How McKinsey’s Forward program elevated one woman’s career—and her spirit

Portia Dlamini was scrolling her Facebook feed when a post caught her eye: Forward, McKinsey’s new, free leadership-development program, had just launched for talented people all across Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, Türkiye, and Azerbaijan.

A native of Johannesburg, South Africa, Portia grew up in the township of Sebokeng, one of many historically segregated neighborhoods established during apartheid. Born to a mother who worked as a cashier and a father who worked as a security guard, Portia was the first in her family to graduate from university.

At the time Portia saw McKinsey’s post, she’d left the township and was living with her husband in a nearby suburb, where she ran a cleaning business and served as a trainee auditor before later becoming a junior lecturer in management accounting at North-West University.

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“I felt like I didn’t know which avenue I wanted to explore, and I wanted to find order to what I was doing,” says Portia, who is featured on the cover of our 2022 ESG report, Creating a more sustainable, inclusive, and growing future for all. “The Forward program’s language about being agile, a self-leader—that really spoke to me. I decided to go for it.”

Launched in 2021, Forward offers five months of online courses and virtual workshops to equip young talent with business, digital, and leadership skills—applicable across all industries and careers. Portia became a member of the program’s first-ever cohort, completing both levels of the program: Foundation and Advanced.

Portia describes herself as shy, often finding it challenging to assert herself in professional situations. She knew she had “more to offer but struggled to find her confidence and the ‘soft skills’ needed in the workplace.”

Her participation in Forward turned things around. The curriculum aims to shape its students’ understanding and application of communication skills, delivering and receiving feedback, developing efficiency, problem-solving skills, building networks, and more.

“The program gave me structure,” Portia recalls. “I didn’t have a framework for how I presented myself, how I interacted with people, how to advocate for myself. I started to notice I was able to think on my feet and voice my ideas.”

May Wazzan, who leads Forward for McKinsey, says the program was designed to give early career starters the awareness, structure, and safe space to build essential workplace skills like adaptability, communication, problem solving, and agile ways of work, among others.

“Over 95 percent of program graduates credit Forward for boosting their confidence to tackle diverse workplace challenges,” May says. “We believe this is a result of practical content that is directly applicable in the workplace, real-time interaction with peers and experts, and the growth mindset that is fostered throughout the journey.”

It's a beautiful thing to walk in confidence, especially if you didn't have it before. I can’t overstate the impact Forward has had on my life.

Portia Dlamini

When Portia was teaching a management accounting module at North-West University, a notoriously difficult class, she knew getting through to the students who were ambivalent about the course would be a challenge—especially given her shy nature. To her surprise, however, she found a new approach to communication with her class. Realizing most of what stands in the way of students’ success is the fear of failing the course, she put her problem-solving skills to work and set out to put them at ease.

“I started with being empathetic and just debunking myths around management accounting, taking time to talk with them about the field, and answering questions. I called these ‘social classes,’” she says.

These informal classes weren’t on the syllabus, but she convinced her manager of the approach and got the green light. She saw a notable increase in exam scores throughout the semester.

“I was someone who would never have done that before joining Forward. I would have stuck to the rules, went to class, taught, and been scared to speak up,” she says.

Portia remains an active member of Forward’s alumni community and was selected as one of the first 11 volunteer ambassadors. The volunteer-ambassador journey was established by the Forward team as an opportunity for program graduates to shape its future by driving outreach and community engagement and collaborating with peers on projects that amplify Forward’s impact.

The focus she gained in the program cemented her career path: she wants to be a chartered accountant. This requires completing graduate school and board exams, something she admittedly “never thought could be done.”

Now, she’s assured of her abilities.

“It's a beautiful thing to walk in confidence, especially if you didn't have it before,” she says. “I can’t overstate the impact Forward has had on my life.”

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