McKinsey Q&A: Gillian

Gillian was an engagement manager in the Toronto office when she took a year off to work with One Acre Fund, an NGO that supports smallholder farmers in Ethiopia (and is ranked by Global Journal as one of the top 20 NGOs in the world). Inspired by the growth and dynamism of East Africa, she transferred to our year-old Nairobi office upon returning to the firm full-time.

Interviewer: What were some of the differences between your experiences in Toronto and Nairobi?


Gillian: Meetings with senior clients in East Africa have certain rituals. Formal dress is essential – a suit and tie for a man and a skirt suit and heels for a woman. A cup of local Kenyan tea, made almost entirely of milk, is invariably part of the introduction. The meeting usually begins with an informal discussion with the client for 20 minutes on a topic ranging from a previous meeting to a newspaper article, their dietary regimen, or the traffic. These discourses are often my favorite part of the discussion as they are informative and usually humorous. Then the actual meeting begins.

By contrast, the typical meeting in North America includes only a few minutes of pleasantries before the participants dive into the agenda; laughter is rare; and, meetings usually end on time. In East Africa, very personal, trust-based relationships are critical to doing business and meetings will last as long as necessary to ensure that happens.

Interviewer: What has surprised you about your clients in Africa?

Gillian: Clients here have an intensity I did not experience in North America. This comes from a belief that we are at an inflection point in the East Africa economy, which could unlock access to goods and services to millions of people currently living without them. Business leaders here speak more about changing lives than generating margins and revenue. The stakes are very personal, very immediate. The next few years are not about incremental change; they are about having impact on a continental scale.

Interviewer: How has this intensity caused you to modify your approach to working with clients?

Gillian: Having spent most of my McKinsey career working with established Fortune 500 companies, I was used to telling clients directly what I thought they were doing well and sharing suggestions for improvement. With clients in East Africa, I have to engage in much more aspirational discussions. One of the most exciting conversations in which I participated was with the Ministry of Education. We discussed innovative models in education being developed around the world and the opportunity for Kenya to become a real shaper of talent on the continent. Fundamentally, these conversations are less about diagnosing the past and more about looking forward to a new, radically improved future. That’s what makes East Africa so exciting.

Interviewer: Are there any other ways you’ve adapted your own working style over the past year?

Gillian: I’ve learned to be flexible. I fondly recall my first week in Kenya. I attended what was supposed to be a two-hour meeting with a CEO. It lasted most of the day, covering our workstreams, his vision for the company, and his views on the country’s social development. It was a tremendously exciting discussion that definitely required me to let go of my agenda for the day.

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