Behind The Feature: Michael & Irina on Women in Emerging Markets and their ambitions.
Michael Boricki, a Firmsconsulting Principal, edited September’s Quarterly article about the significant challenges of women in emerging markets who lack career guidance to join the likes of McKinsey, BCG et al. Irina (see footnote 1), a Big-3 consultant and co-writer of the article, was the source material for the article and the main consultant profiled.
The photo-essay above follows a young lady, who lives in Irina’s old apartment, through her typical day. This essay aims to provide some context for Irina’s former life in Ukraine. Photos are copyrighted to Firmsconsulting.
How do you think women should use the inspiring stories in this piece?
Michael: Well, I can answer that by telling you how women in emerging markets, or of disenfranchised backgrounds, should not use the article.
When we wrote this article I was most concerned with readers looking at these stories and thinking that if they spent a few thousand dollars on advice, along with tens of thousands of dollars on an education, they could achieve an amazing career outcome. That keeps me awake at night. I worry that all of the advice will be taken literally.
What Irina and the other women profiled here achieved is remarkable. That is why they have been profiled. It was very tough for them. And Irina will tell you that I am not an easy person with whom to work. I simply push people until they reach their maximum potential and let’s not kid ourselves, that is not fun for anyone. So this journey is not fun, not a Disney-Adventure and certainly not guaranteed. So, it can be done but the obstacles will be great and readers must be aware of this. Do not think this is a question of simply raising the cash to follow the game-plan. Many will not make it. That is why we write about those who do make it.
Irina: I agree and disagree with Michael’s views on this. And he knows I do not always agree with him!
I agree about his cautionary tale. I was also defrauded by a shady visa program which promised to help me with my career searches. So, you definitely need to be very careful in doing this. When I was in Donetsk it would have been unthinkable to spend so much money on my career. It is just a different world as they say. So Michael is right about this need to not throw money at a problem.
I disagree with Michael about how hard he was and the toughness of the program. Maybe it is because I am from Ukraine and we are tougher, I do not think I went into this expecting something easy. Anyone pursuing McKinsey and who has struggled as much as the women profiled here know how tough and unfair things are. So certainly, for the people who commit to this journey, they have clear expectations. For others, maybe not so.
Why did you choose this particular story to launch “The Women Premium” theme?
Michael: Irina’s story was inspirational and I found our dialogue to be sincere. She was more interested in telling the truth as she saw it, even when she disagreed with us, than being politically correct. I believed she would be a strong role model for women because she does not pander to conventional wisdom.
Her story also lent itself well to the photo-essay format we wanted to use. Pictures are far more effective than words. We wanted to tell the real behind the scenes story but also motivate female applicants. That was crucial for us.
For the former, we did not want anyone reading this and saying, “Oh, I read about a lady with this challenging background and she got into McKinsey so it can be easily done.” We wanted to profile the extreme hurdles Irina needed to overcome and we wanted readers to understand that particular journey versus focusing on the relative glamour of just getting in.
Personally, I grew up in an emerging market and feel women in these regions get a really bad deal. They have to overcome a discriminatory culture, traditions, laws etc. They have to overcome the ingrained expectations that they are not worthy and do not deserve the same chances as everyone else. It is tough for them and we were hoping firms like McKinsey, and even the banks where some of our clients ended up, would read this and take an anthropological view of things and try helping clients before the recruitment process.
It is too late to do anything at recruitment where firms are merely picking up the survivors of the gauntlet called life. An anthropological view means looking at the circumstances why people do well rather than merely selecting the best. Doing well when the game is rigged in your favor is not doing well.
On the motivation side, we did not want to only profile one story since one data point proves very little. So we approached all 8 clients who had been through the turnaround and asked if they would contribute. All said yes and we went to great lengths to ensure they were happy with the material before it was released. To see where they came from and what they achieved is incredibly remarkable.
It always bothers me when McKinsey or BCG does not profile these stories on their website. I think McKinsey currently has a featured profile of a successful lady on their website. It is just a slight twist on the usual theme of someone from a strong background doing well.
To connect with younger women in emerging markets and help shape their careers earlier, you have to reflect their background onto them so it is relatable. A female high-school student reading a McKinsey career page about someone attending Bryn Mawr College followed by a Wharton MBA is likely going to be more scared than inspired. We want to inspire and open up possibilities.
People like Irina do that and their stories are so personal, so detailed and so inspiring that you come to think anything is possible. That is what we wanted to leave with young women.
Irina: In November 2012 Michael asked me to contribute to the Firmsconsulting strategy meeting in January 2013 by thinking about significant themes in management consulting and prioritizing them. I did not recommend this theme but we spoke several times about my experiences and the challenges I had faced. We slowly developed this idea and thought it could be written-up to help other female clients. Writing the article opened other interesting side-stories and that is how the theme developed.
I liked Michael’s focus on emerging markets or emerging markets students trying to succeed in the west. I was first embarrassed to share my life story but Michael convinced me I should be proud of what I achieved and use it has an asset. It should not be hidden.
I liked the photo-essay idea so much! I have not been home in years so this was almost like going back and seeing how much had changed. I could not recognize anything but it is good for high-school students today since everything seems so much is better. My old apartment is still the same! I could even recognize a table we had!
I also appreciated the idea of telling this story about someone from Eastern Europe trying to succeed in the western education system. I knew foreign students were struggling to adjust but this article helped me frame this better. My MBA career counselor ignored these background issues when advising me. I felt he thought I was the same as everyone else because I had joined a good MBA program.
The counselor’s advice was lukewarm and very unhelpful. For me this article explains why my search happened as it did. The article is based on my experiences but I learned many new things about myself when reading the final analyses. It was a penetrating psychological study.
This was written almost three years after Irina’s program started. Did you find anything change in your original views on this experience?
Michael: Yes, there was a big surprise when we sent our photographer to capture a day-in-the-life-of Irina. Irina provided the street addresses, names of her school, names of friends, names of family members, her favorite hangouts etc. and the photographer took about 300 photos over a week-long period. We picked the best for the feature article but still had many interesting photos.
One of the most interesting photo-essays was not released in the original article. We have released it here and you can see it above.
The photos above followed a young women who lives in the same apartment where Irina and her mother lived many years ago. That woman was kind enough to let us follow her around for one day.
We wanted to show readers what Irina’s life was probably like, considering she was even poorer when she lived in this apartment.
What surprised me a little in these photos was the level of poverty. Everything seems so small and crowded.
I grew up in an emerging market economy so this resonated with me at a very personal level. We take a lot of things for granted in the west and we see the word “poverty” so much that we become desensitized to it. The photos were tough to see and forced me to reflect on the advice we give candidates.
How practical is it for our clients to do some of the things we ask of them? For Firmsconsulting, that was the very surprising benefit of this article and the photo shoot. We really have to think more carefully about the very practical hurdles female clients face in emerging markets and guide them through that.
Irina: I never thought there are other clients like me having a similar background. To find 6 others like me and have the opportunity to communicate with them was a great surprise and benefit of being involved in this article. We can support each other and have started doing this.
We were all trained in the same way and tend to have similar views so this makes it easy to relate to each person’s experiences and challenges. I come home after some bad days on an engagement, sit at my laptop and open up a chat to see if anyone was having the same problems. About 8 of 10 times I could find answers from this group and if that failed, I went to Michael.
I have always asked Michael to open up the Firmsconsulting network even more because this was a useful sounding-board for me. It is one of the most important benefits of the experience. Michael likes using the word “curated” and it is a good word. Everyone in the network thinks along the same values but they are not afraid to state their minds.
Is this a descriptive or prescriptive article? Can others apply the lessons?
Michael: Yes, it was designed to be prescriptive. We definitely did not want a descriptive article which sounded interesting and tried to force facts onto what we wanted to write. It is crucial to note that there was a control group of women with similar backgrounds where we used the strategies we use for our typical clients. So we could compare results between the groups to isolate success factors.
Since we had these clients working with us concurrently over about 3 years, we could also adapt our techniques to see what worked and what did not worked.
It was one big career experiment. I would like to think it is ongoing because we are always testing new ways to improve the results. The Harvard Project which eventually became “The Consulting Offer” was another huge career experiment. We also had controls in that situation. If there are no controls, the findings are just useless to us.
If you are reading this, and in a similar situation, we wanted you to see the path that can be taken but at the same time understand the difficulty. My advice is not to do the same things but to understand why it was done and then see how relevant it is to your situation. It is not wise to blindly follow any recommendation since the advice is perfectly aligned to just that client.
So the different categories and sequence of actions can be followed but must be adjusted for each reader’s unique profile. Only about 5% will achieve the same result but I think most will end up better off than they were before they started.
In general, I do not like descriptive pieces like “Good to Great” or “Tipping Point.” Even “Blue Ocean Strategy” is a descriptive piece. They are not grounded in research. The authors describe what they see and then try to explain the success. They are back-fitting facts. Prescriptive pieces explain why something happened and how to replicate the strategy. In scientific terms, descriptive pieces do not have a control: they cherry-pick facts to support their stories.
Anything which makes the New York Times bestseller list, while an interesting read, is usually descriptive since the audience would not relate to more rigorous analyses. We definitely want to move away from pithy descriptive pieces. They help no one though they can start interesting conversations.
