We sat down with Tabitha, an engagement manager in our DC office to learn more about how her time as a submarine officer in the US Navy has translated to consulting for McKinsey, some of the work she’s most proud of, and the benefits she has experienced participating in the Veterans@McKinsey network.
How it all began
I’m one of seven siblings – the second oldest of five brothers and one sister. Growing up in Bowie, MD, my parents instilled in me a sense of leadership, encouraging me to set a good example for my younger siblings. To me, the US Naval Academy was a fulfillment of that greater purpose. The ability to serve and be a part of something bigger than myself and set an example for my kid brothers and sister at the same time.
My decision to attend the Academy was solidified during the summer I did a leadership program there while I was still in high school. I had a really great experience leading teams there, and I knew it would be a great route for me – to become an officer and to serve my country. While at the Academy, I got so many great opportunities to lead. I played a leadership role in my company, on the softball field, and yes, even on the stage in choir.
After my four years at the Naval Academy, I joined the submarine force; I was in the first class of women to serve on US submarines. I was in awe of the level of commitment and camaraderie. When you're stuck on a steel tube in the middle of the ocean, you depend on all your teammates and I learned a lot from that experience.
Finding my voice
One of the things I learned to do in the middle of the ocean, 100s of feet below the surface, was face some of my fears. There were two big categories of fear that I felt. The first was an external threat. There are a lot of elements at play, so we practiced. We did a lot of drills; we prepared for every scenario so that if something happened, our muscle memory would kick in and we would know to do five things right away that could save the submarine and our lives.
The other type of fear I dealt with was an internal one. Sometimes people refer to it as imposter syndrome – that feeling like you don't belong, like you were somehow a hiring mistake. Colleagues at McKinsey deal with that, too. I coped by reminding myself that I was there for a reason. I had a unique perspective, and my voice mattered. I still do that today, and I try to pay it forward my reminding my current colleagues they have a lot to offer, because sometimes the internal fear can really get you.
Learning to lead
I also learned a lot about my leadership style. My commanding officer, who was the head of the submarine, had spent 30 years in a submarine force that was all male. One day, he pulled me aside and told me that he thought he had learned everything he needed to know about leadership in his decades of experience until women came on submarines. That change made him re-evaluate the style he chose, and he learned that leadership is very much a toolkit, not a template that you can apply to every situation. ‘You have to meet people where they are and understand them,’ he said. That really stuck with me.
I've leaned on the leadership skills I built in the Navy here at McKinsey. The team environment is so important to the McKinsey experience, and finding opportunities to lead -- whether it's in your title or your role for a project -- I found to be one of my favorite parts.
I’ve also continued to mentor other female submarine officers. When you’re one of the first women to do something, you want to make sure you’re not the last, so I’ve stayed involved.
I’ve worked on fostering diversity and inclusion through McKinsey, too. One of my most recent projects focused on enabling Black and Latinos small business owners in DC to address the systemic barriers they face in trying to scale their businesses. DC is such a racially diverse area to live; unfortunately, the diversity in its residency is not reflected in business ownership and there are a lot of challenges that Black and Latinos SMB owners face when trying to access capital, grow their customer networks, and improve their business strategy. We had the opportunity to tackle this problem by bringing together stakeholders across the community and government. I'm proud of the work our team did and the efforts that are continuing today. I’m excited to see the impact in the years to come. It will take time, but it's incredibly important.
Parallels between consulting and the service
There have been several similarities between McKinsey and the Navy. First, they’re both very tightknit. As soon as you see the water crashing over the submarine as it submerges, it hits you that you’ll be stuck with the people around you for months. And there aren’t police, fire departments, or superheroes to save the day if you need help. It places a level of responsibility on you to contribute, learn, and help your teammates. That level of dedication and commitment is one of the defining factors of the submarine force.
At McKinsey, we also spend a lot of time working closely with our teams and clients – whether in-person or virtually. The work and environment can be intense, and we get to know each other really well, just like my shipmates and I did.
Second, I’ve been surprised by how much knowledge everybody at McKinsey has. The submarine force has a bit of a reputation for being nerdy. McKinsey people are very dedicated and committed to their areas of expertise, too – to a level of nerdiness that rivals the submarine force. It’s amazing!
A few differences
Of course, not everything is the same. One of the things I had to unlearn at McKinsey related to my communication style. In the military, it's all about short, direct communication. We use a lot of acronyms. At McKinsey, using jargon prevents you from relating to people.
I've leaned on the Veterans network at McKinsey since day one. I was staffed to my first project because I knew another veteran from my summer experience and my engagement manager was a former Marine. Now, I have quite a few military sponsors at McKinsey who are looking out for me and my development. It’s helpful to see partners who used to live under the ocean like I did; it shows me a path for advancement.
I’ve also had a lot of fun with my fellow veterans. We’ve had our own versions of "dining out," which is a traditional military dinner with toasts and sword arches. We’ve run Toys for Tots campaigns during the holiday season and had informal coffee chats, happy hours, etc. to share our experiences, get advice, and reminisce about our former service days I've felt at home at McKinsey since day one because of the Veterans@McKinsey community, and they’ve been essential in helping me navigate my way.