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A return to the Firm: “It still feels like home”

Thinking about a potential return to McKinsey? Two former BAs discuss how opportunities for entrepreneurship and impact drew them back.
Side by side headshots of Taiwo Ajayi and Luke Owings
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Taiwo Ajayi and Luke Owings loved the time they spent at McKinsey as BAs, Taiwo in the Atlanta Office from 2005 to 2008 and Luke in Washington, D.C. from 2007 to 2009. But even still, they weren’t sure that McKinsey was the place where they would be able to have the impact they wanted.

“It wasn't always clear to me what our clients were going to do what we delivered to them. I was trying to figure out how I could contribute directly and uniquely in the world,” says Taiwo. Luke adds, “I didn’t come back after business school because I wanted to be entrepreneurial – I wanted to operate something, to have my own skin in the game.”

After years working as independent consultants and entrepreneurs – Taiwo launched a consultancy in Ghana, and Luke worked in people-focused roles and executive education – they independently heard about open roles at McKinsey Academy, the Firm’s arm for client capability building at scale, where they could work directly on transforming organizations.

Here, they talk about why they decided to come back to the Firm, the work they do, and what alumni should consider if they’re thinking about a similar return.

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What brought you back to McKinsey?

Taiwo: One of the things that motivated me to come back is the question of impact and how and where I could make a difference. A friend in the Lagos Office told me about McKinsey Academy, and said the work was very similar to what I was doing as an independent coach and consultant.

The opportunity to go from working with one part of a team – or with the HR leadership learning and development group – to working with the CEO and the broader leadership of an organization was really compelling. Leadership development is a catalyst for accelerating an organization’s transformation.

The second thing was that I was craving the kind of mentorship, support and learning that I had experienced as a BA, which I had never found anywhere else. There were one or two people at any point in my life after the Firm who played that role, whereas when I was a BA and – and now, what I have found coming back – is that there are multiple people who I'm learning from, checking in with, and apprenticing with.

It's in the DNA of the Firm that you have people who take an interest in you and help you get to your next level, and to the next version of yourself. And you have options to do the same thing for other people.

Finally, it was clear that in McKinsey Academy there was a group of people who had shared interests, with whom I could interact with fairly regularly. The idea of having a built-in team and not being a lone ranger was appealing.

Luke: After our MBAs, Taiwo and I overlapped for two years at Fullbridge, where we did month-long business boot camps for people starting their first job. Then I ran the People Department (recruiting, L&D, HR, IT, Facilities) for a fast-growing startup in Austin and then did independent teaching and consulting all over the world. It was fun and exciting, but I always hoped that there was a way to tackle the problems I was working on – education, the skills gap – in a way that they were the main focus, not a sideshow or enabling force. The truth is, though I was enjoying the work I was doing, it was a rarity to be standing toe-to-toe with the folks who were actually making the big decisions. Coming back to McKinsey was remembering what it's like to be pushing the highest level of management.

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Luke (left) and Taiwo (right), with Peter Olson, founder of Fullbridge and Senior Advisor to McKinsey

When I think about tackling the problem of the changing social contract of the workplace, I typically think about it as a long-term purpose. With that in mind, the analogy I use for coming back to the Firm is that it was a bit like being a pirate and coming back to join the navy. Certainly I miss being on a small boat with 5 of my best friends, but I also am grateful to be part of an organization that truthfully has heavy artillery.

McKinsey Academy lets us bring the full capabilities of McKinsey to push the most important organizations in the world to re-think how they engage with their employees. Taking just the question of learning and development and re-skilling of their people, it pushes us all to shift the social contract between organizations and people.

What do your roles entail?

Luke: My role in McKinsey Academy is Senior Expert. I have a set of clients who I spend a day or two a month with, and help them with their learning. I do a lot of our high-level facilitation, such as with our Change Leaders Forums, and a lot of work with top teams at organizations that are going through cultural transformations.

Taiwo: As an Expert, I focus on two programs. First, I work within the Leadership and Management Academy where we recently launched a new program designed to help change leaders understand the key success factors in driving and sustaining change. This is anchored around the core research we’ve done within Accelerate, which we call the Impact Essentials.

I also work within the recently relaunched Leadership service line of the Organization Practice. I help leadership teams go through the process of changing the way they work. Part of that is capability building, and another part is facilitating and coaching. I often sit in on leadership team meetings to observe and intervene in a way that helps teams become more aware of how they're operating and more intentional about their behaviors and norms.

So my role is mostly client service, but also involves knowledge building as we develop new ways of serving clients and think about how we build up our own capabilities for doing that.

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Taiwo (left) with Kevin Sneader and McKinsey Academy colleague Ranji Latchmansingh

Luke: Taiwo is at the nexus of McKinsey Academy, Accelerate, and the Organization Practice. There are very few people in the Firm who can do that.

Taiwo: Luke has done a ton of work on leading our internal learning, and building our own capabilities to help clients sustain change. That requires fundamentally different skills – it means being able to ask questions, listen, and to coach and empower our clients as opposed to directing the work.

At all of the levels of the work that we do, we need to have a different kind of mindset in order to effectively play this new role. There have been a number of new programs and adaptations to existing programs not just within McKinsey Academy, but across the Firm.

I think there's more that we need to do. But it's an exciting part of why we both came back: to work on how we essentially drive our own international transformation and particularly what it means for our people and our capabilities.

What would you say to alumni who are thinking of returning to McKinsey, as well as those who haven’t even considered it as an option?

Taiwo: It still feels like home. The core culture and people and values are all intact. It's been very refreshing and welcoming and grounding to be back in an organization that feels very much like the same place I was excited to be as a BA.

But there's also a lot of space to change. Maybe this is because I came back in a different position, but I see so many opportunities to create, to be entrepreneurial, to challenge thinking, to evolve. Things don't move as fast as when you're at a startup, but even though McKinsey is a big organization, there's so much space to create.

Luke: "Make Your Own McKinsey"—which is something that started well long ago at the Firm—is more alive and real than it ever has been. The Firm is looking for new ways to serve clients, new ways to build businesses, new ways to live its purpose. This is evidenced by the plethora of different skills and experience bases we've hired in the last couple of years. We now have 30,000 colleagues.

When friends ask whether they should consider returning, I always use the same analogy I gave earlier: decide whether you want to be a part of the navy. And remember, it's really, really hard to turn a big ship, much less an armada! If you want to be on a big ship and you'd like to be part of that fleet, that's really awesome. Recognize that you're going to have to be patient. Recognize that not every idea will happen quickly. But the resources you have at your disposal mean that it can happen really sustainably and in a really huge way.

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If you are interested in learning more about coming back to the Firm, check out the Careers page to search for open client-facing and internal roles.