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The powerful combination of professionalism and heart: Q&A with Stephanie Lowell

Stephanie Lowell is an associate director of talent who works with McKinsey’s legal and risk functions. Over the past few years, Stephanie has partnered closely with McKinsey Legal’s leadership team and the firm’s general counsel, Pierre Gentin, in developing a dynamic community of world-class legal professionals around the globe. Pierre recently interviewed Stephanie on a range of topics including how a talent professional can partner effectively with a company’s legal department, what the parent of a child with special needs has to teach us, and so much more.

Pierre Gentin: Steph, you’ve been a hugely impactful talent partner for McKinsey Legal. Why do you think our partnership has been so positive?

Stephanie Lowell: It has been an amazing experience to be part of McKinsey Legal’s transformation. What I’ve loved is that investing in the organization and the people who make the department what it is has been the consistent top priority of McKinsey Legal’s leadership team—and talent is part of every leadership discussion we have.

I’m really proud to be part of the set of things we’ve done already—building the organizational structure, clarifying role expectations, opening up opportunities for progression, investing in the capabilities of our senior lawyers as people managers, creating great developmental opportunities like rotations across teams and across the globe, and how McKinsey Legal’s leadership team really doubled down on engagement, connectivity, and well-being during the pandemic. And of course, I’m excited for all the work that lies ahead.

Pierre Gentin: We’ve worked together now for almost three years, and we’ve talked a lot about making McKinsey Legal a community where our legal professionals support and rely on each other. That may well include embracing the joys and sorrows in our personal lives. What does that approach mean for you specifically as a McKinsey colleague?

Stephanie Lowell: Well, anyone who has worked with me for any period of time knows that I have a son, Andy, who has severe special needs. It is so integral to who I am and how I approach work and life that it naturally comes out as we work together. That, and I have an obnoxiously loud ringtone for my son’s classroom nurse that has interrupted many a call or video meeting.

I am so grateful to work at a place, and in a time, when bringing your whole self to work is not only acceptable but embraced. We do an exercise in one of our inclusion workshops where people create a pie chart of the different aspects of themselves, to get across that sometimes what we see at work is only a little slice of the whole individual. The conversation that ensues is so interesting, because of course you can’t break yourself into a pie chart—the rest of you doesn’t cease to exist while you are at the office—it’s all there all the time, influencing who you are and how you approach your work. And while not everyone wants to share all aspects of who they are and what they do outside of work, and that’s fine too, knowing that this is a place where it’s safe to do so is really powerful.

Pierre Gentin: Tell me a bit more about Andy.

Stephanie Lowell: Andy is my younger son—a sweet, loving, often boisterous 15-year-old who is developmentally more toddler than teen, and whose smile lights up the room. Our special needs journey began when Andy was 19 months old and had his first seizure, at the tail end of a seemingly run-of-the-mill virus. He had his second seizure in the ambulance, his next several in our regional hospital, and then was quickly transported to Children’s Hospital Boston, where he had so many seizures over the next 36 hours that we lost count.

Nothing they threw at him seemed to be able to slow or stop the seizures. We went from the neurology floor to the ICU. We did a million tests—to this day, the cause remains unknown, though we’re still searching. As a last resort, he was put into a therapeutic coma. Afterward, he could barely hold up his head and could no longer talk or make eye contact. But the seizures had finally stopped, and we thought the worst was over.

That first hospital stay lasted eight weeks. Over the next few months, Andy made a lot of progress. He started to crawl again, then walk. He slowly regained words. He began to seem more like himself. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the seizures returned, and the progress stopped.

Fast forward 13 years. We’ve tried so much—seen a million specialists, entered research trials. He’s been on so many different combinations of medications, the ketogenic diet; neurosurgery; a vagus-nerve stimulator; neurofeedback; physical, occupational, and speech therapy and more! While some interventions have helped somewhat, it has unfortunately been a journey: first of two steps forward, one step back; then what felt like one step forward, one step back; and more recently, two steps backward, one step forward. He continues to have daily seizures, varying in number and intensity. The seizures and the medications have taken a toll, and he needs one-on-one care and support with everything, all the time. But this is his life, and ours, and we try to do everything we can to make it the best life possible for him.

