The man who never had a boss: Gautam Kumra's dream job at McKinsey India

Topics McKinsey

Illustration by Binay Sinha
McKinsey has been a top draw at the placement campuses of premier business schools all over the world for the quality jobs it offers, but Gautam Kumra’s motivation to join the consultancy giant had more to do with “quantity” rather than quality. He didn’t have much idea about what a consultancy job was, but what he did know was that McKinsey was offering three times more than the next highest salary on offer for the batch of 1993 at IIM Ahmedabad. 

“For a bureaucrat’s son from a middle class background, that was a big deal,” he says with a smile, as we settle down at a corner table of the near-empty Baoshuan restaurant at the rooftop of The Oberoi, New Delhi. The Chinese restaurant has been renamed (it was Taipan earlier) with a new décor and refreshed menu. Kumra is clearly not a foodie and had no preference for either the venue or any specific restaurant. 

McKinsey, he says, was new to India at that time, having set up office in 1992, and very few students knew what consultancy was all about. But he almost didn’t get the job — the shortlist after the interview didn’t have his name and a disappointed Kumra decided he would opt for the summer job he had already been offered at Citibank. The IIM placement cell, however, advised him to wait till the evening before taking a final decision. It was an unusual advice, but it paid off as McKinsey sent a fresh list in the evening with the names of two more candidates. Kumra was one of them. He considers himself extremely lucky to have listened to the placement cell’s advice as accepting the Citi offer would have meant opting out of the placement process and not being able to accept the McKinsey job.

Apart from the terrific exposure the job has given him over the past 26 years, there is one vital reason why he has remained a one-company man. “I have never had a boss. Isn’t that a good enough reason to stay on in any company?” Kumra says, taking a sip of the fresh lime soda. That, he says, is the same for everybody at McKinsey. “Apart from a loose hierarchy, we are pretty much on our own. People at McKinsey can pick their own sectors, their own clients, pick their location. That’s what a caring meritocracy is all about. For example, I can work from anywhere in the world. Which company CEO has this kind of freedom? In any case, no boss has ever breathed down my neck,” he adds.

No boss perhaps needed to do that, as Kumra must have delivered results hugely — a reason why he became a partner within six years (a rarity those days) and steadily rose up the ladder to become one of the youngest managing partners at the India office. What has helped keep him going is his belief in the Vedanta philosophy that talks about doing things out of “mindfulness and awareness”.

Kumra wants to get the ordering of food out of the way and accepts the steward’s suggestion for a “dimsum lunch” which has a fixed menu — an assortment of dimsums, soup, noodles, fried rice and two chicken dishes. We share the spread; it proves quite a mouthful. 

He may be a firm believer in luck playing a critical role in his life and gives several examples of that from his career, but the Mckinsey boss, who makes time for a class on Bhagavad Gita every Sunday, surely follows at least one advice of Lord Krishna — “never cease to do thy work”. So while the boss-less existence is a dream, it has also meant incredibly hard work and back-breaking travelling. He has already been to more than 50 countries (“after a point of time, every city started looking the same”) and has hardly stayed at home for a full week. 

Such hard work meant not being able to meet too many women (courtesy the skewed male-female ratio at McKinsey at that time — something, he says, has been corrected to a great extent now), but Kumra says luck made sure he didn’t have to wait for too long. He is still excited enough to recount the story: He was busy at work on a New Year’s eve when a friend dragged him out of office to a small get-together where he happened to meet Sujata Makkar, who worked at Citibank. That “lucky” meeting led to a few more and they got married at the age of 25. The couple has two children — son is studying in the US and daughter in the UK.  

Kumra keeps bringing back the “luck factor” in his life. This played an important role in getting into IIM-A as well. Though he got scholarships from many US universities after completing his engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, he didn’t want to do research and opted for management education. He got interview calls from all the three top IIMs, but wasn’t shortlisted by Bangalore and Calcutta. Ahmedabad, however, selected him. “This was unusual. I don’t know how this happened, but luck surely had a role in this as well,” he says.

People like him seem to have more than 24 hours a day. In the midst of his super-busy schedule, he still has enough time for the McKinsey Leadership Institute (MLI) of which he is a founder, and for convening the CEO Bower Forum in Asia. Both these forums provide a platform for peer-learning amongst CEOs. Indian companies have a huge shortage of leaders but don’t review the leadership pipeline often enough, he says. At the Bower forum, the idea is to bring a few CEOs together so that they can engage with their peers in a confidential setting. The purpose is to have deep-dive discussions on challenges specific to their roles, and even personal issues. One of the insights from this leadership development work is that while a CEO learns from his own experience, they need to learn from the experience of others who have the experience of having been there and done that. 

The steward comes with dessert but Kumra skips it, as he is in a hurry. One of the main reasons he has stuck on to a consultant’s job is because it involves helping companies in varied fields make the transition from being good to great. “A lot of consultants do shift to a CEO’s job after some time because he can control the execution of a plan. We don’t enjoy that power. But the range of experience that we have and the value addition we bring in is simply unmatched,” Kumra says. He proceeds to give examples of the wide variety of companies he has worked with and the difference he has made in each of them. 

At the end of the day, Kumra says, the only person who matters in any company is the chief executive officer. If he is convinced about the benefits a consultant will bring in, the rest is easy. The CEO has to be able to articulate a transformation “story” — a big-picture ambition that captures the imagination internally. 

He would love to write a book on leadership (what else?) once he hangs up his boots, but that obviously would have to wait as he wants to continue in this “fantastic” job for at least five years. The reason is simple: The daily job of a consultant may not be glamorous to the outside world, but it’s quite fulfilling when you step back and realise what you have accomplished, the relationships you have formed, what you have learned, and the assistance you have hopefully provided.

His book is already in the works, it seems — at least in his mind. 

It’s almost two hours since we started our conversation, and Kumra signals he has to rush off to his next meeting in some other corner of the same hotel.

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