Back to Careers Blog

Training for the circus makes me stronger

Meet Russell, Chicago-based engagement manager, aerial acrobat, storyteller, and pianist.

Read more about: Community

Russell’s first language was music. He was only two years old when he started to play the piano. He quickly became fluent in the instrument and preferred it to other forms of toddler communication. “It’s as if music was my first language.” So began a lifelong relationship with the arts that remains a vital part of Russell’s life, along with his work as an engagement manager in our Chicago office. He works hard to sustain both careers and uses our Take Time program to spend three months a year performing as a pianist and circus artist, doing feats that make a steering committee meeting with the toughest stakeholders seem like a walk in the park.


Videos filmed at and credited to Aloft Circus Arts in Chicago, IL.

More than one way to tell a story

While Russell is passionate about the arts, he was keen to explore other professional possibilities. He studied business and arts management as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. He began his McKinsey career as a summer business analyst in 2007 and re-joined full-time upon graduation a year later.

Throughout his time at McKinsey, he has found parallels between his work as a performance artist and his role as a consultant. Seeing the end goal and learning to focus has definitely been an asset. Hear more in his own words.

Sustaining two career paths

Russell’s career has taken a few turns to accommodate his multiple passions. After two years as a business analyst at McKinsey, he left the firm to work in agricultural development for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Next, he pivoted to the Royal Academy of Music in London to earn a master’s degree in piano. While studying, he had the opportunity to spend more time training in contemporary dance and aerial circus arts. But, Russell found this path had limitations: “I lost nearly 50 pounds because I couldn’t put food on the table,” he says. “I was living the life of a starving artist– literally.” “At the point when it wasn’t working financially, I started thinking about returning to McKinsey and the people I loved to work with, with daily challenges and a good, steady paycheck. As a pianist, I wasn’t challenged intellectually the way I was at McKinsey and I missed that. Even though it was emotionally fulfilling, I found it pretty slow and monotonous to spend eight hours a day practicing, alone in a room.”

“When I returned to McKinsey in 2014, I focused on working with people I liked and pursued opportunities that inspired me in consumer, retail, and high tech. I used Take Time (a program that affords consultants up to five weeks of extra, unpaid leave a year) to make time for the performing arts. To make it all work, I learned to consistently communicate my plans to my team and clients when, for example, I needed to adjust my schedule or travel for performances and practice,” says Russell. “I also had to be creative about when I served clients and when I took other roles.” That meant spending three months covering Midwest Office recruiting for a colleague who was out on maternity leave. It also meant a short but cool assignment that connected him to the arts world again.

This approach led Russell to his current role: a rotation with New Ventures. He works with leaders within our 50+ startup solutions to articulate their value propositions and further their impact with our clients. This allows Russell to apply his love of storytelling in a slightly different way: “In this role, I’m not telling my own story like I do as I perform; nor am I telling an organization’s story using rigorous data. What I do is somewhere in between – I help McKinsey New Ventures tell compelling stories of how they can create value for clients, and I have found that incredibly inspiring.”

Is it worth it?

It isn’t easy to manage two careers. For Russell it has been worth the effort: “The most inspirational thing is the response I often get from my clients and colleagues who ask to see me perform and keep track of me when I’m traveling and training. I feel doing this makes me human to them; it helps us connect better personally and professionally. More importantly, it makes me happy. Overall, approaching McKinsey and the performing arts this way is working for me. It’s awesome, and I love McKinsey for making it possible.”
Find a job like Russell's

About Russell
Russell is a client communications and engagement manager with New Ventures, McKinsey’s product and solution group of 50+ startups. He holds a bachelor’s in French and international studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s in piano performance from the University of London Royal Academy of Music. 

Never miss another post

Receive new stories once a week directly in your inbox