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After leaving university, McLachlan worked as a management consultant with Accenture. In 2000, he was employed as a strategy consultant to the AFL by CEO Wayne Jackson. In 2003, he was appointed as General Manager of Commercial Operations and in 2008 was appointed Chief Operating Officer. In December 2012, he was appointed Deputy CEO. Before taking on the CEO role at the AFL, McLachlan played a major role in delivering stadiums for two new teams - Gold Coast Suns and GWS Giants, established the AFL media department and negotiated the media broadcast deal of $1.25 billion. In 2013, he supervised the AFL's investigation into the Melbourne Football Club tanking scandal and the negotiations with Essendon Football Club supplements controversy. On 30 April 2014, the AFL Chairman Mike Fitzpatrick announced McLachlan would be appointed as AFL CEO replacing Andrew Demetriou. At the announcement of his appointment, McLachlan stated: I’ve been part of the community of football and I know how important it is. I played over 200 games of amateur or country football, I’ve captained a club, I’ve been on a committee of a club, I’m a life member of a club. I’ve had my share of cold showers and freezing committee meetings. I’ve been part of appointing coaches and sacking coaches. I have a clear vision of where the game needs to go and how we’re going to get there. For me, that vision is about having an unassailable hold on the Australian community.

In 2012, it was reported that he rejected the CEO positions at the National Rugby League and the Liverpool F.C.