Irina: I think to some extent it is. If I look at other women in similar roles I think they can safely follow most of the recommendations in the article. I cannot see how it could not help them.
I volunteer at some schools in suburbs around the city, and the advice is very useful to these students. For that group of females and males it would be very effective and this is a large group of millions of students. The piece is timely.
Do you feel female aspiring consultants have a tougher road ahead of them than males?
Michael: Are you kidding me? Females have a horrible time. We apply terrible double standards and then apply the ridiculous escape clause, “females now have it better than ever before in history,” because somehow that must make it better. That’s true, but we are starting off a ridiculously low base. I really do not want to get started on this subject because I could talk forever so I will keep this brief.
The bottom line is this: until male and females are equal in every single respect, they are not equal.
If you think about many of the things we do, they are driven by culture and tradition. Tradition is basically routines we follow without even thinking it through. All routines and traditions come from a time when women had not much power or respect, but we take them for granted because they are routines. By default, many routines must be sexist because they developed in times when it was normal to be sexist. I would go as far as to say most routines are sexist.
Business routines are all the same and many discriminate against females. I think this situation is the same in developed in emerging markets, though I think in developed markets females have recourse with the law on their side most times. Though I think you will agree that we have a terrible system if females need to go to the law to get what is theirs by right!
I think many outlets and publications write about females in business because it is the hot new topic. They do it to sell stories and gain traffic versus offering something useful about female leadership.
We wanted to really address this issue at its core and I believe this anthropological view is tougher to do, but generates much more meaningful data. It is not just a bunch of ex-McKinsey and BCG partners sitting in the west repackaging our accumulated wisdom/biases.
We went back into each candidates files, reconstructed their journeys, interviewed them, had them fact-check all our assertions, edit the article, re-interviewed them, sent photographers to their homes, interviewed neighbors, friends and peers at school to produce this composite of primary data versus second hand assertions.
That generates powerful insights that are more relatable to the reader. This brings more facts to the challenges females face. It is harder to dispute and provides useful context. That is because advice ultimately means very little without proper context.
Irina: Did you not read the article? Of course it is tougher! I really felt things were tough for women in Ukraine and though it is better in the west, it is still tough for me. The worst part is that we teach women today to not feel complete with who they are. We teach them they are not as good as men. I agree with Michael that we need to change traditions.
I see the same thing in consulting and in the west. There were many unsaid rules which gave my male peers an advantage. I think the firm is definitely as good as it gets but there is always room for improvement.
There is one important point I wanted to make. I always thought I was some sort of “freak” when I joined. I would openly challenge people and was very confrontational. I was told I had too many “sharp edges” and because I had no way of comparing myself, I would have continued believing this. It helped me tremendously when Firmsconsulting allowed me to communicate with the other women in this article. We could swap stories, compare notes and support the other. Due to that single benefit, I have come to see my “sharp edges” as a source of inspiration to myself and others. I would never change them now.
In my home they say a porcupine has quills for a reason. You could say the same thing about my sharp edges.
Do you think these are all the strategies that can be used?
Michael: This is not a comprehensive list and is not meant to be a comprehensive list. We wanted to show readers that you can be very creative in plugging gaps in your profile and that no matter how bad things may seem they can be overcome. I would not recommend readers creating a list of every tactic followed by those profiled in this article. It will be far more effective to simply look at your profile and analyze it the way we did in the article and then think of what works best for you.
That said, someone editing a journal, launching a start-up or leading a political campaign strategy/effort is almost certain to get an interview. Those things are naturally impressive on a resume.
Earlier, I mentioned that seeing the photos of Irina’s old apartment made me seriously reconsider the practicality of the advice we sometimes offer. When I speak to clients living in such an area, I seriously don’t expect them to do lessons late in the evening at a library and walk home in those conditions. It is not safe. That is such a simple thing that this photo essay exposed me. Some things are just not practical outside the west. So, think about the limitations of your own circumstances be it finances, safety, internet access etc. That is just one example of how we are adapting the ways we mentor clients.
My one caution is not to first spend money for advice. The mistake many students make is to spend a fortune on advice thinking they will gain access to this master list of action steps to follow. It does not work like that. I would strongly caution female applicants to first read these articles, converse on the Firmsconsulting website and then build their understanding of what is required.
Never ever delegate your accountability for your own development.
Irina: I think anyone must do what works best for them. It was very hard for me to follow the right plan. Imagine the trouble of following the wrong plan? It will just lead to failure and there is no time to experiment with different things. I think readers should spend a lot of time planning. Michael forced me to do that and we planned for 2 months.
We made changes during our program but we followed the plan very closely. There were no big changes to the goals we set and I think any changes we introduced were due to my limitations on capacity. I sometimes could not complete initiatives on time, or I did them incorrectly.
I must elaborate on this point. Michael pushed me very hard to get things done. Many times I would be tired and wanted to quit, and I would slow down. I would keep getting these reminders by email asking for updates.
So I think you need the ability to reinvent yourself in this process because doing more of what you did before will not help. That is a good thing because you become a new person out of this. He was a good mentor because he sees your potential even if you cannot see it.
This is probably the most important part because you feel intimidated and horrible every day during the MBA. If you believe what you see and hear from your MBA peers, you will never make it. A good mentor will break apart all these bad advices.
Where have the clients featured in this article ended up after joining McKinsey, BCG et al?
Michael: All remain at the major consulting firms, though a few went to banking and one in that group went into banking en-route to consulting and will interview in 2014. They were a very successful group.
I think it is too early to say where they ended up since they are just starting. Just because they ended up at McKinsey or BCG is not a success and I am not going to belittle their potential by thinking that will be their greatest accomplishment. Those firms are mere stepping stones to where they will eventually go, and I believe it will be the C-Suite. Two have political aspirations so I hope to see a mayor, regional governor and ultimately President one day.
They have only been at the firms for a few months and we need to follow them over a few years to see what happens. We will definitely do that to see if they maintain this solid trajectory. I have no doubt they will. They are special people with special skills. They will change the world.
Irina: Michael trained us to always see consulting as a finishing school and never as the destination. There was no wild partying when I received the offer and Michael was almost a party-pooper in that way:-) He always kept things grounded and focused on the long-term picture.
So while I was happy to get the offer, I also am very determined to be on the correct client issues and working with the right partners to learn the skills I need for the future. I do not know where I want to go after consulting so I think I am still developing professionally in that regards.
It is too early to say what will happen but I feel very positive about where my life is going professionally and personally, and I am very grateful for all that I have achieved. I never would have expected so many changes in 3 years.
I think females can follow some of the role models I follow. I interviewed with Polina Yampolska of BCG and she is an amazing principal who had the same life I did, though she avoided all my mistakes and delays! I thought she was this amazing Eastern European woman who had achieved so much and was extremely passionate about her work. She is so humble and so successful. She was the type of person you wanted to follow and impress. There are surely others, but I remember her and one day hope to work with her.
Do you feel consulting firms are doing enough to help females with great potential, in emerging markets, become management consultants?
Michael: Yes, they do a lot and they deserve a lot of credit for that. McKinsey and BCG in particular have good programs and a good culture in place to drive that behavior. That is not to say Bain is not good as well, I just do not have any recent data on their efforts. My feeling is that they probably do not get enough credit for their efforts and successes.
Can they do more? Of course they can but I also feel that this is a trial and error approach and we do not always know what works and what does not.
My feeling is that if we ask consulting firms to hire more women that would be epically underwhelming in the impact it can have. First, it is not about hiring more women but rather developing those that you have. Orit Gadiesh was just one person but her imprint on Bain is painfully obvious. She made Bain a friendly and relatable firm. So it is not about quantity, but the quality of the impact.
Second and I think this is where consulting firms should focus; they should be encouraging their clients to develop cultures, principles and procedures to encourage the recruitment, retention and promotion of females. That could have a much broader impact.
Irina: I do not think enough is done. I think the firm is great at developing female consultants once they join but not enough is done to get females to join. We recruit at all the great schools and I have attended those events as a recruiter. Deep down I wonder if there is someone like me in another school who just does not apply because she does not feel she is good enough.
A strategy of hiring the best from a limited pool is not a great strategy. I am not advocating hiring anyone who does not have the grades, natural leadership profile or cannot solve the cases. I am saying it may be worth speaking to females earlier in their careers and more broadly to encourage them to explore consulting and avoid the mistakes I made.
I know that many people do not want to be a leader because they think it will lead to nothing meaningful in their life. So they never try. I was such a person.
(1) Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information.
Unemployed to The Big-3
This article was co-written with eight clients including those featured in this article.
Feature Begins: Unemployed to The Big 3
Irina did not follow the path of a typical Ukrainian high school graduate. Unlike her peers who studied the arts, economics or mathematics at university, she did not have the luxury of pursuing post-secondary education. She could not afford the opportunity cost. The only child to a widowed and ill mother, she had grown up with the expectation that taking care of her mother was the natural next stage of her life. Therefore, despite graduating 1st in her class, she pursued the unlikely path of shunning an essentially free university education to seek full time employment in Ukraine’s black-market economy.
Irina openly admits that even if her mother had been healthy and able to work, she was unlikely to have pursued higher education since there was no one advising her of its value. Irina did not have many role models in her life, yet was inspired by US television shows to dream of a life on the US west coast. An option she felt was out of her grasp.
