Will Bachman: Hello, Ethan. Welcome to the show.
Ethan Rasiel: Thank you very much, Will. Happy to be here.
Will Bachman: Ethan, for me, it’s really, really exciting to have you on the show, because you’re really one of my heroes. I read the McKinsey Way, which I think came out in ’99, right before I started at McKinsey in 2001, to sort of prepare myself, what was I getting into, and then over the years at McKinsey, especially over the first couple years, as I was taught the elevator test, or 80-20 rule, or don’t boil the ocean, or lead with the answer, I would recognize all these things I had read in your book. So, thank you for helping introduce me to the firm before I got there.
Ethan Rasiel: You’re most welcome, Will. If that’s how the book worked for you, then I feel like I’ve really done my job in writing it, because that was precisely my goal. On the one hand, part of the audience that I was writing for was people like you, people who were going into consulting, not necessarily at McKinsey, because it’s a small subset of the whole world, but anybody who was going into what was the management consulting boom of the late ’90s, but also to get those concepts out to the broader world, to people who weren’t necessarily getting an MBA from a top school and going to a big firm in New York or Boston or Chicago, but who could use these concepts to help them advance their own careers and improve their own thinking.
Will Bachman: You were at the firm, I think, as an associate from 1989 to 1992.
Ethan Rasiel: That’s correct.
Will Bachman: The book came out in ’99. Talk to me a little bit about what happened between ’92 and ’97. How did you get the idea of doing this book about how McKinsey works? Just love to sort of hear about what transpired. When did you first start thinking, “Hey, I should write a book on this. No one else has done it”? Would love to hear how that happened.
Ethan Rasiel: In part, it’s kind of serendipity. Just a little background, my wife, who I had met at business school, we were both working in New York City. I was working for McKinsey. She was working for Goldman Sachs, and I know that sounds like a cliché, but there it was. She was offered a very attractive transfer to the London office, and since we were married, we were going to go there together. There wasn’t a place for me in the London office of McKinsey. Certainly, recruiting at the time was very separate, and so I was going to have to look for new employment. I started working for a small investment bank. I was working there until the mid ’90s.
Ethan Rasiel: I got into an argument with my boss, and since it was his name on the door, and not mine, he won, and I was looking for a job in the midst of a financial recession in the city of London in the mid to late ’90s. As it happened, a friend of mine from business school, and I should go even further back in time to say that I spent much of my time at business school not so much doing valuation models, but really writing musical comedy, because I was one of the two head writers of what’s called the Wharton Follies, which is a musical comedy revue at the Wharton School, where I got my MBA. We like to think that of all the professional schools, it’s the best musical comedy revue of any professional school. Certainly in the Ivy League, let’s put it that way.
Will Bachman: I just feel obliged to say that Columbia Follies are amazing. I can’t comment on the Wharton Follies. Haven’t seen them, but I couldn’t let that pass, but please go on.
Ethan Rasiel: I accept that, but I’m not familiar with the Columbia Follies. Maybe they have more of that New York edge.
Will Bachman: Nevertheless, I didn’t mean to interrupt.
Ethan Rasiel: No, no. That’s fine. In any event, my writing partner, my co-head writer for the Wharton Follies, had gone to Microsoft out of business school, and then she, after leaving Microsoft, wrote a book called Everything I Need to Know About Business, I think it is. It’s on my shelf. It was written a while ago. Everything I Need to Learn About Business, I Learned at Microsoft. It did quite well. The publisher said, “Well, this is something that we can obviously expand, and we can look at Everything I Learned About Customer Service, I Learned From American Express, and Everything I Learned About Marketing, I Learned at P&G, and Everything I Learned About Strategy, I Learned at McKinsey.”
Ethan Rasiel: She turned to me and said, “Would you put together a proposal for this book?” She connected me with her agent, which was probably decisive, and I put together a book proposal, and sent it into her publisher. They came back and said, “This is really good, but all the proposals seem to be very much saying the same sorts of things,” which, in the end, doesn’t surprise me that much, because everything old is new again, but my agent said, “It’s true they were all about it samey, but I think yours has a lot of potential. Let’s see if we can flesh this out and I can sell it,” and so I did, and he did, and McGraw-Hill bought the book, and that’s how it got published. So, somewhat serendipitous, I have to say.
Will Bachman: What was the process you went through to structure the book in terms of, you have, I think, how to think about business problems, how to solve business problems, how to sell solutions, and then you talk about experiences at the firm. How did you come up with that structure, and just the overall idea for that?
Ethan Rasiel: In the first instance, I went to my own experience and my own knowledge, and I suppose I did what is the most basic piece of advice that every writer is given, which is, “Write what you know.” I spent some time essentially meditating on what had I learned at McKinsey, and going over all the training materials, for instance, that I still had, and looking at all of that, and sort of distilling out the lessons that I have learned, and then arranging them into a couple of buckets that are the ones you just described, that became essentially the outline of the book. Once we had a viable proposal was when I started doing a lot of research, fact-based, the hallmark of McKinsey research, and what I did was interview as many McKinsey alumni as I could arrange, people who I knew, people who were geographically near to me who I didn’t know.
