Learning to lead through listening

I can reflect on a number of moments at McKinsey in which I’ve been stretched and grown by my inspiring and talented colleagues. One moment in particular stands out: leading the planning for the Americas’ Summer Conference.

The summer conference is an annual weekend event for our interns in North America (other regions hold similar events). It’s an important, high–profile event within the firm; then–managing partner Dominic Barton was going to be there, along with Vik Malhotra who led NA at the time, many other McKinsey leaders, consultants and interns. If you’ve ever planned a wedding, imagine planning four of them, consecutively, for about 600 guests, with professional development content, and you’ll start to get an idea of what I’m describing. It was a big undertaking –the biggest thing I’d ever led as a manager at that point in my career. While I tried not to show it, I was nervous and surprised by the level of trust placed in me.

Thankfully, I was working with a fabulous team. There were 10 of us, a mix of recruiters and consultants, though none of us had planned something this big before. Everyone worked hard and supported each other.

Still, as we got closer to the conference, our anxiety levels rose. About one week out, we were getting ready for a meeting with the partner lead for the event, Kevin Dolan (he leads US MBA recruiting for the firm and is a senior partner now). Kevin had been really involved and invested throughout the whole planning process; he regularly spent time problem–solving with us. On this particular day, you could feel the stress in our team room. We were joking less than usual, and the tension was palpable. Kevin entered the room in his typical relaxed way, and casually said,“hey, how’s it going?”He looked around, paused, and sat down.


What he did next surprised me.

Instead of leading us through our usual round of status updates, he said,“Let’s take this meeting in a different direction. I trust you have the details sorted. Instead, I’d like to hear what each of you are worried about going into the conference next week.”

Everyone looked a little stunned. We all sort of blinked and looked around at each other. Then, one brave soul spoke up and we went around the room sharing. Kevin just listened, periodically clarifying what someone meant. Once we went through everyone, he thanked us for sharing. Then we talked through the items that were causing stress and found resolutions together. Kevin closed with a pep talk highlighting the strengths we each brought to the team. It was extremely personal and positive.

Then something magical happened.

The atmosphere in the room changed. We were light –laughing and smiling again. We left feeling energized for the last push toward the conference.

I had heard of“reading the room”and Kevin’s ability to do that was uncanny. I was sort of in awe. It was a pivotal moment–we could have gone down a path where we got overwhelmed with stress and lost focus. Instead, he enabled us to be at our best by showing empathy and giving us what we needed at the given time: a leader to listen, understand and address the issues that were weighing on us. That moment happened about four years ago, and it has stuck with me all this time.

Let me wrap up by telling you the conference was absolutely incredible. We surpassed expectations, the feedback was off the charts positive, and it was one of the professional accomplishments of which I’m most proud. It was a moment when I felt I was truly at my best.

Find a job like Lisana

Never miss another post

Receive new stories once a week directly in your inbox