Both her grandfathers had succumbed to alcoholism, and her father had passed away when she was 4 years old – also due to alcoholism. Irina remembers a happier time just after the fall of communism when her father still had hope for the changes to come and tried to keep the family together. Visiting the port as a family and watching the navy battleships sail out was a fond memory of hers, especially since her father always allowed her to eat as much ice cream as she wished.
Things changed when he lost his machinist job at a local metal works; a job he had held for over 30 years. He could not handle the loss of his role in the family, their deteriorating fortunes and hopelessness, and quickly drank himself to death. Her mother was ill-equipped to handle the loss. Though educated as a physicist, a poor respiratory system and limited employment opportunities forced her mother to work just 2 days a week at the local technical institute. The salary was far from enough to pay the steep food and heating bills.
After high school, Irina worked for 3 years in informal retail and printing jobs before realizing that working her way to a middle-income lifestyle was not a reasonable plan. She could barely make ends meet on her meagre salary which was not always paid on time, if at all. Her hopes of moving to Moscow were dashed when a close friend recounted the challenges of finding employment in the metropolis and the stringent permitting system for non-city residents – let alone non-citizens. Irina either needed an education to succeed in Ukraine or to leave Ukraine altogether. Irina became even more resolute about gaining an education.
Again, poor advice led to poor choices further hampering her chances. She was encouraged to pursue vocational studies over an accredited degree. Therefore, by the age of 22 she had completed her engineering trade certification and was earning a small but sufficient salary working as an electrical assistant for an oil services company. She was able to support her mother who was let go due to budget cuts. To Irina, things seemed slightly more promising.
Yet by the age of 24 Irina had had sufficient exposure to visiting European and American technical specialists to realize she had far more potential and she needed to leave Ukraine to enhance her chances of success. Sadly, her technical credentials were not sufficient for any type of US work visa. Irina eventually, after spending over $500 for visa advice which was basically copy and pasted off the information on the Immigration Canada website, applied to the Canadian government’s special-skills visa program for the province of Alberta. The province was looking for professionals with trade skills heavily in demand across the burgeoning oil sector – and Irina barely qualified.
She arrived in Canada and had to share a room in a youth hostel which charged her $50 a night – a staggering sum considering she only arrived with $870 in cash and Travellers checks for the remainder of the amount required by immigration. The Travellers checks were also issued on borrowed money and she hoped to return them within a month to avoid stiff penalties, which her mother would need to pay. She spent her days at Starbucks – for the free Wi-Fi – scouring ads for any jobs in her field and quickly found a promising role in the booming oil sands industry. Irina had to pay for her own credentials verification process and submit to an extensive background check which took 4 weeks. Sadly for Irina, the company chose to hire someone who was already based in Alberta.
Learning from her mistakes, she moved to Alberta and began the process again, eventually finding an entry-level technical support role. Irina focused on creating a stable income, securing her job and sending money home monthly to help her mother. A disciplined, creative, bright and hardworking employee, Irina was promoted 3 times in 2 years to lead her own electrical reticulation crew. At the age of 26, she was the only non-degree manager and the only female. She was usually the first person on site, the last to leave and was routinely cited for “lacking work-life balance.”
Irina recalls her decisions:
“Successfully coming to Canada was important. It was my first step to something better. The day before I started working there I had only $91 in cash left – I celebrated my offer by ordering a hamburger and fries! I couldn’t use the traveller’s checks since the money was borrowed and we needed to pay them off. So I was misleading immigration by carrying the checks with me – it was not my money and I could actually not use it to survive in Canada. When I look back and think about 3 promotions, I am proud of myself. The work was difficult for everyone. Yet, only I needed the money and I had to constantly prove myself. No matter how bad it was I was always the first person on the work site. That is how I earned respect. I was a thin person and I weighed less than 55 kilograms. That did not stop me. Once I dropped my insulated gloves down a tank during an inspection. Rather than calling for help I spent the next minutes turning that screw as fast as I could. I hurt my hands badly from the sub-zero temperatures but did not lose my dignity. That is how you earned respect with male operations employees. All the preaching about equal rights meant nothing on the field when it was just you, your all male crew and physical labour.”
Irina’s typical day meant going to sleep with her cell phone under her pillow and getting up as needed – very quietly so as not to disturb her roommates – if the new distribution lines or converters stopped working. In her worst night she had to lead her crew through a marathon 4 hour assignment to get the distributors online while installing a backup generator – during a snowstorm. Irina felt she had finally vanquished the legacy of her poor decisions and was ready to move forward. She believed she was on firmer ground.
During her 2nd year at the company, Irina was called into her managers’ office and asked if she would spend time with the McKinsey team benchmarking energy efficiency on the heating and thermal insulator units. Irina’s enthusiasm, quick wit and solid grasp of the business made her a firm favourite among the McKinsey consultants who asked that Irina be allocated more time for their engagement. Irina was soon travelling to meetings at the head office, validating McKinsey findings, helping with workshops and guiding the team’s hunt for important data.
Irina was easily bitten by the consulting bug. This was the life she wanted – “helping large companies fix big problems and making a tangible impact each and every day,” a desire she did not know she had until working with the consultants. She could not imagine a future fixing electrical generators at 3am in the middle of the Albertan expanse in sub-zero temperatures.
Irina used her performance on the McKinsey engagement – overwhelmingly positive feedback from her operations manager and McKinsey team – as validation that she could do the work and would fit into the McKinsey culture. Over lunch on the final day of the engagement, Irina politely broached the subject of applying. She was excited and thrilled with the prospect of getting ahead. The engagement manager, who felt Irina was an exceptional employee and liked her, gently explained that Irina needed at least a recognized undergraduate degree and possibly an MBA. Although he tried to let her down easily, Irina was crushed.
Irina recalls her emotions on the day:
“I felt sick that day. It was like he kicked me in my stomach. I thought everyone was listening to the conversation and thinking: who was this stupid girl who did not even know what McKinsey needed? I could not eat and wanted to just go home and hide in my room. If I had known my technical training was so limiting I would not have done it. The money was good but at least I could have studied part-time and not wasted so much of my life. Good advice was the most essential requirement for graduates in Ukraine and we did not have it. I made so many mistakes because I just did not know better.”
In that moment Irina felt the desperation of her situation. She was 26, never had a childhood, had worked her entire life and had been rapidly promoted at a Fortune 100 company to the position of crew leader. Yet she had no degree and no way forward. She had a vocational qualification which would make her an outstanding operations crew member but would never allow her into management, let alone management consulting.
Irina did not have the luxury of going back to school, had limited funds to go back even if she wanted to and had no plan out of her predicament. She had reached her ceiling and dreaded the thought of becoming an operations specialist while her peers and friends were given greater opportunities, largely due to their degrees.
In that time, it dawned on her that she would likely never wear a suit, she would never get the type of respect the McKinsey consultants immediately garnered and never know the feeling of having achieved something others felt was significant.
At that moment Irina decided to use her savings and embarked on what we call a “personal turnaround.” What this meant in practice was that Irina would need to rebuild her resume, and life, from scratch while navigating three atypical obstacles.
First, she had to simultaneously maintain her existing fulltime work commitments while playing catch-up on education and skills.
Second, Irina would need to complete this turnaround in a much shorter time frame because she was starting 8 years later and had to accelerate the process to catch up to her peers.
Third, her achievements needed to be stellar to compensate for her earlier mistakes – parity to her peers was not an option. This is not easy to do, even with the best guidance.
Irina was the first of these “personal turnarounds” undertaken by our firm. It was an unproven and risky career strategy which could only be executed over an arc extending 2 to 3 years. The phrase we use for this kind of career strategy is “parking a super tanker in a swimming pool.” There is zero-margin for error as the displacement on her life would be dramatic.
Irina’s quest to turnaround her professional life led to her working full-time while completing her undergraduate degree at night over 2 years, ultimately graduating with a 3.90 GPA – a distinction. The day she wrote her final undergraduate exam, Irina went home and signed up for the GMAT. Over the next 6 months Irina wrote her GMAT, prepared her MBA applications and entered a ranked MBA program.
Though, there were many stops, starts, mistakes and stumbles along the way, Irina’s bold determination and fear of failure ensured that she stayed the course – a very challenging course.
Just over 3 years after she began her personal turnaround Irina was hired by one of the Big-3 firms.
Given the accelerated pace of events over the last 3 years, it is not altogether surprising that Irina has only recently had time to reflect on her multi-year journey and understand the significance of what she accomplished.
How did she change the trajectory of her life 180 degrees when conventional wisdom said it was impossible to do so?
It was largely due to having a truthful view on the critical path she needed to follow to recreate the foundation for management consulting missing in her profile, and her unprecedented stamina in following through on that critical path of her plan.
Irina’s experiences, common to less than 3% of clients, shows why such personal turnarounds are possible but require an unusual set of skills and sustained determination to execute the plan. It also illustrates the importance of focusing on the basics and not lowering ambition when the journey becomes tougher. This article examines the three phases of Irina’s journey.
Irina recalls her own experiences:
“I pursued a 2 year MBA but it felt more like a 1-year program. I was very tired having worked minimum 18 hour days to focus on my career and studies and then jumping straight into my MBA without a break. My friends would talk about the vacations they took before the MBA and I had nothing to say – because I was reading and catching up. I lied about having a social life. My MBA was hard because I did not have a strong business background and needed to translate everything from English to Russian and back into English. I was networking and building my understanding of consulting. I was trying to compress, into a very short time period, things all my peers took for granted. The first time someone mentioned the Harvard Business Review, I had to Google it! I had no choice to follow the advice I was receiving – there was no time to argue about it. All my questions were about executing the ideas. I had to trust the advice.
