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Opening up to adventure

A choice early in his McKinsey career changed Bill’s path, ultimately making him a global citizen.

Read more about: Emerging markets

Bill Wiseman is now a senior partner who leads Advanced Industries in Asia Pacific out of the Taipei office, but he didn’t start out in the region. A decision he made early in his career changed his course:

I started my career as a Navy SEAL. I graduated from the US Naval Academy with a degree in systems engineering.

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Can you find Bill? He's doing sniper training with the SEALS.

After a little less than six years with the Navy, I went back to school for my masters in electrical engineering, then joined IBM as a chip designer. I enjoyed it, but shortly after I joined, Cisco bought IBM’s networking hardware division and it was pretty clear my entire transceiver shop was on shaky ground. I could have found a new role with IBM or maybe Cisco; I was a good engineer but felt I was meant for something a bit more leadership intensive. I went to Duke for my MBA and graduated in 2001, right into the middle of the recession. I was one of the lucky ones though – I had an offer to join McKinsey and the firm honored its offers, even though it didn’t have enough work for all the new hires.

My start at McKinsey

I joined in Seattle, which happens to be a big tech hub and most of the projects I worked on were right up my alley. At first, I focused on being a good associate. I learned how to break problems down, prioritize the work needed to solve them, communicate, and collaborate effectively with my clients and colleagues. My Navy training really helped me: I had technical knowledge and the ability to explain intricate concepts to a general business audience because I had lots of practice making a case from my years advocating for why my SEAL platoon should get a mission instead of other capable units like the Army Green Berets.

Things were going well for me. My performance was solid and I was building a name for myself. My background as an electrical engineer gave me an edge in the fast-growing mobile chip sector. I learned the stack behind the newest tech at the time: 3G. I dedicated about half a day a week to answering colleagues’ questions about mobile tech and built a niche for myself in that area.

A turning point

At almost my two-year mark at McKinsey, my wife finished her residency as a military neurosurgeon. She got stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of work in Okinawa – the economy was dependent on cement manufacturing and tourism, not tech. I had a choice – follow my wife to Japan and leave McKinsey or stay with McKinsey and find somewhere else to be.

I didn’t want to leave. I loved what I was doing – I was challenged and never bored. I liked my colleagues. I started exploring options.

I had met a partner from Seoul at a recent conference. He shared with me they were looking for consultants with backgrounds in technology and semiconductors: ‘We need you and your expertise here. We don’t have anyone who knows chips like you do. Plus, it would be good for you. Most companies these days are multinational and your business experience is nearly all from inside the US. You should get a more global perspective.’

I wasn’t so sure. I spent a little time in Korea while I was in the Navy, but I didn’t know much about the Korean culture or language beyond a few niceties. If I stayed in the US, I’d likely become an engagement manager soon. If I moved, it felt like I’d be starting over.

One of my office mates told me I was crazy for even considering Korea – walking away from the two leading-edge clients I was serving in the States and the chance to lead a team sooner. Another friend couldn’t believe I was considering staying in the States with an opportunity to live abroad. In the end, my wife went to Japan and I went to Korea and we committed to making the distance work.

The choice

My first few months in Korea were rough. Learning a new way of life, a new language, new colleagues – all at once – is hard. My expertise in mobile and my basic problem-solving acumen helped. I focused on doing my role well. I reached out to meet new people – in Seoul and in other parts of Asia.

Continued challenge

Within a year, I was starting to manage teams. That was my next big hurdle. I had to shift my mindset from owning a specific piece of the work to managing the project overall and the people on the team. I had to make sure the associates were doing good work, learning and happy. I had to make sure the clients and our McKinsey leaders were onboard, plugged in and guiding us at the right times and in the right ways.

I made partner a few years after that. Global experience was a big lever in accelerating my development as a leader. I couldn’t believe it when our managing partner called me, asking me to move to Taipei and lead our practice there.

The next chapter in my McKinsey career began when I saw machine learning and data engineering emerge as a method to improve product development. I began working with talent outside McKinsey on some of my engagements and this collaboration led to the acquisition of a small but mighty analytics firm called QuantumBlack. Now, I’m supporting teams inside and outside of the mobile semiconductor industry on a much broader array of topics.

I guess you could call me a serial stretch thinker. I’m always on the search for the next big challenge, idea or technology. McKinsey has been the best place for me to do that because it’s given me this perfect mix of freedom and support. I’m at my best here because I’m always learning.

Advice to new associates

I’m often asked by new joiners for advice. Based on my experiences, I share three things:

  1. Do something in your first year you’re passionate about, even if you use that year to explore and try new things. For me, it was mobile tech. For you, it could be anything.
  2. Build your network. Find a group of people you love working with, but don’t stop working with others. The value of the network you build early on is immeasurable. Make it as broad as possible.
  3. Don’t race for promotion. Take your time to build your expertise and/or your network and enjoy it. The next role, the next challenge will find you when you’re ready for it.

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