Always connect, never give up: An interview with Jason Wright

As president of Washington’s football team, Wright is calling on his experiences as an NFL player, business school graduate, and McKinsey partner to change an entrenched culture.

At a recent McKinsey Black Leadership Academy forum, Jason Wright addressed the nuances of steering the Washington Football Team—set to unveil its new name in early February—through a period of crisis and rapid transformation. In his conversation with McKinsey partner Sara Prince, he also discussed how his parents shaped his worldview, his skepticism of meritocracy, and the importance of crafting a personal story that resonates. “Tell your story in a way that helps others believe in and understand your value,” he says. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.

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Sara Prince: Where and how did you grow up, and what were some of the formative moments that got you to where you are today?

Jason Wright: I grew up in Southern California just outside of LA, in a town called Pomona. My dad was a civil-rights activist turned salesman turned entrepreneur. My mom was the grinder in the background: a flight attendant who was flying turnarounds to JFK and Tokyo to allow us to pay our bills while my dad was trying to build a business.

Both sides of my family have a history of civil-rights activism. My parents believe strongly in expanding opportunities: for us as individuals, as Black individuals in our family, and for Black folks writ large. My parents always said, “We want our ceiling to be your floor.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but implicit in their ethos was the idea of economic opportunity. They saw that as the doorway to influencing society in a bigger way.

So I grew up with that in my mind. My parents also did all they could to insulate me from goings-on in my neighborhood that weren’t so great. They made sure I was in sports, in Boy Scouts—I didn’t ever have a free moment. They were helicopter parents for a reason. They had a purpose for it.

I ended up going to Northwestern University on a football scholarship. When I was heading into my sophomore year, I had a transformative experience: a teammate died on the field next to me during practice.

The pain and grief process I went through ultimately led me to a life of faith. All the lessons my parents had been trying to teach me, and that my coach had been trying to work into me, came together and I just matured as a person then and there.

At Northwestern, I met many people who were living lives of purpose, irrespective of their faith background. Living among that energy affected me in a positive way and led me to the NFL. I didn’t enter the NFL through the draft. I went to the NFL combine, ran really slow, and therefore was not drafted. I spent my first year and a half getting fired every other week. I think I was cut nine times in my first season and a half.

That was an incredibly important time for me. I was living in Atlanta and I ran out of money because you only got paid when you were on the roster. I ended up living in an extended-stay motel. And I thought at one point, “I’m not going to be able to pay my car note.” So I had to move in with my 80-year-old aunt and uncle on the east side of Atlanta, in Lithonia, and drive three hours to and from the practice facility in Flowery Branch.

That was my first moment to really be in the grind and to see that this didn’t come easily. To spend that year and a half being told you’re not good enough, and finding a way to reestablish your confidence, was really important for me and carried over into what I did outside of football.

I left football because I wanted a new challenge. During my off-seasons I did a lot of community work, and it struck me that understanding how to generate capital was crucial. Whether it was running an NGO [nongovernmental organization] or building a sustainable social business, you had to understand how business worked. You couldn’t just be a do-gooder like I was. So I decided to go to business school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

To spend a year and a half being told you’re not good enough, and finding a way to reestablish your confidence, was really important for me and carried over into what I did outside of football.

Getting out of ‘robot mode’

Sara Prince: You’ve spoken about periods of your life when you had to do the grind, and periods when you were able to create, innovate, and explore. As you think about navigating those ebbs and flows, how did you prepare yourself for those creative moments? What did others do to help you?

Jason Wright: A lot of times we don’t see it ourselves because we’re nose to the grindstone. We’re just trying to get an A on the paper, we’re trying to deliver in our existing job. It’s easy to not take the step back and think about what we can do that’s bigger and broader.

It takes being in touch with people who are outside of your immediate sphere to be able to do that. And I think at every stage in my career, I did this well. I always had a church community; I had people I knew in the neighborhood; I lived in a modest apartment. That connected me to a broader set of perspectives that gave me a different angle on how I would see something.

I’ve fostered this network intentionally because I want to always have someone who can say to me, “Jason, why are you in robot mode right now? I think this is your moment to do something creative and bold.”

Sara Prince: You mentioned you got fired nine times before you succeeded in football. Why did you keep going?

Jason Wright: I just wanted it. I had committed to going after an NFL spot and until that was no longer an option, I went hard at it. I also think if I go back to my 22-year-old self, part of my motivation was not to shame the family name. I was thinking, “Look, I got close. Every one of my family would have dreamed of this.”

If I set a goal, I am obsessive about getting there. I will spend every waking moment thinking about how I can get there, even to a fault. Sometimes when I’m supposed to be playing with my kids, they’ll say, “Daddy, where did you go?” And I’ll say, “Oh, yep, sorry, let me come back.” I get obsessed with the near-term goal, and I get obsessed with the problem. And maybe you can excuse it because we’ve got plenty of stuff to work on here [on the team]. It’s not like we’re just cruising, so I’m pretty focused.