Phase 1: Seeing the truth for what it is
Building confidence without pressure: Clients going through a personal turnaround suffer from an almost paralyzing lack of confidence – though they demonstrate an astonishingly overwhelming outward display of confidence. While their actions appear to be stridently confident to peers, what they do is far less important than why they do it. They engage in seemly confident behaviour due to the need to not fail, rather than a natural ability to respond in a confident way. In other words, it is a significant act of will power, concentration, sacrifices and determination for them to present this image.
One client would spend all night preparing all her MBA cases, reading all the exhibits, preparing her notes, going through all assigned readings and challenging her colleagues in class – even when she was the lone voice of dissent in a class of mostly males. When asked why she did this, she recounted that she did not want to be average in life – she would rather die. What made her look confident to outsiders was an inherent belief she was average and a need to break free from this.
A common mistake typically occurs when these candidates are mentored by career counsellors, friends or peers. The client’s relative lack of early success may erroneously lead many to conclude that they lack ambition, intelligence or the capacity to work diligently. They are routinely admonished for their lack of success and told to work harder. This is extremely damaging advice which causes far more harm than good. These clients are very receptive to criticism and respond by working even longer hours, yet without a clear idea of what needs to change. The end result is a fatigued candidate who will have little to show for the additional work because they simply worked harder, hoping to improve, but having no plan to do so.
The insight is that these candidates underperform not because they lack ability, but because they lack direction. It is myth that exposing them to greater pressure will force them to magically reinvent themselves. They lack confidence since they are far more critical of their actions than any outside review could ever be. Therefore, more pressure or criticism is pointless and damaging. These clients respond best to inspiration and motivation. In a sense, they need to be cocooned from pressure and given a very clear roadmap.
The important preparation strategy for these candidates is to find a strong mentor who can reduce the pressure points and work on building their confidence. One simple way to do this is to simply point out what they need to do to improve. They need to be gently given information on how to prepare. In our experience, the environment must be created where it is expected the client will be successful in obtaining an offer, and therefore, no attention should be drawn to the issue. If the client notices any concerns, their internal criticism goes into overdrive, which hurts their performance.
Irina remembers this part of the process:
“I would spend hours on the internet finding forums and articles about strategy and finance. I was very excited about my findings and shared them all the time with my coach. I was once asked why I read the blog of person so and so, and why I did not read the Harvard Business Review, Capital Ideas or the McKinsey Quarterly. My answer was that I did not know these were the best publications to read. I was encouraged to read the work of the best thinkers who were at the frontier of their fields. On another occasion I forwarded Economist articles on new finance and strategy studies. I was gently corrected and asked why I trusted the Economist so much that I read their opinions on someone else’s research – I should have read the original studies and formed my own opinions. These were obvious things but I never before would have considered doing them. The low stress environment helped me because I don’t think I could handle any more stress. My heart was hurting and my hands were shaking after some classes so anything more would tip me over.”
An alternative, though rare, response to a lack of confidence is a yearning to fit in. Turnaround clients may appear too eager at times and are predisposed to volunteer for as many activities as possible in the hope of creating friends. While this is not a significant problem, carefully managing it is important to limit excessive commitments which could hurt their grades.
Benchmarking against the best: Suffering from such low levels of confidence, these clients tend to consider themselves unworthy of comparisons to peers in schools like Harvard etc., assuming they are MBA clients. They tend to believe they need to acquire more skills and/or credentials before they can compare themselves.
One client refused to consider her non-Ivy league MBA comparable to that of her friends at Wharton despite having a better resume and performing better at consulting cases. During her interviews, she was unable to explain the value of her profile relative to that of her friends, because in her mind, there was no additional value – despite all evidence to the contrary.
Without careful guidance these clients get trapped in a dangerous arms race to build credentials since it gives them comfort and feeds their yearning for respect. They incorrectly assume more degrees will change their perception of themselves. Many clients refer to a lack of unconditional support from family, during the developmental years of their life before the age of 15, as a reason for their low confidence levels.
The tangible value of proper benchmarking is very important. Only by knowing their real competitors’ strengths, can a candidate adequately prepare. This benchmarking process will, gently, introduce realism to the journey.
Many clients do not take the time to analyse their peers’ resumes to extract their real versus perceived strengths.
An interesting experiment we run for these clients is to take the resumes of 10 clients – sanitize them – and remove the name of the school and ask the client to select who joined McKinsey. They are surprised when we point out that the resumes which were successful originated from schools with a perceived lower standing in rankings. This exercise helps personal turnaround clients critically evaluate their positive biases for brand names. This is important for building confidence because they now can see proof that they have attractive profiles.
Parity is insufficient: Clients in this segment have, for lack of a better word, wasted large periods of their lives. Therefore, merely being as good as their competitors in this stage of their lives is almost certainly insufficient to compensate for past weaknesses. Some of these gaps are significant. Irina, for example, had three years of basic office administrative experience and possessed an undergraduate degree completed via night classes. These are hardly credentials to impress a consulting firm or consulting client.
Candidates who succeed with their personal turnarounds must reach parity on grades against the top students. Grades are vital since these candidates are typically graduating from a relatively weaker school for their undergraduate degree and will need to focus on grades and exceptional leadership in their MBA programs. For reasons mentioned earlier, it is difficult for these clients to enter elite schools for their MBA . Irina, for example, studied at a top twenty school in the USA but was declined at Stanford, Harvard and Wharton.
Exceptional leadership never means being the vice-president, leading any prescribed studies/courses, planning a start-up, or leading a case competition team. For these clients, it means creating something which is guaranteed to impress a recruiter. For example, Irina planned, wrote the code, built and sold her start-up while completing her MBA.
Irina recalls this accomplishment:
“I was content to be VP of the Consulting Club, join a social organization and maybe lead one of the leadership tours around the inner city – travelling abroad like everyone else was out on my budget and strict agenda. Everyone was doing these kinds of things and I assumed it was normal. I simply never considered pursuing anything else. I found my advice was different from everyone else but followed it since we were so far into the journey. I asked for lots of advice on what I needed to do and pushed really hard to execute it – I wanted to quit many, many times because it was so hard to do everything. And not a single person in my class had such a crazy agenda. Selling the start-up was not part of the plan – we had never planned for this to happen since it was not possible to build a roadmap into that – but the unexpected cherry on the top. It was a small sum, but enough to help pay for my MBA and differentiated me from my peers.
In another example, a client, Dinara, worked with a professor in the school of law to launch a peer-reviewed periodical on M&A law focused on start-ups in the region. She served as the editor and this successful periodical has now become an on-going publication at the business school.
These are not parity leadership roles. They are knock-out punches when it comes to leadership. They compensate for past mistakes and gaps.
This is where benchmarking is vital. If Irina and Dinara had benchmarked themselves against mediocre schools or mediocre students at good schools, Irina may have settled at merely writing a winning business plan and Dinara could have settled at launching an email newsletter. They did not, because they benchmarked themselves against their leading peers at the best schools and saw what good looks like at these schools.
Given the effort required by personal turnaround clients, the primary objective is for them to build sustainable assets on their resume. To determine if an initiative is worth undertaking, they need to ask one question only:
Will this enhance my resume in 10 or 15 years?
If the answer is “no,” they should never do it. Any effort requires discipline, stamina, planning and focus to do just a few things which matter. It is better to have led one meaningful initiative of significance than multiple mediocre efforts which take up space in a resume, for the sake of meeting resume submission requirements. In a well-known example of undertaking roles of significance, President Barack Obama’s abbreviated resume continues to list his role as editor of the Harvard Law Review: one asset of significance which is sustainable in adding value to his personal brand even after he took the highest office in the land.
None of the personal turnaround clients studied at the Ivy Leagues but they built resume assets of greater significance.
Set a clear point of differentiation: Clients in this segment typically have no basis of differentiation which is memorable. They lack a spike. The activities they undertake, usually in their studies, must provide this point of differentiation. In Irina’s case she was the oil and gas lady who built an oil analyses start-up and sold it. In Dinara’s case she was simply the editor of a law review, which she founded. For another client, she developed the wholly successful crowd-funding website which delivered the US mayor of a medium-sized town back to the mayor’s mansion despite predictions he would be crushed by well-funded oppositions. She was the “government girl.”
These types of goals look intimidating and tough to accomplish because they are. They require significant effort, time, planning, stamina and ingenuity to execute. That is why this is called a turnaround. All clients in Irina’s position who successfully managed a personal turnaround were able to develop clear points of differentiation during their studies.
Setting a clear strategy: In Irina’s case, while completing her completing her undergraduate degree, she worked in the field as needed and typically more than 15 hours a day. She would thereafter go home and study for her exams to complete her undergraduate degree. Given her background, she had to finish with excellent grades. Irina, therefore had no free time and was juggling multiple priorities.
