Prior to joining the firm last year, Saisha enrolled in flight school in Essex County, 20 miles from her apartment in Manhattan.
“Before the pandemic, I enjoyed adventures like solo travel and scuba diving to push myself to learn new things,” Saisha says. After months without either of those outlets, she was ready for something new. “I promised myself I would start training for my pilot’s license before I started at the firm,” she says. “It’s been a goal of mine for a long time, and I knew the demands on my time would be greater after I joined McKinsey. I didn’t want to let myself off the hook.”
Of course, getting a pilot’s license takes a while, so once Saisha did start working full-time, she carved out time between making pivot tables and problem-solving to ride the bus to the Essex County Airport, learning to shift her mind from work to flight like she flips switches on the dashboard of her school’s Cessna 172.
Lessons learned while flying
Pursuing the hobby teaches her not just about piloting but about her own instincts and how she thinks.
“I love how it forces me to reconsider basic assumptions,” Saisha says. The rigorous self-examination and awareness required of pilots has helped Saisha learn to question her hypotheses and look at work problems from several different angles, too. And it’s not the only element of flying that makes her a better consultant or vice versa.
“My job prepares me to balance four or five things at once,” she says. “And that translates to flying. In the air, in a span of two minutes, you could be studying an aeronautical chart for a landmark, responding to changes in weather, making radio calls, looking for air traffic, all while handling the aerodynamics of the plane. Focused, precise execution while balancing multiple factors and tasks in the air has made me better in the team room.”
From flying, Saisha has adopted the habit of planning ahead and learned to appreciate low-stress times more, using them to prepare for the next high-stress situation. Before landing a plane—the phase of flight Saisha describes as the most difficult—she will take the occasional detour through a fluffy cloud, popping open her window to run her fingers through it and savoring the moment of calm.
At work, stressful situations come in different shapes and sizes—a harried email, an Excel error, indecipherable-yet-urgent deck edits—but, in the air, they can be life or death. Training for worst-case scenarios in flight has helped Saisha figure out how to keep calm under intense pressure.
“When I’m doing a practice flight, my instructor will randomly cut my engine and say, ‘Emergency procedure, go!’” Saisha says. “Suddenly I’m scrambling to cruise without an engine, looking for the best landing spot, running my engine failure checklist, coming out of the stall… Trying to remain completely calm so I can keep us safe in the air. After a while, the process becomes second nature, and it has definitely given me some perspective.”
With the help of a supportive team
After nine months of flight school and 60 hours in the sky, Saisha is just a handful of hours away from having her pilot’s license. How she realistically finds the time to step away from work? An 80-20 mindset and a supportive team.
As for her current team, Saisha says they are encouraging and accommodating of her extracurricular activities and always excited to learn about the latest developments in her training. Colleagues on past teams have also contributed to her sense of support at the firm—her former engagement director emphasized the importance of protecting her time and lifestyle, not just for herself but to set an example for others, and her former engagement manager would insist she log off to attend to her other commitments.
“They make me feel comfortable bringing my whole self to work,” Saisha says. “I would not be getting my license if it weren’t for my teams’ enthusiastic encouragement, open communication, and flexibility when things get busy. It takes a village, but I’ve found people are always willing to help here when you only ask.”