For the next installment of our interview series with top leaders, my colleague David Reimer, the CEO of Merryck & Co. Americas, and I sat down with Liz Hilton Segel, managing partner of McKinsey & Company in North America, who shared smart insights on the art of simplifying complexity, building teams, and making inclusion more than a buzzword.
Reimer: Were you in leadership roles when you were a kid?
Hilton Segel: My parents have said that my leadership qualities were clear at a young age, when I was at the side of the preschool teacher saying to different kids, “Your job is to turn off the lights and your job is to sweep up and your job is to do this.” My father also used to say that I liked him to carry me to preschool – we lived in New York – but it was too long a walk for him to do that. So we would negotiate over when I would walk. Apparently, I did a lot of negotiating in my childhood.
Reimer: What about in college?
Hilton Segel: I went to Harvard University, where I was also the business manager of the daily student newspaper, The Crimson, which at the time was bringing in about $1 million of revenue. It was a self-sustaining business, and that’s how I spent the lion’s share of my time in college. There wasn’t a whole lot of going to classes. Harvard had reading periods, when you could catch up on the entire semester in two weeks at the end, which is the way I managed my time.
Then I did some things here at McKinsey early on that were important to me from a leadership point of view. I was a second-year business analyst, and I mentioned to the woman who ran the program that I was appalled that there were so few of us who were women. She said to me, “Well, then fix it.”
I said, in so many words, “How am I going to fix it? I’m 23 years old.” And she said, “I don’t know, fix it.” And the next year, half the people we hired into the program were women. It was an important lesson in how, if you can get somebody to reach for an aspiration and just tell them to get on with it, they might very well reach the goal.
Bryant: What have been the two or three most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
Hilton Segel: One lesson from my early experiences as a project manager is that when you’re dealing with an issue, if you ask every single person around you to do something, they’re probably going to do it. It’s not about managing people less tenured than me; it’s about me being the orchestrator of everyone to get something done, and everybody has something to contribute. What strength can they bring to the party and then how can I assemble them against the objective? The team can accomplish so much if you’re imaginative about each person’s strengths and skills.
“You need to put yourself in the place that lets you be your best.”
Another lesson I share with people all the time is that you have to take care of yourself. It’s similar to putting on your own oxygen mask before you can help others. You need to put yourself in the place that lets you be your best. Our work requires a tremendous amount of creativity and it requires a lot of resilience to handle difficult situations. My two rules are that I have to have eight hours of sleep every night, which I probably get 85 percent of nights, and I like to exercise five days a week.
Bryant: You’ve been in your role for about a year. Any surprises about the reality of the job?
Hilton Segel: The main one is prioritization and time management. I knew this role would be busy, but it was not at the level that I had anticipated. One thing that happens now is people will contact me and say, “I have something urgent for you.” And now I have to say to them, “I’ll let you know at the end of the conversation whether or not I thought it was urgent.” My whole calibration is completely different.
Ian Davis, a former managing director here, gave me some advice about how to be effective in this role. He said he used to put a paper outside his door that said, “Why me?” His point to people was, when you enter my office, you have to be really clear on why you’re coming to me. Is there truly no other person who you could be coming to? That helps focus everyone on priorities.
Reimer: In all the mentoring you’ve done over the years, what is the most common advice you give?
Hilton Segel: It’s about understanding and acknowledging your blind spots. A blind spot can be in the form of not understanding part of an industry, or it could be about some aspect of leadership. It’s about helping people reflect on their blind spots and acting on them, even if it means bringing someone on the team to complement them.
Reimer: How have you scaled yourself as a leader?
Hilton Segel: I also learned from Ian about the power of leading through ideas. This is a partnership, so the way you lead is to create a concept that people can run with. When I was leading the marketing and sales practice, the idea I landed on was shifting us from being an “insight partner” to our clients – if they had a question, they could come to us for the answer – to becoming an “impact partner.” The minute you create that concept, everyone starts thinking differently. That’s now used by the whole firm.
Bryant: That’s a great example of simplifying complexity, a skill that is crucial for effective leadership but that we often find is in short supply. Has that come naturally to you?
Hilton Segel: I like to make things simple. There are lots of people who value complicated. I don’t. I value simple. Internally, when we’re trying to do a lot of things and you have several thousand partners, you cannot ask them to do 12 things. At best, you can get two ideas across, and if you’re lucky, one of them sticks.
Reimer: What advice do you give to women who have career aspirations to become senior executives? And what is the role of the organization to help them get to those top roles?
Hilton Segel: The advice I give internally to women who are coming up is “know yourself and be yourself.” Know your strengths and have the confidence to believe in those strengths, and don’t try to be somebody else. Don’t try to speak with a different cadence or a different level of authenticity. Be who you are and that will give you the confidence to succeed.
“People have to know their strengths and then believe in themselves to aspire to something bigger.”
It is the case, and a lot of research shows this, that women often question their capabilities more. More often than not, if you give a woman a role, she will say she is not sure she has the right strengths to do it. And more often than not, if you give a man an opportunity, he’ll tell you the 12 reasons why he’s going to be fantastic at it and not see any of the things that actually he could work on.
The implication of it is that people have to know their strengths and then believe in themselves to aspire to something bigger. And on the company side, you have to have sponsors who can help them.
Reimer: How do you think about promoting inclusion in the workplace?
Hilton Segel: The visual I use is that there’s an implicit norm in business that everyone has a curtain, and there’s all this stuff that’s going on behind the curtain. And what’s going on behind the curtain is their “real life,” with everything that’s going on with their family and friends, like my son needs a tuxedo for his prom and my daughter needs a computer science tutor and my mother’s coming to my house for Mother’s Day weekend.
Things like that are in my mind at any minute of any day, and the norm has been not to talk about those things – that you have a personal life and a professional life.
Part of changing to a more inclusive environment is to at least peek behind the curtain or sometimes acknowledge that the curtain exists, so that you have a sense of the person’s whole life. The history has been more that you have a professional life and a personal life, but with email, professional life follows you everywhere. So there’s no reason why we couldn’t talk a little bit about what’s behind the curtain so that you have a better understanding of people’s lives.
We’re definitely moving in that direction, but there can also be some hesitancy about whether that becomes too invasive in terms of dialogue. Is it appropriate to talk to somebody about that? I think it is appropriate. I don’t think you can really understand what’s happening with someone if you’re not understanding what’s behind the curtain as well as in front.
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