Irina recalls her Christmas vacations:
“I had no time to travel anywhere, and not a lot of money even if I wanted to. Once I started this journey I spent every weekend and holiday studying. I had friends but did not want to impose on their families and felt if I visited, it would be rude to spend just an hour or two and leave. My Christmas dinner was taking a 2 hour break to eat canned turkey slices while watching TV. What gave me a lot of hope was that the strategy we had developed was working. I was able to finish my undergraduate degree with a high GPA and get into a very good MBA program. My resume was getting attention from the consulting firms and I was killing myself closing out the last parts of the plan.”
We asked clients in this segment what they would have done if they did not have access to a clear strategy: in other words, if they were working independently. Unanimously, they indicated they would be forced to seek out as much information as possible, constantly evaluate their plans and make adjustments which they were not sure would be of any use. In other words, they would waste precious time they did not have, analysing information of questionable value.
We find the clients who perform best follow a disciplined strategy set at the beginning. This allows them to give all their energy to the critical items and ignore the significant time commitment required to filter new rumours and suggestions from friends and colleagues.
Strategy is a matter of choice and a career strategy is no different. Not being seduced by common misconceptions is essential.
Phase 2: Execution of the plan is essential
Grades matter: Grades are important, especially for personal turnarounds. Given all the gaps in the resume, the client cannot show any further deficiencies. Weaker grades will make the process of exceeding parity that much more difficult. Across the clients in this segment, we find they all obtained exceptional grades of 3.7 to 4.0 GPAs for their undergraduate degrees and 3.7 to 4.0 GPAs for their MBAs. Though none of them graduated from recognized schools for their undergraduate degrees or completed their MBAs at the Ivy league school, they all graduated with distinctions.
Attending a lesser known school is fine provided clients graduate with high GPAs. A weak GPA from a weaker school raises concerns about the quality of the candidate. These are question marks turnaround clients can ill afford.
Grades are so important that our clients go to extraordinary lengths to secure them. One client would drive to work 2 hours earlier than needed, to avoid traffic, and study in her car before she was scheduled to start her shift. She would allocate at least 1 hour each night to prepare even though she only returned home from the office at 10pm each night.
Separate fun from the equation: The social element of studying is important, but the degree and necessity is different for every student. Candidates going through a personal turnaround do not study to have fun or socialize. They are trying to wipe out a career deficit they had built up over many years, lack the formative experiences of colleagues and are typically older. They do not have the time to socialize as much since they have higher priority assets/skills to acquire versus the skills/assets gained from socializing. In other words, the gap to close is so large that socializing is only possible if they decide to give up on the targets set at the beginning. Given how far they have come and how close they are to their objectives, no client is willing to do this. If they did, they would almost certainly not complete the turnaround.
Clients who underwent a personal turnaround unanimously agreed that they never enjoyed any part of their studies. It was a horrible experience for them. Most were compressing their undergraduate degrees and MBAs so they had no rest period nor they did have much time to apply their undergraduate study material before pursuing an MBA. English is typically a second language and one client had to spend 3 hours every night translating her cases before she could even begin her class preparation.
Irina recalls her experiences:
“Word quickly spread through the class that I would not attend any parties so I never received many invites. I attended one birthday party for a friend and that was it. I only stayed for 1 hour. I received great advice to focus on the second half of the first year, since many students give up trying to go for grades after trying and failing to get good grades in the first half of the year. They realize it is too hard and just stop. I tried to pace myself but suffered a little even though I met the tough grades bar set. I was always sleepy, hungry, tired and my hands would shake in class. Yet, I kept going because we were so close. I received promising responses from every consulting firm and that inspired me to push through.”
Poorly managing fatigue: Personal turnaround clients almost always pursue their goals at the expense of their health. Having grown up in typically poor countries, with limited opportunities and having struggled for a long time, they are unwilling to allow anything to derail their single remaining avenue to a different life. This leads to the dark side of ambition.
One client’s, who we will call Alana, lack of sleep, intense self-generated pressure and lack of confidence slowly caught up with her during her spring break. While her peers were away with family and friends, vacationing and recuperating, Alana holed herself away in a meeting room for eleven straight days and began practicing the cases we had taught her. She would arrive at 8am every morning, usually the only person in the building, work until 1pm EST, eat greasy food for lunch, and continue working until 11pm before heading back to her shared apartment. In the prior 2 years, Alana had not taken a single day off – including weekends. She soon started experiencing heart pains and was diagnosed with palpitations. Her excessive work load and poor diet had clearly exacerbated the problem. Things came to a head when Alana soon thereafter started fainting repeatedly. Turnaround clients like Alana rationalize that they cannot go to a doctor due to a lack of time. Although Alana met her goal of obtaining an offer from an elite strategy firm, she did so at great cost to her health: the real impact of which she is yet to experience.
We find that even in the face of such medical diagnoses, personal turnaround clients are unwilling to step off the accelerator. That is the danger of candidates who have too much internal drive. Having been given a clear strategy to the top with a defined expiry date, they are unwilling to back down until they literally drop.
Clients in this position must re-design their plan and re-prioritize their initiatives. They tend to assume that working at every possible moment, even when they are extremely exhausted, generates an incremental benefit, even when the evidence points to the contrary. A good strategy is to understand the objectives for each initiative and stop working once it has been achieved
Irina discussed her own experiences:
“Working on my start-up was brutal on me because my team let me down. Five colleagues quickly signed up and that made me happy. I very quickly learned they were just interested in the idea of being in a start-up. They were not interested in the process of starting up. Nothing allocated to them was completed. After many delays and poorly written documents, I took over and started doing everything myself. My coach guided me through the process of taking back control and I pushed through. I fell into the trap of perfecting my code and building a complex business model while my coach pushed me into a lean model. I found this to be beneficial and the reason I could get a working version out by the time of the MBA hackathon. My version wanted to fix everything, while my coach decided on fixing just one simple problem in the oil data processing centers and doing it very well. That reduced objective helped me. I only had so many hours in the day and my grades were a major priority.
Irina’s challenge is typical of these clients. They tend to focus on perfection, by defining perfection to be everything. Yet they quickly adjust when given good advice.
Empresses of ethics: Given what is at stake for personal turnaround clients, they could be forgiven for cutting corners, crossing ethical grey lines or even outright cheating. If ever there could be ideal candidates for having a convenient excuse to commit such acts, it would be them. Yet they do not, not even on little things.
One client, we will call her Sonja, once requested advice on a dilemma she faced. Sonja was the typically diligent turnaround client who wanted to extract everything from her experience. She had actually read her MBA ethics manual and understood what was permitted and was not permitted. The manual forbade students from using “any external material including internet sources” when preparing for case discussions. Sonja recounted that all students where using online sources to prepare for the class discussions, but she felt this was against the MBA code of ethics. Sonja correctly reasoned that, merely because the university was not currently prosecuting such behavior, even though it was blatant and rampant, it did not imply the university waived the right to prosecute such behavior in the future.
She surmised that it was better to obtain a slightly lower grade than obtain a marginally higher grade while having to live with the slight risk of being investigated in the future and having her degree withdrawn.
The 2012 Harvard cheating scandal raises this dilemma and outlines the consequences. Even if dishonest actions by students is rampant and condoned through lack of disciplinary action, does not imply such action may never occur. Turnaround candidates tend to have excessive values and believe anything which tarnishes their hard earned reputation and achievements are not worth the risk.
Another client, who we will call Emma, was interviewed by McKinsey and asked how much she explicitly knew about the company. Rather than misrepresenting herself, she politely explained she had never met anyone in the firm before but had extensively read about the company on its website and in magazines, and could cite specific reasons why she believed she was a good fit. She also diplomatically reminded the firm, shrewdly, that the interview process was an opportunity for her to learn more about the organization and determine if a fit truly existed. This answer clearly resonated with the interviews since she was successful despite great odds.
Personal turnaround clients are not empresses of ethics. They do not go through life knowing what the correct decision is or, when they do know, calmingly avoiding the less painful path. Knowing that an easy option exists is extremely seductive and they constantly debate the merits and risks of taking such action. Yet they almost always chose the ethical path because the potential cost to them is too high. Their peers may have fall back plans if their studies are not successful, but turnaround clients typically have none – they are the fall back plan for their entire family.
The honesty of personal turnaround clients is refreshing to most consulting firms who typically meet applicants who confuse arrogance for confidence and who are predisposed to offering diluted answers rather than answering truthfully. This honesty, because it is sincere, allows them to build strong bonds with their interviewers and sometimes obtain new interviews where an initial attempt may prove unsuccessful.
Networking helps, if done correctly: Given the initial low levels of self-confidence, these clients are typically unwilling and unable to network with partners. Ironically, this occurs at the final stage of the personal turnaround when they are merely two steps – interview invite and offer – away from achieving their objective. This inherent lack of confidence plays itself out in two ways.
First, they tend to place an excessive emphasis on tangible assets like grades. They would rather spend hours learning a concept which increases their GPA from 3.75 to 3.80 versus investing time in initiatives to obtain an interview. They believe grades can never be taken away from them while the value of a network can deteriorate in time.
Second, we find these clients tend to assume networking is simply the process of submitting their details to secure an interview. They do not appreciate that taking the time upfront to slowly build a relationship will lead to a higher probability of receiving an invite when the application is submitted.
We have found that the best way to manage this is to encourage starting the networking process during the first 2 months of classes, when the workload is less strenuous and most of their colleagues are not focused on recruitment.