Sara Prince: What has influenced your thinking over the longer term? What were you envisioning for yourself?

Jason Wright: I’m always looking for a platform for influence. This goes back to my parents and the push that their ceiling is my floor. I’m always looking for opportunities to have an impact on society. I don’t know if I could have articulated it back then, but I knew that, as an NFL player, I’d have an outsize voice on things compared to other paths I might take.

As a partner at McKinsey, I had a platform to speak about racial economic equity at scale that influenced the public dialogue around diversity, equity, and inclusion in a way that felt very authentic. My point to organizations was that diversity affects the bottom line: “This is about the money, y’all. It’s not about the moral good, or your charity, or Black and Brown folks needing a hand up. This is good for your pocketbook, so please get on board.” That was the message that was core to my heart and that I was able to continue to work on and invest in.

I’m always looking for a platform for influence. This goes back to my parents and the push that their ceiling is my floor. I’m always looking for opportunities to have an impact on society.

And in classic consultant style, I had PowerPoint slides that included my mission and my vision. To me it’s important to have a concrete North Star. I like to have it written out. You don’t have to share it with folks; I wouldn’t share my current one because it’s very personal.

Having a concrete mission can anchor you when the unexpected comes along. It can help you navigate when you’re facing a messy decision or if there’s no right answer.

Sara Prince: How have you crafted your story, so people know who you are, what you stand for, and what you’re trying to accomplish?

Jason Wright: I think I knew how to tell my story in a way that got people to engage with me and get invested in my path. It’s not because I did something special or have a unique gift.

When I was getting fired every other week in the NFL, my agent and I got busy telling the 32 NFL teams why I belonged on their roster. I could rattle off to a coach or a scout what I brought to the table the same way an entrepreneur can rattle off their elevator pitch.

I told them, “Look, I’m not a perpetual starter, but I’ll save you three roster spots. I play fullback, tailback, and wide receiver. I’ll play all your special teams. I’ll be a stabilizing force in the locker room that provides good culture on your team, and I’m like a second coach on the field.” Boom: there was my value proposition, and I said it over and over. I always told my story consistently, ad nauseum.

People don’t hear your story as often as you play it in your head. The more they hear it consistently, the more they start to buy into it. They know what you’re after, and then it’s easy for them to understand how to engage with you.

‘I realized the idea of meritocracy was bunk’

Sara Prince: How did you get to that place where you were willing to tell people your value without feeling like it was bragging, or like you were being counter to your values?

Jason Wright: I guess I’d answer that with three points. The first one is pragmatic and may strike some people as cynical: I have a firm belief that meritocracy does not exist. Pro football is probably the closest thing to a meritocracy there is—literally every step you take gets graded in a very technical way. But when I got to business school, I realized the idea of meritocracy was bunk. So much of your progress is because of what people say about you, your network, how people are reaching out to bring you forward.

Everybody’s gifted and everybody’s strong, so beyond that, it’s the ability to tell your story in a way that helps others believe in and understand your value. That’s why I pushed myself to tell my story even if I felt like a salesperson at times.

The second point I’d make is that there is a level of braggadocio, brashness, and forwardness that I’ve seen from colleagues—particularly White males—that you could say is off-putting, but it works as good currency in corporate culture, whether we like it or not. Again, I’m a pragmatist and I need to move closer to the behavior that’s rewarded. Without compromising my morals or my integrity, I’m going to play the game. I just made the decision to do that.

Third, and this is probably the most authentic part of it, is that I recognized that those strengths that I have decided are truly mine, and that I’m going to promote as part of my story, come from a source outside of me. They’re gifts given to me by God. And by promoting them, I’m not just promoting myself; I’m also promoting God’s work in me. I’m able to do that with confidence, which actually helps me get closer to that brashness without feeling bad about it.

Change management

Sara Prince: The organization that you joined has been the focus of an investigation and multiple inquiries into workplace misconduct. You have taken on the task of changing an entrenched culture and trying to encourage openness and fairness. How do you go about getting people to be open to new ways of thinking?

Jason Wright: Over the last year we’ve begun a process that has gotten us to a place where it feels like a different organization. I think the first thing is setting out in clear terms what the expectations are, both for performance and for culture and leadership.

From a business-performance standpoint, we’re asking questions like, “What are our targets?” “What are we expecting marketing to generate in terms of leads?” “What do we think our net promoter score should be on guest experience?” “What should our facilities and maintenance backlog look like?”

I think the first thing is setting out in clear terms what the expectations are, both for performance and for culture and leadership.

Overall, we want to quantify performance as best we can. And that was new for this organization, so we brought clarity to who we are going to be and the standard of excellence we wanted to set. We’re measuring people in part by what their peers say about them as a collaborator and bringing in things we can tangibly define that allow us to measure both performance and culture.

