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Why McKinsey won’t get its moms back

An article by Leslie Kwoh in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal claims that McKinsey wants its moms back: “the big consulting firm is quietly reaching out to female employees who left some years ago—presumably to start families—to see whether they are ready to return”.

I am quite sceptical about this initiative, and even more so of the article itself. The first is the underlying assumption that those moms are now “managing a household (as the article portrays it) and are waiting to be called back into the workforce. I remember reading a study by one of the Big Four accountancies during the dotcom era. When they were considering calling “their moms” back, they found out that almost all of them were actually already back at work – somewhere else! It’s hard to imagine McKinsey alumnae would be any different. Many women (including me) actually leave McKinsey because of lifestyle issues before they even have children. Here are two prominent women who quit McKinsey in recent years before ever having children and what they did after:

Closer to home, my business school companions who left top consultancies due to lifestyle issues include founders of a high growth fashion startup, a director of a specialty chemicals company, a Vice President of Marketing of a FTSE 100 company and several high profile social entrepreneurs. The “McKinsey moms” that I know are no different. I don’t know a single case of a recent McKinsey alumna who just decided to “manage a household” for longer than couple of years (in fact, I don’t even know any who did it for less than a couple of years, but let’s say for argument’s sake it might happen for a brief time). I do, however, know plenty of women who quit consulting once they started thinking of having a family and are now founders, CEOs, freelance consultants, Oxford university professors, senior members of ministries for economics and development in their countries, and managers of bluechip companies. Are they sitting on the playground for years, talking about babies? Sometimes, but certainly not for long. Are they likely to come back to a consulting role? Hardly. Because here’s a piece of news: highly skilled women today aren’t sitting at home for years waiting for outdated corporate models to change. They have taken things into their own hands (and by the way – increasingly, men don’t want to put up with unsustainable lifestyles either – now here’s a problem for corporations!).

What gives me such confidence to claim the alleged initiative is not going to take off (there isn’t actually any data in the article to back up that such an initiative even exists, not even what you would call anecdotal evidence) ? Let me give you an example: following the Lehman bankruptcy in September 2008, investment banks fired thousands of workers in panic, expecting a total collapse. Among those was a friend and McKinsey alumna turned Goldman Sachs banker in London. She told me that about a dozen bankers in her team were fired on the spot and used the opportunity to take a year off work to travel the world and plan new ventures. A couple of months into their travels, somewhere on the beaches of Australia, these same ex-bankers received an unexpected call from their former bosses at Goldman Sachs: business had picked up again, and would they like to come back? Do you think anyone cut short their surfing holidays? You guessed right: not a single member of the team accepted.

I imagine much the same would happen if those who quit McKinsey were called back – most will already have started a new career and will be too busy and happy in their new role to go back. And those who are actually really sitting at home waiting for that call – they might be the least likely group willing to make the sacrifice. Chances are, McKinsey knows this, and the lack of actual facts for this alleged initiative in the WSJ is a reflection of that. In my time at McKinsey, I have actually seen female alumnae hired back – as career coaches or communication experts working freelance providing training for junior consultants. This is the most likely way in which McKinsey and “its moms'” paths will cross again in the future.

The most ludicrous claim in the article is that before returning to work, “women first need to brush up Excel skills and social media tools” so relevant for businesses today! If there is one group that is ahead of the pack when it comes to Facebook and Pinterest, it is the millions of moms with iPhones! It is much more likely that sleep-deprived McKinsey consultants working 70-hour weeks have much to learn in this respect, as their lifestyle leaves them little time to browse the web, tweet and check Facebook status updates (admittedly, I was the exception, composing blogposts on my blackberry during my constant flights and taxi rides)! Chances are, McKinsey will hire them back as social media experts, working according to their own schedule and on their own terms!

If there is one piece of advice I remember from my time with McKinsey, it is that given by the Firm’s managing director at the time, Ian Davis, speaking at one of our analyst trainings. He said that being a success at McKinsey doesn’t mean making partner. Success means that later in life, when you look back at your time, you have no regrets, because you learned a lot, enjoyed your time and met great people. I am confident most people who leave consulting feel exactly that way. But then they move on, never to look back.

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