Irina remembers her experience:
“I was never able to get the point of networking until it was almost too late. It seemed obvious to me that good grades would get me the interview. It took a lot of energy from my coach to explain why I needed to network, why I needed to start networking so early and why grades, by themselves, where required, but insufficient to garner interviews. When I look back this was the one part I should have done much better. I am still learning how to build relationships and not assume that people will like me because I am good at my job. It is my biggest weakness.”
Phase 3: Managing the interview process
Accept you are now a new person: During a McKinsey interview, a personal turnaround client whom we will call, Nargiz, was doing an exceptional job of structuring the case and communicating her recommendations. It was a difficult case and her performance was all the more striking. Impressed, the interviewer wanted to test her management skills and asked Nargiz how she would structure the work plan if she had a business analyst supporting her. Although an unusual McKinsey case request, it does occur and when it happens, should be treated like a standard case question.
Nargiz handled the question well. She drew on her personal discipline and work ethic to construct the correct work plan. In fact, she found some creative ways to reduce the overlap of work between the teams and could articulately explain how she would manage the team. The interviewer was very impressed with Nargiz’s intellect, commitment and intensity. He gave her the highest marks for her structuring skills, communication and analytic abilities.
Yet, Nargiz was declined because her work plan for her team ignored the time away from the office for weekends. By omitting this, Nargiz had indirectly assumed the teams would work on weekends; a practice frowned upon at McKinsey.
In Nargiz’s mind, she had made no mistakes and should be rewarded for her thinking. She had performed better than others and felt her commitment, dedication and intellect were sufficiently superior that such an oversight on planning could have been overlooked. She was bitterly disappointed to learn much weaker peers received offers. To understand why McKinsey does not overlook such issues, we need to go back to Nargiz’s lack of confidence – a major stumbling block for clients involved in a personal transformation.
The issue comes down to the difference between what Nargiz thinks the interviewer sees when he looks at her and what he actually sees.
By the time of the interview Nargiz’s personal turnaround is almost complete. Her resume will be exceptional against 99% of all applicants. In fact, personal turnaround clients tend to have the best resumes, given the effort made to alter their career trajectories, and do not struggle obtaining interviews. Nargiz has also been carefully trained to handle all types of case interviews, speak with poise and communicate confidently. That is indeed what the interviewer sees. He sees a confident and articulate leader who is mature enough to be given the opportunity to mentor and guide younger analysts, and possibly her peers as well.
Yet that is not what Nargiz thinks the interviewer sees and Nargiz responds to what she thinks the interviewer sees.
Nargiz is still driven by an innate lack of confidence and thinks this lack of confidence is what the interviewer sees. She therefore, mistakenly, does things to try to placate the interviewer and compensate for artificial weaknesses.
First, she assumes she is still the pre-turnaround Nargiz who needs to constantly prove herself and is not worthy of leading others. Therefore, she constructs a work plan to demonstrate her stamina and her intellect when these are not in question. She is so focused on her self-generated inadequacies that she ignores her role of building a work plan to both manage and nurture her team of analysts. Her plan will ultimately lead to burn-out for her team. Nargiz fails to realize that not everything is about her.
Second, she is emotionally confused that she is even worthy of the role and is constantly wondering if the interviewer is wondering the same thing: will he figure out she is a fraud and does not deserve his time? She tries to over compensate on her performance so that no one focuses on her lack of performance. She feels if her performance is investigated people will quickly realize she does not deserve to be there.
Nargiz’s action to overcompensate for her erroneous understanding of her self-worth is what sabotages her. It is that simple.
This affliction, the neurotic impostor, afflicts many credible and highly capable executives, not to mention all personal turnaround clients.
To fix this problem positive and negative reinforcement must be provided by her coach.
The coach must encourage Nargiz to take the time to reflect on how far she has come in the last 2 years:
• Completing her undergraduate degree with distinction.
• Getting into a competitive MBA program.
• Completing her MBA with distinction.
• Launching a start-up successfully and securing funding.
She is not the same person who started this journey. Crucially, she must avoid comparing her reality to the projected image her peers always generate of themselves. Comparing her unflattering internal feelings with the carefully crafted projections of others is an unfair comparison. Nargiz will always feel like a failure if she does this.
Nargiz must no longer be praised for her hard work and ability to overachieve by burning up her time, energy and resources. The turnaround is over and she must now be treated like any other outstanding client. She must be encouraged to rest, focus on her personal interests and be encouraged to measure productivity and not output. During the turnaround clients focus on output, even if productivity drops.
The shift from output to productivity is a vital shift to understand.
Personal turnaround clients tend to be so enamoured with their successes at the end of the program that they tend to forget how unproductive they had been in achieving their goals. During the turnaround, Nargiz would have poured resources – time, effort and even finances – to achieve her objectives. Even if Nargiz was taking 9 hours to study for an exam to generate a 90% grade, it would not matter if her peers where studying just 2 hours to generate the same grade. Nargiz’s strategy was to achieve grade parity with the best students.
This is not a sustainable strategy and always leads to burnout. The essence of a personal turnaround is about deploying significant, usually excessive, input to get a fixed output. That fixed output is an offer at McKinsey. Once that objective is close to being achieved, Nargiz should focus on finding ways to reduce her inputs to simply maintain her achievements, while avoiding burnout.
The most significant way a coach or mentor can demonstrate that Nargiz is past the turnaround phase is to carefully listen to Nargiz’s opinion and make a material change to the program based on her suggestion. This sends a clear signal that Nargiz is now considered a peer and does not have to burn up every resource to be heard.
Ending a turnaround
Dismantling the wartime controls: A personal turnaround client, whom we shall call Samira, frequently referred to her journey as a war. Samira would use war analogies to describe various initiatives in the program.
Samira was correct. She was at war and we run personal turnarounds in such a manner.
Productivity is sacrificed. Personal liberties and luxuries are withheld for the greater good. Samira would count her money during lunch time during her MBA to ensure she could pay for extra lessons. She was enormously proud of only spending 5 dollars over lunch. Over the three years of her turnaround, she never once visited her parents in Central Europe nor did she take a vacation. All her privileges were rationed, usually wholly eliminated, and Samira did not permit herself to take an evening away from her studies, reading or case preparation.
The unforeseen problem is that some clients forget these are special circumstances requiring special treatment. The intense approach deployed during a personal turnaround will hurt a client unless it is dismantled immediately thereafter. Clients who try to maintain the same strategy after leaving the program always suffer from burnout.
We find clients can adopt five best-practices to dismantle the personal turnaround “wartime” controls while still pursuing ambitious career agendas.
(1) Take a vacation. Turnaround clients must realize they were successful since they had a coach mapping out their strategy. Going forward, they must develop the skills and creativity to self-generate their own career roadmaps. Taking a vacation forces them off the treadmill and allows self-reflection to start plotting their own careers versus merely being fast-followers of a coach’s advice.
(2) Set one or two big goals. Do not assume a career will magically blossom at McKinsey and thereafter. Have a clear objective for time at the firm and a clear objective of what will be extracted from the experience.
(3) Create a powerful network. Actively cultivate and curate a network of influential and supportive mentors to guide development and provide direct feedback.
(4) You are your friends. Develop superior judgment in evaluating others’ potential, using demanding standards for leadership and integrity. Surround yourself with the type person you want to become.
(5) Periodically raise the bar. Take time each year to reflect on skills gaps, opportunities and limitations. Benchmark against the best peers in the firm and life, who are striving for the same objective with similar resources: context is important.
This article is dedicated to clients like Emma, Irina, Nargiz, Samira, Ang and many others who prove that hard work and determination can be rewarded. By analyzing their journeys we hope their experiences continue to inspire others to achieve their greatest goals.
Michael Boricki is a Principal at Firmsconsulting.
Emma’s View. Emma is a PhD candidate completing a doctorate in computer science in the North-Eastern USA.
McKinsey, BCG et al are known for their highly regarded, and more importantly a unified culture, especially in McKinsey where Marvin Bower set a high bar. It seems to be true that behind these blue, green and red façades, there are homogenous profiles of consultants as well.
However, this article unveils the true stories behind a general misconception: that if consultants look and act the same, they must have followed the same paths.
The most intriguing part is not just the fact that all of them are female, but these females went through extraordinary adversities. When we think about female leaders, it’s often the powerful women we read about from Fortune, or about the high-flyer’s who are often in media, such as Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer.
What is the general impression we have of these female leaders? They are glamorous overachievers with stunning backgrounds. We rarely see the tears and sweat they expended over the decades. So this is the first impression I had after reading this article, the painfully honest truth of how these females struggled to be successful.
The article honestly describes the side effects of experiencing, and overcoming, such adversities. Resilience is an emerging theme for developing new leaders. It is emphasized both by Roselinde Torres, a senior partner and leadership specialist at BCG, and Dominic Barton, the worldwide managing director of McKinsey. There are also numerous Harvard Business Review articles alluding that resilience is a must-have trait for leaders.
Moreover, many studies show that women tend to be more resilient. However, everyone is only focusing on the benefits of resiliency, and no one talks about the price of becoming resilient.
The article gave us a brutally honest picture that becoming resilient has both physical and mental costs. Alana was diagnosed with palpitations. Nargiz overcompensated for her erroneous understanding of her self-worth. These are just some examples of the prices women have to pay on the way to being resilient.
While I enjoyed reading the stories from these amazing women, I am a little confused: why do they all sound like men?
