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Behind the Feature on Women in Emerging Markets

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.

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