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Giving and receiving support during crisis

Marissa, a former intelligence officer who has helped clients manage every type of issue from cyberattacks to hostage situations, talks about her current role as crisis response leader, the support she gives and receives at McKinsey, and parenting during COVID-19.

What did you do before joining McKinsey?

Giving and receiving support during crisis
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I started my career as an intelligence officer. I was about six weeks out of grad school and was assigned to cover organized crime and trafficking in the Caribbean so I could learn the ropes in a relatively quiet part of the world. One day, I was working late and the only one in the office. The secure phone rang, I picked up, and someone said, “Riots breaking out in Haiti, we’re going to need some intel support.” Within a week, I was in front of the Joint Chiefs of Staff providing daily updates on the humanitarian and geopolitical crisis in Haiti. Being in the right place at the right time started it all.

After I left government, I eventually went on to make a career in consulting. I love client engagement - the thrill of a complex problem no one knows how to articulate and spending time getting underneath it.

How did you end up at McKinsey?

I was recruited on LinkedIn while in the partner process at my former employer. During my interviews, I was problem solving with senior leaders to align on what the firm needed and whether it was a role in which I could see myself. I never felt like I was being interviewed. Instead, I met people who challenged my thinking and were open to me challenging theirs. I fell in love with the firm, not as a concept but as a group of people.

Despite the positive experience, we decided the role wasn’t the right fit and agreed to stay in touch. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, “I wish that had gone a different way.” Then, a couple of months later, the CIO of the firm called and said, “We have a new chief risk officer and we think we’ve figured out a way to make this work.” After that, everything came together quickly, and I had an offer in my hand for a role in Risk & Compliance that hadn’t existed before. It was exciting because I could help shape the role.

How do you support the firm?

I’m the leader for crisis response. The way I describe my team’s role is we’re not sitting in the firehouse waiting for the bell to ring. We’re active all the time because the optimal crisis is the one that never happens. During an active event, we lend expertise, facilitation, and organizational hygiene to help guide the firm to resolution. Then, afterward, we review the issue to understand how to further fine tune our approach to an issue as well as our response process.

Right now, most of my days start with a series of COVID-19 meetings, covering everything from where the firm is on our approach to vaccinations to the latest office re-opening. We take a firmwide view and support local response teams on everything from safety protocols, case counts, and potential pockets of concern. But we’re also constantly seeking to understand how people are doing, where morale is, and what colleagues need, collaborating with regional response teams, and functions like People and Communications to calibrate response.

How does the firm support you and how do you pass that along to your team?

The firm and our people bring so much care. To each other, to their clients, to the toughest problems, and the smallest details. The care is what makes us distinctive in our profession.

As a leader, I try to bring that to my own team. When an issue hits, we start with the impact it may have on our people, our clients, and the world and society at large. But events like the pandemic can be emotional for those of us helping to respond, too. If we don’t acknowledge the emotions, they will get the better of us and impact response. Even when we are ruthlessly focused on resolution, I ask my team how they’re doing, how their families, pets or kids are doing, if they got that meditation in and are managing ok. I see it as central to my role to take care of the people taking care of everyone else.

Any tips for being a working parent – especially during COVID-19?

Giving and receiving support during crisis
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The firm has done so much during COVID-19 to support not only parents, but all colleagues. From providing tangible benefits and flexibility to regular check-ins to reminding us we can and should approach work and each other with more patience and care. Even just letting people be human on Zoom, remarking on pets and background art, or laughing about a senior partner wearing workout clothes. We’ve learned to let each other bring more of ourselves because there are now fewer boundaries between work and home life.

There are a few practices I’ve personally adopted since COVID-19. One is giving myself permission to let go of the things that aren’t important. For example, I take pride in cooking meals, but it’s okay to sometimes just pick up a chicken or say we’re all having soup and a giant loaf of bread tonight. Or to not stress when we lose part of a meeting agenda because we’re checking in with one another and someone needs to share something personal. Another is being comfortable with asking for help—from family, neighbors, colleagues.

Maybe the most important practice I’ve adopted this last year is being more vulnerable. I used to worry about one of my three children being audible on a work call. But I recently hosted a global COVID-19 response call with 30 firm leaders and colleagues with my daughter sitting on my lap the entire time. People were wrapping up their segments saying “I hope Aurora agrees,” and she was thrilled. The reality is: I would not have done that a year ago. But that morning I had no choice and my colleagues understood and didn’t miss a beat. And it extends beyond being a parent; it’s being human. Whether it’s a dog, houseplants, an elderly parent, a yoga practice, a walk outside—we all have things outside our work life that are important and require our care. I’m grateful we have a culture that embraces that and am optimistic we’ll continue to do so beyond 2021.

Find a role like Marissa’s

More about Marissa

When Marissa isn’t leading the firm’s crisis response team, she loves spending time with her three children, traveling, enjoying the outdoors, and connecting over a family meal. She is also an avid reader who loves to share books with others.