That is if their names were changed into male ones, I probably wouldn’t notice anything unusual about the stories.
This raised additional questions:
Do women have to act like men to fit in?
Can we have a female style of leadership?
These questions are also pertinent having watched the recent interview with Sheryl Sandberg on McKinsey Quarterly. She seems to think that women should be like men and act aggressively.
I personally disagree with her.
I must clarify that I am not trying to be sexist by associating certain behaviour to one gender only. However, I am acknowledging that men and women are inherently different. We have to broaden our definition of leadership to allow new styles to emerge, especially those which females are predisposed to practice.
In the interview, Sandberg suggests that women should be as aggressive as men, and the society should accept that. This is fine if some women are naturally born with that kind of character. Indeed we should provide a proper social environment to accept this style.
However, we should also think about why, in general, women are less self-assured and less aggressive? More importantly, are there any benefits at all to such characters?
If there are benefits, we should certainly think about how to bring out these benefits that result from women’s natural leadership tendencies. It would be much easier to work with a woman’s natural tendencies than to encourage women to be who they are not, as Sandberg suggested.
Being a female PhD student in computer science, I am in debt to many people who influenced me. Because of these people, I was able to take a rare study direction: economics to logic to computer science.
The role these influencers played is heavily shaped by my formative years. Both my parents worked over 100 hours weekly for the most part of my childhood. I, therefore, never had any Tiger-Mother experiences. While many typical Chinese students had their parents checking their homework daily and forcing them to have extra tutoring every weekend, my parents often didn’t know which school year I was in.
As a result, I had extreme fluctuations in grades throughout my schooling. I had, therefore, considered myself somewhat lucky to get good grades and was always in doubt about my own intellectual ability.
Fortunately, because of my self-doubt, I learned to listen.
I listen to different people, especially when they have suggestions for my personal development. For example, if it was not suggested to me by different people, I would never have thought of pursuing graduate level mathematical logic studies, especially since I had a bachelor’s degree in economics.
At first, my economics degree colleagues told me that I was especially good in math. Yet, I naturally assumed math proficiency was common for Chinese students and paid no heed to this.
My math professor thereafter told me the same. Later, my bachelor thesis supervisor made the same remark. Little by little, I started to think about it and eventually decided to give it a try.
I was admitted to the most selective and recognized graduate program in logic worldwide. I only later discovered that entry into the program was a feat in itself.
Such an evolution of events tends to occur quite frequently for me. As a result, I learned to filter guidance generated by my social network.
What types of people give me objective feedback?
What types of people give me subjective feedback?
To what degree should I take the information seriously?
Despite conventional wisdom, subjective suggestions from friends can be very informative. Occasionally they can actually make the impossible possible.
In 2008, as a first year masters student, I wanted to apply to a prestigious summer school, the Complex Systems Science Summer School at a prestigious institute. This is widely considered the birthplace of complex systems sciences. The summer school offered lectures by professors from Harvard, Princeton, the Brooking Institute, etc. widely considered to be at the edge of their fields. Admission is highly competitive with about 50 out of 1000 applicants accepted yearly. In addition, most of the applicants are Ph.D. students from the Ivy Leagues. Some are already postdoctoral fellows or even assistant professors.
Given these facts, one of my recommenders suggested I not apply. Of course, I insisted on applying, because I received implicit feedback through one of the people to whom I listen.
A friend, Helen, is an experienced curator in visual art, and known for her impressive intuition and chaotic documentation style. We had briefly talked about my interest in complex systems that people use in daily life. Shortly thereafter, she introduced me to a friend of hers, Arthur, who owns an organic restaurant near the institute.
I reached out to Arthur who told me about a group of “the most chaotic but intelligent customers in his restaurant.” Several days later, I also mentioned complex systems and chaos to another friend, Adam, who is a director of theater dancing. He gave me a book, which he had never started but “felt” I should have.
There it was, “Complexity – the emerging science at the edge of order and chaos” by M. Mitchell Waldrop. I realized it is a book about the people who founded the institute, and the same group of chaotic yet intelligent customers in Arthurs’ restaurant.
At the end, I did get admitted as the younger of only two master students that year. To me, it was an example of leveraging the wisdom of the crowds to make the seemingly impossible possible.
Objectively speaking, my recommender, who is a specialist in the field of logic, should have had better information at judging whether I could get admitted. Yet, subjectively speaking, two of my friends, Helen and Adam have a stronger emotional motive to help me. Both of them implicitly identified me with the people from the institute.
I suspect that many female candidates also rely on their social network, probably because of their self-doubt. Such a mechanism, and process, gives us extra opportunities to develop our social intelligence, which can be used not only in personal development but also in other decision-making processes.
Ultimately it should not only be about female or male styles of leadership. We should recognize all kinds of differences and provide an opportunity to develop leadership in various ways. It should be authentic to the person versus what is most popular at that point in time.
I am curious to see how these amazing women from the article lead their career in the future. More importantly, how their experiences will help them become better consultants in their own unique ways.
Edward’s View. Edward is an experienced-hire candidate, with advanced degrees in engineering, employed by the federal US government.
A turnaround of any magnitude requires long-term thinking and dedication to pull off. In hindsight, my own took more than 5 years, although there were no material changes to my profile because I did not change jobs or add another degree. My objective was personal growth because I felt stuck and increasingly unhappy despite a satisfying, well-paid, and stable career. At first I had no professional ambitions, but after about 3 years in my role, I saw that I could leverage my personal development to realize a new career, and grew ambitious enough to try.
My approach was to focus on personal interests that built authentic confidence and mentoring relationships. I chose hiking, martial arts, and participated in Burning Man, an annual counter-cultural arts festival. Hobbies like photography and video games were fun to do but would not lead to growth, so they went onto the back-burner.
How did these activities lead to growth? Hiking taught me to face my fear of failure head-on and I learned how to challenge my limits to discover those which were self-imposed and how far they could be pushed. This led me to question my supposed limits in other areas, and gave me the curiosity to push myself. Martial arts forced me to recognize my own ability and progress I had made as a leader, because I was teaching internationally recognized teachers within a few years of starting.
Though this was not because I was any better than my peers, but because I was exposed to the correct training earlier than most, and I subsequently became very good at teaching it.
The nature of the training also required me to express myself unconditionally, with mind and body fully synchronized with outward-facing intent. This impacted my ability to communicate and form relationships. Finally, the art festival parachuted me far from my comfort zone, for one week almost every year, and taught me to express myself without fear of social reprisal, which had crippled my ability to connect with people since childhood.
Along the way, I met people who encouraged me and some who took me under their wings, supported my development, and challenged me to grow in ways I did not understand at the start. I owe these friends and mentors more than I can repay; so it is my responsibility to essentially “pay-it-forward” and mentor others with the same care when I can.
Looking back, the common theme is confidence, and there are two aspects.
First, I had to develop the interior confidence to overcome my reluctance, avoid desperation, and recognize the extent of my strengths. Interior confidence stems from strong core values.
Hiking taught me determination, and built the stamina to continue when I wanted to quit.
Budo taught me leadership is a form of service, and power comes from the humility and honestly face my own weaknesses and work through blood, sweat, and tears until they are strengths.
Even Burning Man instilled useful values I still follow: self-reliance, community, and civic responsibility.
This oddball arts festival taught me that bringing people together based on explicitly defined values is more likely to succeed than bringing them together based on a shared interest or goal.
The second aspect of confidence is its expression. In other words, the critical role it plays in building relationships. This can present steep barriers when trying to make a career leap.
For the final stage of my turnaround I was fortunate to work with Firmsconsulting. Without a foundation of authentic confidence and self-worth, I would not have survived the first, tough, screening call. I almost certainly could not have taken the direct feedback required to rewrite my profile or address my shortcomings honestly.
My training program – to the extent I understand what actually happened – was designed to teach me certain basic consulting skills, but also to teach me how to express my inner confidence to sound like the consultant I wanted to become.
This meant learning how to write resume bullets, how to send networking emails, how to conduct a call, and how to speak clearly and directly at all times.
One concept that changed my mind and catapulted my social and communication skills is the idea that confidence is attractive, networking is flirting, an interview is a date, and a position with a firm is a committed relationship.
This was eye opening, but it made sense and built on everything I had learned. Desperation, hesitancy, and neediness repel suitors, but confidence coupled with genuine interest in the other person and the requisite analytical and communication skills is very impressive and, hence, attractive.
People who are professionally impressed will offer to help, so despite having no recognizable brands on my resume, no MBA, no PhD, and a fair amount of experience with a single employer, I was able to secure an interview with a top firm based on the strength of my ability to connect with and impress consultants professionally.
Idea in Action: Learn from Alana’s experiences
Alana has created a group on the Firmsconsulting website called “The Women Premium” where she has uploaded all the case notes she used to prepare for her case interviews. Readers are welcome to join her group, ask questions, post your own stories, share your notes and download her notes.
Idea in Action: Are you a personal turnaround candidate?
It is important to understand whom we classify as personal turnaround clients. In its simplest definition, these are clients who, through no fault of their own, need to have their professional lives rebuilt from the ground up. These are clients who do not initially fit the McKinsey profile because they have material gaps in their skills and education.
