Our North American leader talks work flexibility amid COVID-19

Liz Hilton Segel joined McKinsey’s New York office in 1992 fresh out of college. More than 25 years, hundreds of client projects, a marriage, and two children later, Liz is now the firm’s managing partner for North America, the first woman to hold this leadership role at our firm.

Along the way, she’s made some tough and often unconventional choices, like working part-time for five years to spend more time with her kids when they were young. But as Liz explains it, staying true to herself, her family, her colleagues, and clients have been driving forces that have guided her entire career. “Letting people know where I stand helps to build trust with the clients I serve and the colleagues with whom I work," she says. "But honesty shouldn’t stop with colleagues and clients. It’s also important to be honest with yourself.”

As flexible and remote working amid COVID becomes a day-to-day norm for most colleagues, we spoke with Liz on how she’s made that a priority for herself—and ways people can do the same in this new working environment.

You found a way to bring balance into your life long before remote working and alternative schedules were commonplace. How?

Liz Hilton Segel
Liz Hilton Segel, managing partner for McKinsey in North America
Liz Hilton Segel

When my son was six, he told me he wanted me to pick him up from school every now and then. My daughter was three at the time and she wanted a parent to join her for more school activities.

There wasn’t an obvious solution at the time, but my husband and I took their requests seriously and worked through how to make this possible. I couldn’t picture myself working part-time, and back then, flexible programs weren’t widely used at McKinsey. But I was very fortunate to be able to structure an arrangement from 2007 to 2012 where I took eight weeks of vacation to match the kids’ school vacation, and I took another two days off a month.

I was able to spend quality time with them when they were off from school. Each month, I selected days off that were important in my children's lives but that also allowed me to be available to my clients and my teams.

What can leaders do to help promote greater flexibility going forward?

Managing family and work-life balance is important for all of us, but it’s particularly important for leaders to model our values. We’re all human and we need to encourage “pulling back the curtain” on our personal lives so we have a better sense of who our colleagues are, and to allow ourselves to extend more compassion and understanding.

My part-time arrangement required a deliberate decision to craft something that didn’t exist. Early on, I realized that the choices I made were helping others envision and pursue alternative models for their careers. I found that to be very powerful and made it a priority to advocate for McKinsey’s working parents—and all our colleagues—to help shape “new normals” that would help others thrive.

Today, my kids are grown and I’m back to full-time work, but I don’t hide the fact that while I’m speaking to a client or a reporter, I might also be responding to a question my daughter has about her summer internship or navigating what a return to campus looks like for my son, who’s supposed to continue his second year at college this fall.

In times of crisis or not, we know that compassionate leaders perform better and foster more loyalty and engagement from their teams. It’s for these reasons that it’s so crucial to tune in to what employees are feeling and seek continuous feedback to incorporate into programs and culture going forward.

COVID-19 has changed what all of our routines look like. What does a typical work day look like for you now?

Over the last few months, no day has looked the same. The lack of travel has been a double-edged sword for me. On one hand, it’s allowed me to free up more time for meetings and client work. On the other, it’s blurred boundaries between work and personal time.

But I’ve found that having even just a few moments of quiet reflection between meetings can be hugely beneficial and restorative. So, I do my best to create space for that time.

I carve out time each day to be present for my family and try to exercise every day, whether that’s taking an early morning walk or squeezing in a cycling ride. And as many colleagues well know, I am committed to getting my daily eight hours of sleep.

Any surprise learnings about yourself during this time?

I’ve been surprised at how much we can get done virtually and how connected I still feel with co-workers and clients during this time. Seeing everyone in their home environments—with cameos from kids or pets during conference calls—has allowed me to get to know my colleagues on a more personal level.

On the home front, as a family we have embraced new traditions brought on by the quarantine, like going for hikes, cooking more frequently, and celebrating holidays in new ways (including making our own matzo for Passover). I can’t say with certainty that we will be eager to make the matzo every year, but these experiences have allowed us to connect more deeply as a family—and for me, that has been an unexpected, positive outcome of this challenging time.

Of all the behavioral changes that have come with this pandemic, which do you hope stick?

Right now, nearly everyone across the globe shares the same uncertainty about the future. What we’ve learned is that people are looking to the leaders they work with for guidance and support in preserving mental and emotional resilience. This can even start with a simple: “How are you?” This period has definitely shown me that simply checking in with people and asking how they’re doing can go a long way.

On a personal note, the switch to remote communication has inspired me to connect with many friends and family that live across the globe that I don’t often get to catch up with. My college roommates and I are spread across the U.S. and Asia and have done virtual cocktails and enjoyed a few meals together over FaceTime. I hope we continue to get together in this way going forward.

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