Second, we had to let a lot of people go in the top two tiers of the organization. We’ve turned over most of our senior leadership. Some had to go for real issues, others were not excited about the strategic direction and opted out, and still others realized that they didn’t have the skills or capacity to stay.

It made sense to make these moves sooner rather than later and rip off the Band-Aid. If I could go back, I would make those moves more quickly, as disruptive as it already felt.

We have deeply talented and caring people leaders now guiding this organization and one of the most diverse teams in professional sports. And we’re seeing the impact of this new group both internally and in our business results. In one year our staff engagement scores jumped from bottom quartile to being in line with our peers in media and entertainment.

The importance of Black male role models

Sara Prince: What can people in role or career transitions learn from your experience?

Jason Wright: This gets back to the importance of visible, diverse role models. As a player I had the unique benefit of having Black role models, specifically Black male role models, where they weren’t traditionally found. This was true both on the field and in the front office at the Atlanta Falcons, the Cleveland Browns, and the Arizona Cardinals.

So for me the idea that Black talent, specifically Black male talent, could thrive outside of the traditional lines in the NFL made moving from downstairs to upstairs, from player to executive, feel a little less dramatic. But every once in a while, if I go downstairs to the weight room or go out to jog on the fields, I realize what the jump has meant. And I’ll think back to what it was like as a player, and I will remember how little control I felt I had—and how little transparency and understanding I had of how everything operated, and how decisions were made.

I try not to forget where I came from. I remember one of my first days here, it was cut day for the players. I was walking into the building and I saw a guy leaving with his box of cleats and other stuff, heading to his car. And I’ve been that dude lots of times.

But he walked out, head held high. He knew I was the new president and he said, “Thank you for the opportunity, sir. I’m excited for my next one.”

Those are such formative, powerful moments where you can find your confidence in the face of very direct failure. I still feel that, and I try to draw on that time and share a bit of my experience to connect with the players and coaches here.

Sara Prince: Can you talk about the role of sponsorship in your journey? Where did you find your sponsors, and were they in expected or unexpected places? What about your responsibility as a sponsor?

Jason Wright: When I was a player, going to such-and-such charitable event, I bet I had business cards from executives, entrepreneurs, and all sorts of amazing folks. I never called them back, I never followed up. In part I think that’s because I still believed in the myth of meritocracy at the time. I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to work hard; I don’t need to do this networking and hobnobbing.”

If I could go back in time, I would call every single one of those people back. I would find out their interesting stories; I’d find a way to do something in conjunction with them. Because then my network would have been stronger. I started from scratch heading to business school with very few supporters in my network sponsoring opportunities for me.

At McKinsey, I came in the door telling my story in as authentic a way as I could. It was actually former military men and women who got me intuitively because they had similar profiles. When I told my story, it rang true with them.

I took a pragmatic approach, and I think that works well with sponsors. In my opinion, it’s not about whether we enjoy grabbing coffee together, or even if we have the right fit. The question is whether your mentors or sponsors are going to create the best opportunities for you. Follow them. And then when you have the influence, when you have the position of power, then you create your bubble there, and you can create it more in your own image. But until then, don’t look for somebody in your own image. Look for somebody who’s going to ride for you.

Sara Prince: How do you make that judgment call between being your most authentic, sharing self and being the leader who says we are going down the path I choose?

Jason Wright: I don’t know that I’ve found the right balance. I feel like I still fluctuate, especially in this newer role. One practice I follow is to start my day with a daily meditation, which is just ten minutes of breathing. It makes my intuition about how to handle different scenarios so much better.

The second practice is to make sure you have an inner circle you can trust. I have mine here; I brought my right-hand woman from McKinsey to be my administrative officer. She knows the authentic me, she knows my family, and she can be clear with me about the energy I’m bringing, and whether or not it’s working in a given moment.

There have been a few times when I was interacting with the team and she would tell me, “Oh no, you need to be the CEO today, Jason. This whole ‘Jason your friend,’ or ‘Jason the peer leader’ is not what people need. We need the CEO today.”

There’s also discipline around being clear about what you’re trying to accomplish that I’m getting better at. The last practice is to know your audience. Who is going to be in the room? Understand as much as you can about them as individuals, what drives them, what their sources of meaning are. That allows you to bring your strengths to the group in the most relevant way.

Sara Prince: Did you get to where you are today because you’re lucky or because you’re good?

Jason Wright: I’m going to tie the two together. There’s a Bible verse that says, “A person’s gifts will make room for them.” I think I have a set of God-given talents that were cultivated by me and by the community around me. A combination of my achievements and other people opening doors for me has gotten me to where I am.

Owning your strengths is easier when you recognize they don’t necessarily come from you, but they are yours.

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