They tend to lack the necessary degree/s, are usually older than their peer group, overwhelmingly female and/or are usually, though not always, from emerging economies. A very important element for personal turnaround clients discussed in this article is that they should possess an undergraduate degree and/or MBA, which they typically do not. The implication is that the process of fixing these gaps occurs over 2 to 5 years, through obtaining these degrees. Personal turnarounds never occur in less than 2 years.
The obvious dilemma when meeting such applicants who loosely fit the profile for a personal turnaround is trying to identify if they are indeed a victim of their circumstance.
This is the crucial distinction.
If they are not a victim of their circumstances, then to what extent did they make decisions knowing it would harm their career chances? If they had made harmful career decisions in the past, how likely are they to repeat this harmful pattern in the future?
Candidates who struggled despite their best efforts are the ideal candidates, versus candidates who struggled in spite of appropriate support. Our experience indicates that asking three questions about past decisions can help us isolate the ideal candidate.
(1) Did they actively seek out the best advice they could find?
Drive is innate. It is fundamentally difficult to transplant this human characteristic into a candidate. It is different from hope, which is the desire for something better or ambition, which is also the desire for something better. Drive refers to the willingness to act on hope and ambition. We find that ideal candidates for a personal turnaround push and tug at every morsel of information, support and advice they can find. They leverage every basis of advantage available to them and do not hesitate to ask for help. The crucial point is that they had access to poor, or insufficient, information rather than failing to adequately use the material available to them.
One client, we will call Ang, was such a person. She was studying in an unranked school in South East Asia and did not allow disinterest from her career counsellor to stop her. Despite her counsellor having never heard of McKinsey and his repeated attempts to talk her out of applying to consulting firms, Ang went all the way to the Dean’s office to encourage the school to at least contact the firm and determine her degree eligibility to apply. Ang could have easily accepted the career counsellor’s selfish desire to not help her. Yet she chose to push through. She was active in finding the best information to guide her.
(2) Did they use this information to the best of their abilities?
Once a candidate obtains advice, they need to act on it. This is another manifestation of drive. In one case, we spent 40 crucial minutes in a screening interview understanding why an applicant, we will call Ina, at a Latvian university, performed so poorly in her final economics paper, which took her GPA equivalency below 3.5. By her admission, Ina had been told grades were important so it was vital we understood why she did not appropriately act on that advice.
Was it her choice or was she a victim of circumstances?
In probing Ina’s decision, we learned her final econometrics paper was based on material taught in a recommended text book that was never discussed in class. Her course professor had repeatedly warned the class beforehand that access to the textbook would be vital to understand the economic theories required for the paper. Ina made the conscious decision to not buy the textbook which retailed for approximately US$20. The month over which she should have worked on the paper, Ina went on a weeklong vacation with friends and spent approximately $500 on the trip for food, room and travel. It was apparent that she was consciously prioritizing her personal happiness versus focusing on her grades.
Given Ina’s situation, she needed strong grades; she could not afford to do both.
Ina’s decision should not be judged since it is a personal choice.
Yet, it does indicate that in the face of the evidence provided that grades matter, Ina made choices which led to actions deprioritizing her studies. Candidates who consciously make decisions not to maximize the advice provided lack internal drive. They are pursuing short-term utility over long-term value creation. For many students this may very well be fine, but for clients like Irina, there is no room to do this. That is why the situation is unique for personal turnaround clients.
Given that a turnaround lasts approximately 2-5 years and requires stamina, discipline and motivation, applicants like Ina have exhibited past behavior which indicates they are unlikely to succeed, even with the best advice.
(3) Can they follow the career strategy developed for them?
The previous two questions assume the advice the candidate is receiving may or may not be appropriate. This uncertainty naturally impact’s a candidate’s drive. Many candidates are unwilling to invest the time required since they are unsure of the quality of the advice they are receiving. In the third question we must strip away this uncertainty by analyzing the candidate’s profile and briefly discussing a significant initiative they would likely need to undertake to improve their profile. We, thereafter analyze their response.
We once interviewed a candidate whom we will call, Nelda. She did and said all the right things until we pointed out the initiatives she would need to undertake. We discussed the requirement for her to either launch a publication during her studies or launch a start-up. Nelda’s resume lacked leadership and needed such an initiative to increases her profile’s attractiveness. Nelda’s response was indicative of her likely future trajectory in the program. Rather than understanding the rationale for the suggestion, Nelda spent 35 minutes explaining why it would be too much work, why other students do not do the same things and why it could not be done.
We openly admit that effort and time must be invested to explain suggestions to candidates, and the ideas may very well not be the best in these early screening sessions. Yet that was not the focal point for our concern. The focal point was Nelda’s default view that everything was impossible to do. She did not have an open mind and was mentally unwilling to even explore such a possibility.
A personal turnaround is very challenging. The hours are intense over years, stamina becomes a major problem and there will be major bumps. A candidate who is unwilling to open her mind at the beginning of the program will maintain a defensive posture throughout the program. In other words, the candidate does not do anything unless they are forced to do it.
Who is not a personal turnaround candidate?
Holders of an undergraduate degree, MBA or postgraduate degree with poor grades, since we then have no study avenue through which to execute the turnaround. In rare cases, clients may elect to obtain another undergraduate degree.
Candidates looking for the easy-answer or quick-fix will fail in a personal turnaround. Many assume they can manage the extreme demands in a personal turnaround but quickly shrink in the face of the consistent multi-year demands.
Candidates who struggle to multi-task will find it challenging to manage very different initiatives simultaneously. The option of staggering priorities to be completed concurrently is rarely possible.
Who is a personal turnaround candidate?
Candidates who have tried every conceivable tactic to break out of their cycle of desperation but have a proven track record of rapidly progressing within the confines of their circumstances.
These candidates are characterized by extreme levels of demonstrated stamina and drive. Our clients have typically been displaced female minorities from Eastern Europe, South East Asia and Central Asia
Not possessing undergraduate degrees and therefore any form of graduate education, since this provides us crucial study avenues through which to execute the turnaround.
Candidates typically 30 years or younger with the sweet-spot being 25 to 30 years, since this gives us about 3 to 5 years to manage the turnaround bringing them to an ideal maximum age of 30 to 35 years.
Candidates should have some form of work experience to explain away the downtime in their resume before studying. There is no ideal experience though we find entrepreneurship and social endeavors create the best platform for us to build upon.
Emerging markets candidates are ideal. These candidates tend to get the benefit of the doubt from recruiters. Though their early experiences may not be prestigious, recruiters typically lack the context to fully appreciate this difference. For example, the phrases “Customer service clerk at Staples, Dallas” and “Assistant at OAO Zemfira” generate different emotional responses since the context for the latter is missing.
Single candidates are ideal. The demands of the program and sacrifices are excessive, and married candidates find they invariably neglect personal commitments.
What steps must you take?
Write out the resume, using the Harvard format, you would need when applying to McKinsey about 3 to 5 years from today. This forces you to create a timeline of prioritized milestones and goals. The next step is to achieve each goal in the resume.
Remove all non-necessities, costs and time, and focus exclusively on the plan laid out in the resume.
Immediately sign up to an accredited undergraduate program. It may be part-time or evening-based. Major in a pure science, applied science or analytical social science like economics. Aim to finish with highest distinction.
Join a brand-name firm, if you can, but at least aim to show rapid progression in your current role through consistent promotions.
If you possess an undergraduate degree with average grades, a personal turnaround may still be possible. You would need to join a good MBA program and graduate with distinction.
All other things being equal, aim to achieve a GMAT score of 700 or higher. All personal turnaround clients achieved scores between 600 and 650, but a higher score always helps.
You must also lead an exceptional MBA endeavor to demonstrate extraordinary leadership skills and differentiate your resume.
How we conducted this study
Between August 2010 and February 2013, Firmsconsulting trained 279 clients pursuing management consulting careers worldwide and successfully placed 64% at McKinsey, BCG and Bain. During the application and training period we constructed detailed data sets collecting extensive information on each candidate. All sessions with clients were recorded, transcribed and data analyzed for trends and patterns.
We have also maintained regular formal and informal contact with our clients. In December 2012 we conducted a survey of our clients. We received 151 completed questionnaires consisting of 10 open-ended questions. Based on these responses, we grouped all clients into common clusters and followed-up the written questionnaire with 71 recorded telephone interviews to rate various parts of the training program, explore how clients managed their case training and, thereafter, their consulting careers. In some cases additional questionnaires were used to generate time-based (longitudinal) studies exploring a client’s development since the program commenced or ended.
We have learned that successful clients are not uniformly similar and require strikingly different strategies to work around their development areas. They require strategies which are different to the learning styles and career planning they successfully applied in the past. In effect, they are forced to use customized strategies to fit the voids in their backgrounds and there is no standard set of guidelines for all applicants. At best, broad principles exist and even these require a wide range of interpretations to be applicable to all clients.
We identified unique client segments for further study, such as female management consultants and, in particular, those who faced unusual obstacles. The depth of the analyses of the female segment generated a theme about woman in management consulting. We have called this theme, “The Women Premium.”
The Women Premium presents unique ideas about women in management consulting. Based on 3 years of proprietary research, this Firmsconsulting theme challenges conventional views such as women must follow the same development path and preparation as males.
Through personal stories and working with female clients over a 3 year period, the study aims to establish the patterns and links between career success, career happiness and the distinctive career survival strategies women need to deploy if they are to thrive in a management consulting career.
(1) Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information.