Pierre Gentin: And yet here you are, at McKinsey. How does that work for you?

Stephanie Lowell: Well, in fairness, it has been a journey for me, too. I grew up here—I started out many years ago as a business analyst, and I have played a number of roles, including consultant, practice manager, and now talent manager. I actually left the firm, before I had Andy, to go work with a not-for-profit organization. When Andy got sick, I stopped working for several years, and then did little bits of freelance work here and there, including some career coaching. One day, I got a call from someone at McKinsey about being part of the alumni-consulting program and started doing some internally focused project work in the talent space—at the time for just five to ten hours a week. Over the course of a few years, five turned into ten, which turned into 20, which turned into, “Would you consider really coming back to the firm in this new talent role?” That journey has continued to evolve into my current role.

I’m not consistently full time—I have bounced around from 60 percent to 80 percent to 100 percent and back again. And I confess I have not gotten it quite right yet. I’ve also taken a couple of two- to three-week leaves when Andy has had to be in the hospital for an extended period. It’s definitely a challenge trying to balance. In full transparency, I have a running inner dialogue along the lines of, “I’m not sure I can keep doing this. Yes, I can. No, I can’t. Yes, I can.”

But I love what I do, and as hard as I work, the flexibility embedded in how we work has helped a lot. I’m truly grateful for the support and understanding of my colleagues, including some who have listened with incredible empathy and caring when I’ve been particularly struggling. I’m also part of the PSCM—Parents of Special Children at McKinsey—an internal affinity group that provides an additional layer of support and community that’s been really helpful.

The other thing I love about our colleagues here, and maybe this goes back to the “bring your whole self to work” theme, is I can say to you, “Sorry about the background noise, I’m at the hospital with Andy but totally fine to talk,” and it doesn’t faze you. But I can also say, “I’m so sorry, I’m at the hospital with Andy and I’m not going to be able to join any of our calls today,” and that also doesn’t faze you. That flexibility and support is a huge part of why I’ve been able to make this work.

Pierre Gentin: What has being a parent of a child with special needs taught you that you bring to work?

Stephanie Lowell: Extraordinary patience—most of the time. A better ability to differentiate the urgent from the important. A willingness to ask others for help, at work and at home, and see that as a strength and opportunity and not as a weakness. And greater awareness that you never know what is going on under the surface for any given person and to always try to think about “why is someone responding this way?”

Pierre Gentin: What are you most excited about this year in talent?

Stephanie Lowell: I’m excited about a lot of things! One of our priorities this year, as you know, is to really invest in the capabilities of people managers to develop and unlock the potential of their teams. A recent McKinsey Quarterly article on “the Great Resignation” emphasized just how important a role managers play in employees’ decisions to stay or leave. Translating “being a caring people leader” into practice is therefore so critical.

I’m excited about the series of learning programs we will bring to our people managers, as well as about me spending one-on-one time as a sounding board for them, ensuring that we are all having meaningful development conversations, providing feedback, and supporting the ongoing growth of our firm’s managers as true people leaders. It’s not just critical for retention; it’s part of what makes the positivity of our culture real and meaningful.

Maybe I can ask a question of you? Given that so much of our conversation has involved my journey as both a professional and parent of a child with special needs, how have you found working with me?

Pierre Gentin: As I’ve told you many times, Steph, you’ve been an amazing role model for me here at McKinsey. You’re a superb, creative, and committed professional and your fierce devotion and love for Andy, and your family more broadly, has real and unpredictable practical consequences. And yet, you bring such intelligence and heart to what you do in both spheres that it’s never been an obstacle to driving forward with our high aspirations for McKinsey Legal. I am grateful for you as a colleague and for having the courage to tell your story. Here’s to many more years of learning from each other.