for digital and anayltics topics, etc. It wouldn’t make sense for everyone to get an MBA or a PhD because of the different profiles of the people.”

Furthermore, the range of consulting services has become much broader. Julian says:

“When I started, McKinsey was a strategy consultancy. Of course, there were a few operational topics, but now our Operations Practice, along with Digital & Analytics, is a significant part of our global business.”

Looking at the consulting industry in general, Julian has noticed that performance-based remuneration models are becoming more and more popular.

Broad knowledge, exceptional people and continuing development – a formula for success? 

Both Julian’s professional career and the consulting industry are characterized by small and large changes. Nevertheless, it is clear that McKinsey has been one of the world’s leading management consultancies for decades. What is the reason for this? What is the company’s secret to success? Julian has a clear opinion on this: “I think there are three things: Firstly, McKinsey has always been and always wanted to be a home for exceptional people. At the end of the day, consulting is a people business. You need people who are exceptional. That’s what I look at when I conduct recruiting interviews. I ask myself, is that someone who inspires me? It’s about what the person brings to the table, what makes them unique and also how they can make the company better.” The second point Julian makes is the breadth of knowledge.

“At McKinsey, you can find an expert for any subject. There’s someone for everything, name a subject and you’ll find a person.”

Third, Julian believes that the company offers the opportunity and flexibility to reinvent oneself over and over again. “We see ourselves as an institution that gives people the chance to evolve and become managers and future leaders. There’s a lot of emphasis on personal development.”

Alumni networks

Abilities such as independent and strategic thinking and the ability to make and implement decisions from an early stage are highly valued at McKinsey. At the same time, these are also aspects that characterize entrepreneurs. This is one of the reasons why, according to Julian, many alumni of the company become successful entrepreneurs. “Moreover, some may already have the goal of becoming entrepreneurs when they apply and want to learn how top managers think and how to approach strategic issues. Consulting has a very strong entrepreneurial element.”

What startups can learn from major consulting firms

Which final tips would Julian give young companies with your current knowledge? “I think it’s important to look at who are the people I want to work with, in terms of who inspires me. Once you have found such people, you should do everything you can to help them grow. You should trust them, give them freedom, but also coach them. I have probably spent 3 full working days with people over the last weeks to give them meaningful feedback. How people can be encouraged to develop themselves is what startups can learn from consulting.”

However, the startup world also has its strengths. Julian believes:

“Basically, companies can learn from startups to act pragmatically and see what works and what doesn’t. And to promote taking chances. Based on this, decisions can be made.” 

From very personal career insights, to changes in the consulting industry and what it takes to be a successful consulting company. The only question that remains is what your experiences are. 

What do you think contributes to the success of consulting companies? 

What have you learned from start-ups so far? 

Julian Raabe

Dr. Julian Raabe studied international business administration at the WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management and subsequently completed his doctorate at the Chair of Social Psychology at the LMU in Munich. After briefly being self-employed, he joined McKinsey as a consultant in 2005. Today, he is an Partner at McKinsey and heads Customer Operations.