Commentary: Goodbye to an Ethicist

By John A. Byrne

There is a telling story about Marvin Bower, the legendary leader of McKinsey & Co. who died on Jan. 22 at age 99. It says much about the bedrock values of this unassuming man, who was known as the father of management consulting.

In the 1950s, Bower was summoned to Los Angeles by billionaire Howard Hughes, who wanted him to study Paramount Pictures. During the visit, Hughes was in a magnanimous mood and drove the fledgling consultant around in his ancient Chevy, even giving him a late-night tour of the Spruce Goose, the massive wooden plane Hughes developed during the war.

But Bower sensed that nothing good could come of working for Hughes. He found the entrepreneur's approach to business "so unorthodox and so unusual" that he felt he would never be able to help Paramount. Instead of taking the assignment and reaping a big fee, he walked away.

The move was classic Bower. He built McKinsey into a global consulting powerhouse by insisting that values mattered more than money. He preached the notion that consulting was not a business but a profession, arguing that, like the best doctors and lawyers, consultants should put the interests of their clients first, conduct themselves ethically, and insist on telling clients the truth, not what they wanted to hear.

That was as unusual then as it is today. But so was Bower, a towering figure at McKinsey and in the larger world of consulting. At McKinsey, Bower helped to move consulting from shop-floor efficiency studies to major strategy reviews for top-tier corporations. He created one of the world's most productive leadership factories, producing hundreds of corporate CEOs and presidents. In the mid-1950s, he was the first to systematically recruit raw talent off B-school campuses, helping to give the MBA degree new cachet.

He was, after all, a Harvard lawyer and MBA himself, who joined the New York office of Chicago-based James O. McKinsey & Co. in 1933, when it had only 18 professionals in two locations. After McKinsey's death in 1937, Bower reestablished the firm in New York and served as its managing director from 1950 to 1967. His vision for

McKinsey came straight from his experiences at Jones Day, where he had worked as a lawyer. He wanted to bring the professional standards of a top law firm to what was then called management engineering.

Bower also insisted that the success of his firm brought personal obligations. Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former IBM chairman who had spent 11 years at McKinsey, remembers Bower marching into his office one day 35 years ago. "What are you going to do to give something back?" Bower asked. "Come with me." Recalls Gerstner: "We went together to a meeting on public-school reform, something I'm still involved in."

In a Jan. 23 e-mail to McKinsey employees, current Managing Director Rajat K. Gupta wrote: "Many of us will continue to make choices for the rest of our professional careers based in large part on the question we often ask ourselves: `What would Marvin have done?"' It's a good question--one any manager in the world might ask.

Senior Writer Byrne covers management.

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