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Johanne Lavoie: Carving a path to leadership in the Canadian Rockies

Deep in the Canadian Rockies, in a ski lodge, about two dozen executives from a fast-growing logistics company debrief what happened less than an hour earlier in the sunlit glade outside. Knee-deep in snow, they had all participated in an avalanche rescue simulation. Using shovels, probes, and radio transmitters, they had worked against the clock to find objects buried in the snow, as rescuers would look for people in a real-life disaster. The executives take turns candidly describing the strengths and weaknesses the simulation exposed. Resources were misallocated. Communication broke down. “We all want to be heroes,” says one of them.

The program, McKinsey’s fourth adventure session for the group, was part of an ongoing leadership development journey. The client has ambitious growth targets, and the intense and accelerated program aims to make deep shifts in mindsets and transform a culture of hierarchy and siloes into one that prizes leadership agility, teamwork and feedback. The change is tangible within weeks.

Adventure-based learning experiences are one of the ways we work with our clients to help them build leadership capabilities. Through McKinsey Academy, we also offer CEO forums, one-on-one coaching journeys and group-based leadership development. “Adventure learning can be a powerful way to help people build new habits, mindsets, and actions,” says Johanne Lavoie, a McKinsey partner who leads the program and has made these mountains her home for the past ten years.

“The outdoors experiences can be a horseback trek to understand your own limits and build resilience; a night alone, with limited supplies, to face your fears and reflect on questions we rarely take time for; a canoe expedition to collaborate in a fast-changing environment, or a ski-touring expedition to develop system thinking– a way of seeing the connections and interactions of a whole,” she explains. “When you go out there in the back country with nature and wildlife, it’s very direct, because your anxieties and fears are triggered every moment. At the same time, you are tapping into deeper purpose and meaning. Nature has a way of helping us let go of our need to be right and find new answers.”

“I feel totally invigorated and completely inspired,” said one client executive after the program. “Most importantly, I have a much clearer sense of the path forward and what I need to do to be the person and leader that I want to be.” Another participant observed, “I changed how I perceived myself and my environment, and engage in a fundamentally different way.”

Johanne believes leadership development is critical in an environment of increasing complexity and uncertainty. “When we face disruptive change, we tend to rely on expertise, best practice from the past, and habits. It gives us this false sense of control,” she explains, “But in more uncertain times, we need to take more time to listen deeply, ask different questions, look for patterns and use team collaboration to foster diverse perspectives. This approach is not easy for most of us who have been trained and rewarded to find the right answer, but it is at the heart of leadership agility in complex times.”

Within McKinsey, Johanne pioneered the leadership master program to help her own colleagues develop their capacity to become more agile in the way they work with clients. “We use techniques like meditation, movement, journaling, storytelling and creative expression. We explore developmental psychology using our own life narratives and help people develop personal commitments and practices to sustain their growth,” she says. “The goal is to help people achieve a fuller expression of their leadership potential and inner agility and lead life-affirming change in the world through our client work. To take this work to our clients, we need to start with ourselves.”

Johanne’s approach to leadership development has been shaped by her own experience, which she recently shared in a powerful TEDx Talk in Montreal: “Giving birth to a life that really matters.”