7 lessons McKinsey taught me about career advancement

I know it’s supposed to be ‘3 things’, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Last week marked the end of my five year journey with McKinsey & Co. As I reflect back on this incredible ride, I found it somewhat therapeutic to surface the learnings I walked away with.

This is not a post about how good I was at wrangling data in excel and telling the story in powerpoint.

I’m here to share the important things that are applicable to every career, and in some cases, life.

For context of where I’m coming from…

I had a non-traditional path to the Firm, and a non-traditional path at the Firm. I was not your undergraduate ivy-league savant, and I was not your elite business school structured thinker.

In fact, quite the opposite. I was everything outside of the McKinsey cut.

The character in my story travels through many inflection points — from a top performing analytics expert, to a poor standing (“you might get fired”) generalist, and finishing off as a strong performing consultant in private equity and technology topics.

I covered a lot of ground in my time there, and would love to share my top 7 learnings with you.

Five years later…

1) Always approach problems as a student. Not an expert.

Nobody wants to deal with a “know it all”. The reality is every problem has an element of uniqueness and requires a keen eye for nuances to craft a proper solution.

In order to achieve this, you must approach the problem with a fresh and curious mind. Ask questions, take notes, push deeper on the “why” (iceberg principle) and keep pressing to refine your hypothesis.

Lesson #1: The student mindset puts your brain in an objective setting. You approach ideas in a more open format that allows you to dissect issues rationally, collaborate with teammates effectively, and craft a proper solution — all while alleviating the self-induced pressure we burden to “know it all”

2) The only imposter in “Imposter Syndrome” is you to yourself. Not you to your organization.

I felt like an outsider for half my time at McKinsey. At baseline, I had the tendency to assume my colleagues knew more and executed better than me.

The reality is most people are figuring it out as they go (yes, even your boss), and the voice in your head is truly the dominant factor withholding you from shining.

When you hold a preconceived notion that others are professionally superior to you, you begin to treat them (and yourself) as such, which only perpetuates your thoughts to reality.

Lesson #2: You are an imposter because you allow yourself to fall in Imposter Syndrome’s shadow. It’s self-inflicted. Step out and realize everyone is a student, just like you (shoutout lesson #1).

3) Falling flat on your face can be the best thing that will ever happen to you.

I almost got fired. I had raised my hand to join a challenging project beyond my skillset, all while managing a demanding client under a high stress situation.

I failed miserably. My insights lacked depth, my communication of those insights were elementary, and the client lost their trust in me.

But I’ll be the first to tell you this was the greatest setback of my career. I learned about my weaknesses and used them as fuel for growth, not excuses for failure. I set goals for myself and recruited mentors at the Firm to help push me and keep me accountable.

Fast forward a few years and I would have never guessed that I’d be running strategy engagements.

Lesson #3: Failure can make or break you and it’s your decision which direction to carry it forward. Once you make that decision, you will travel in quantum leaps in the direction of your choosing.

4) They will put you in a box until you stop them.

Think of a company as a picture. At the lowest level there are a plethora of individual pixels that make up the bigger picture. A job is a pixel, and the collective orchestration of these pixels (when executed correctly) creates a beautiful picture.

Cute little metaphor…I know.

Back to reality: A job has a defined set of responsibilities based on the overall strategy of your organization or department. Quite honestly, that’s how it should be. Executives have a vision for how to steer the ship, that vision is then broken down into smaller pieces, and each one of these pieces is owned by someone to execute within their “pixel”.

But if your pixel no longer makes you tick (however you define tick: excitement, learning, impact etc.), it’s up to you to find another box. The organization is incentivized to keep you in your box because that’s what will ultimately steer the ship.

But some people don’t have the audacity to raise this — it causes friction with managers, off centers team dynamics and ultimately leads to a challenging road of stretching and reprogramming yourself.

It’s not for everyone and I can tell you first-hand it’s a very challenging feat. But if you have the mindset, motivation, and resilience — do it. You might fall flat on your face but you’ll jolt miles forward when you succeed (shoutout lesson #3).

Lesson #4: Be honest with yourself and those around you, because this is *your* career. Anyone can successfully perform any job if they’re willing to put in the work. If you have the fire in you underpinned with a hint of resilience, push yourself to bring it to fruition.

5) There’s a solution for everything.

Relax. There are certainly times in life when you’re purely SOL. But for the most part there is a solution, and even though it may not be perfect, it’s still a solution.

I hate to break it to you but there are no silver bullets in life.

Lesson #5: Panicking is not a solution. Take a step back, untangle your emotions from your rationale, and land on the best possible go-forward plan. The rest will take form.

6) Good intentions move people. Not politics.

The people who puppeteer folks beneath them for their own personal gain may win in the short term, but don’t get too far in the long term. Success in business sits on a bedrock of relationships and playing politics (while a great skill to have) should not be your primary mode of operation.

As a leader, you want to move your people with good intentions. People want to be led with care and compassion. When these traits are detected in leaders, a full-hearted followership emerges.

Lesson #6: You will only succeed with the right people in your circle. The right people will only join your circle if you display genuine interest in their fulfillment, and only then will they propel you forward.

7) The friends you make last longer than the impact you drive.

We did a lot of cool stuff at McKinsey. I was fortunate to work with incredibly talented teams that solved some of the most pressing challenges for a range of organizations. While the work was fulfilling, the friendships you make — when you’re down in the trenches working late nights — last a lifetime.

So next time you’re approaching EOD and your colleague still hasn’t sent you what they promised to, I would encourage you to remember…

Lesson #7: Relationships outlive events. Remembering one another in a positive light will always win, because there may come a day where an opportunity appears to do something great together. And you can’t do something great together, without being great to one another.

The next chapter…

I’ve joined forces with another McKinsey alum (shoutout lesson #7) to build a software company.

Lots more to come, and if you’re interested in following our journey you can subscribe to my Medium page, or follow me on Twitter.

Cheers to the new adventure.

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Co-Founder of a stealth SaaS company | Investor at Vanaq Capital | Formerly McKinsey and Anaplan

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Brandon Younessi

Brandon Younessi

Co-Founder of a stealth SaaS company | Investor at Vanaq Capital | Formerly McKinsey and Anaplan

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