Ethan Rasiel: 1997 was when I started writing the book. We had actually moved back to the United States by then, so it was a lot easier to get ahold of a much larger alumni group. Plus, it was the beginning of the mass proliferation of email, so I was able to get a lot of people’s email addresses through the McKinsey alumni system, and I sent out questionnaires, and I said, “Are you willing to spend 10 minutes talking about your McKinsey experience?” I put together a detailed questionnaire, and some people filled it out and said, “That’s all I got to say.” Some people were happy on the basis of that to do a more detailed interview, whether over the phone or in person, and by the end of that process, I had a lot of material, which I could work with and then distill into the key findings, and put them down.
Ethan Rasiel: Also, what I had, which I hope people appreciated, was a lot of stories, because I’m a great believer in telling good stories. It’s a good way to transmit knowledge because people like stories and people pay attention to stories. I had stories that I could tell, which had the great advantage of being true, so I didn’t have to think about how to make them work from beginning to end, and I put those into the book. Some of those stories are mine, of course. There’s one where I talk about falling asleep right before a picture presentation, and that definitely happened. I still have the sign that says, “Just say I don’t know,” mounted very prominently above my computer monitor. In fact, I’m looking at it right now as we speak. It’s a little bit faded, because it’s quite old at this point, but it’s still there, and it’s a motto that I have lived by ever since.
Will Bachman: The stories really do make this book come alive. I mean, I’ll just open it at random here, to a random page, and here’s a couple sentences. You write, “I had this lesson brought home to me late one night when I was drafting a fact pack on a client’s competitor. I had gathered a mountain of data and was trying to wring out a few new insights from it. My EM, Vic, walked into my office, briefcase and coat in hand, and asked how my work was going.” I love that, just the part about briefcase and coat in hand. You can see the scene, and it draws you in much more than just saying, “Hey, at McKinsey, we don’t boil the ocean.” It really makes the book come alive, and illustrates it, and kind of gloms onto it. I’m curious to hear, what was the reaction of the firm maybe as you were writing it or afterwards? I could imagine that they were like, “We should be writing this book.” How did the official firm or any individual or alums react when they heard about the book?
Ethan Rasiel: From the start, and I was very open with the firm about the fact that I was writing this book. Very early in the process, I established a line of communication with their director of communications, and he’s long since moved onto other functions, but I told him very early on I was writing this book, and that I would be sure not to violate client confidentiality, that I wasn’t going to be doing a hit job on the firm, that I was also not going to be writing a puff piece, that I was going to be telling it like it is and going worm’s eye view, and they were okay with that, really, from the start. It’s been a while now, but I don’t recall any significant pushback on anything that I wrote. After publication, I don’t recall anything negative from anybody associated with the firm.
Will Bachman: The book did astoundingly well. I don’t know how many book copies it sold, but I’m sure it sold a lot. What was the impact on you after the book came out? I’m curious if you got just inbound inquiries, speaking engagements, anything right after the book came out? What was life like for you?
Ethan Rasiel: It did do very well. It became an international bestseller. For whatever reason, McGraw-Hill, my publisher, certainly marketed the book, but I don’t think they did an aggressive marketing campaign. It kind of sold on its own and continues, I have to say, to sell on its own, thankfully. I got a number of inquiries for speaking. I did a number of speaking engagements. There is something of a timing issue, because the book came out in ’99, and I pretty much went from there into writing the next one. The next one came out, if memory serves, it was September 5th, 2001. It kind of got overshadowed for things that were far more significant.
Ethan Rasiel: It also did very well, but I think the world had other things on its mind at the time. For instance, I had several calls from a major European oil company, and they were all set for me to come over and do a series of lectures in a very nice European country, where I would have been very happy to spend some time, and basically, after 9/11, nothing, because everybody was retrenching, and everybody was worried about different things, and I understand that. And so it was. You can’t win them all. Wrong time. In some ways, it was the right time for the first book, because I think McKinsey was really starting its massive growth around then, and it’s continued to grow quite rapidly. Sometimes dumb luck works against you.
Will Bachman: This question might be a little bit unfair, because you haven’t been in these other firms, but I’m wondering if you’ve had discussions to explore would the book be different if you had been at one of the other firms, and had written The BCG Way, or The Bain Way? Do you think McKinsey does anything that is really distinct from those other top firms?
Ethan Rasiel: Oh, almost certainly. They all have a different house style. McKinsey gets compared a lot to IBM. White shirts, dark suits. At least in my day, that’s how it was, where in BCG, they probably were wearing polo shirts when it wasn’t casual Friday. At least that’s what we thought, but the individual tools were no doubt different, and the corporate style was no doubt different. There are only so many ways to solve a problem. I don’t think that BCG has a monopoly on creativity that Bain or McKinsey don’t have, and I don’t think that McKinsey has some patent on fact-based analysis that BCG or Accenture don’t have, although they all focus sometimes on different niches.
Ethan Rasiel: They may have particular expertise in some areas that they don’t have in other areas, and of course, and sometimes they’ll poach the expertise from each other, which happens, in order to get that expertise, because that’s how the world works, but at the base level it’s just a question of how good are the people you can attract, and how well can you support them, and does your corporate mission line up with the interests of the client in a way that you can best serve your clients? I’ll be honest, I don’t know what BCG or Bain have as their mission statement. I’m guessing they would say that they put their clients first too.
Will Bachman: Given your experience with these two very successful books, what advice would you have on someone who’s thinking about writing a book?
Ethan Rasiel: Honestly, be prepared for disappointment, because it’s a very tough market. I’m not sure I would have been able to write … Well, I would have been able to write the book, but I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to get the book published had I not had some things lined up for me very favorably. Most writers in whatever genre you’re looking at don’t get published, so be prepared for disappointment. Work very hard. It’s a little bit of a different game now because of self-publishing and social media. It is possible, apparently, to make a decent living selling books and printing them on print-on-demand, and generating buzz through social media.
Ethan Rasiel: I know people who do that, in various different types of writing. It’s not something I’ve done, so I don’t have any particular tips on that regard, but the old style way of you put together a proposal, you get an agent if you don’t have one already, your agent shops the proposal, the odds are pretty low. The slush piles are pretty high. A slush pile is all the proposals that an editor gets that aren’t written by James Patterson or Stephen King. Those don’t get stuck in the slush pile, but if you’re not a well known quantity, you’re struggling against everybody else in the slush pile. It’s a tough route. Don’t quite your day job, unless and until you can build a franchise.
Will Bachman: Could you talk a little bit about what you have going on now? I think you’re doing some consulting, maybe some investing?
Ethan Rasiel: I’m doing some consulting. I’m on the board of a life sciences company in Boston. It’s still at the angel venture stage, and that’s also a very tough row to hoe, I have to say. It’s very exciting, but it’s very high risk. I don’t want to go into too much detail about that because of confidentiality.
Will Bachman: Can you talk a little bit about your consulting practice these days?
Ethan Rasiel: I’d say it’s not very exciting, because I haven’t been out marketing myself for quite some time. I’ve had inquiries essentially come over the transom from people who have read the book and are interested in tapping my expertise, and I’m happy to talk to people on that basis, but in all honesty, I guess you could say I’m semi-retired, in terms of nine to five, and I’m quite comfortable with that. I’ve arranged my life in a way where that works for me, and I’ve never been driven by a need to accumulate. It helps that I live in a part of the world where the cost of living is much lower than it is in Manhattan, so that enables me to live this style of life.
Will Bachman: For someone that did want to reach out to you to explore potential support, what’s the best way to find you? Do you want to give out a website or other means of contacting you?
Ethan Rasiel: I’m on LinkedIn. Easy to find. People find me every day. One of the curiosities of having written a successful book is that I get lots and lots of LinkedIn requests from far-flung places, and in most instances, I will be honest, I don’t respond, because most people just send a standard LinkedIn notice, “Please join my contact network,” from someone who’s an assistant manager at an Indian IT company. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but why would it? On the other hand, if somebody sends me a LinkedIn message that says, “I read your book. I’m very interested in getting in contact with you,” I tend to respond to those. In one instance, I was contacted by the consulting club of one of the Indian business schools, and I was quite happy to send them a bunch of autographed copies of my book. That’s what I’m happy to do because writing a personal letter, I think I talk about that at some point, actually gets results. People can contact me on LinkedIn. I am something of a private person, so I don’t maintain a big web presence, and again, I’m quite happy with that, but again, I do respond to legitimate inquiries.
Will Bachman: One question I like to ask all guests is, are there any routines or habits, either productivity routine or morning routine, either things you’ve been doing for a long time, or maybe ones that you’ve recently adopted, that you’ve found really work well for you?
Ethan Rasiel: In terms of productivity? I’m a creature of habit, and I find that maintaining good habits really helps. For a long time, I meditated, not in a religious sense, but in a mindfulness sense, and I found that was very good at clarifying my thoughts and letting me start the day. I would really recommend quiet time to consider and distill, and also to quiet the mind, to let the mind do its own work. We live in an era of distractions, and it’s something that although I’m as prey to it as anybody in my generation, I don’t want to sound like an old stick in the mud and say it’s overall negative, but something has been lost for what has been gained with our constant availability and access to everything. It’s really hard to boil the ocean, and the ocean’s gotten a lot bigger. It takes a lot more mental discipline these days. I have kids who are young adults now, and I see that they have a very different way of looking at the world. Again, I’m sounding like an old stick in the mud. I’m not that old, but I definitely lived through the transition from the non-computer age to the computer age, and definitely, there have been a lot of changes, and if you’re 30 or younger, you didn’t see that. Sorry, I’m sounding very nostalgic, so I’ll stop there.
Will Bachman: Not at all, Ethan. I lived through those days as well, and didn’t learn to use Microsoft Excel, I think, until I got to the firm in 2001, and definitely sympathize with that difference, right, where it was easier to be disconnected. Ethan, this has been so much fun speaking with you, and hearing about the book that influenced me a lot right before I joined the firm. I want to thank you for being on the show.
Ethan Rasiel: Oh, it’s my pleasure.