McKinsey Global Institute director shares keys to successful career building
By Anna J. Park
Kweilin Ellingrud, a director at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) and a senior partner at McKinsey & Company in the U.S., leads the global management consulting firm’s in-depth research projects on various business and tech trends, including human capital, gender equality, net-zero strategies and economic inclusion, to name just a few.
During her recent visit to Korea, Ellingrud sat down with The Korea Times in Seoul, sharing valuable insights on human capital development, the value of diversity and successful career building.
Highly productive and focused, she is indeed a perfect person to give advice on these topics, as she has proactively devoted herself to stretching her capacities to develop her human capital, while keeping a balance between work and her family life as a mother of three children and a wife.
Maximization of human capital and lifetime earnings
She first introduced key takeaways from “Human Capital at work: The value of experience,” a McKinsey study published by the MGI. According to the paper, human capital is the most important resource in any economy or organization, defined as the collective knowledge, attributes, skills, experience and health of people, accumulated throughout an individual’s life. While human capital development evolves from early childhood and continues through education and then to work, the McKinsey report particularly focused on an individual’s career moves, the value of skills and experiences built on a job and ways to maximize lifetime earnings.
“In the study, we looked at four different types or categories of workers. One type was ‘experience seekers.’ They would look for new experiences and they would stretch themselves to find jobs that had a lot of new skills compared to the job that they were doing before. This group actually had the highest lifetime income, because they were stretching into new roles,” she said during the interview. “There was another segment across these groups, that was what we call ‘early movers.’ And these were people that early on in their career made a big jump. And this also was the second-highest category of lifetime earners. Both of those recipes or ways of approaching your career are very effective.”
Yet she explained that the third category of a “late mover,” who decides to jump to other career paths after working for a long time in an occupation or a company, was not as effective, as they only have fewer years to take advantage of the skills built in that new job. The fourth category called “lock-ins,” who work at a company for an entire career, making very few jumps, also was not effective at maximizing those lifetime earnings.
“So when we ask what can an individual do to maximize their lifetime earnings, not just from education but especially the skills they build on the job, it is jump early, and relatively often, every few years on average,” she highlighted. “That will serve you well, because that will help you maximize what we call your experience capital. And that will maximize your lifetime earnings.”
3-pronged qualities of great companies
The study’s data also showed that workers who are doing really well in building their skills, capabilities and experiences often picked great companies early on. Ellingrud clarifies three main characteristics of great companies ― effective organizational culture, investment in employee training and all-around internal career path.
“Interestingly, none of them is the size of the company. It’s not dependent on size, it’s not dependent on industry,” she pointed out. “The first thing that these great kind of skill-building companies do is they’re effective organizations. They cascade leadership well, they have a clear mission and they have performance management. The second is the number of training hours that they give employees. This is time off of your day job to build skills,” she explained.
The third characteristic of great companies is all-around internal career paths. It means an employee can stretch their skill sets by moving both laterally and promotionally within the company.
Ellingrud underscores that these three qualities can, in turn, be the criteria of companies that succeed in retaining the best workers: “I think companies that do those three things well will both invest in effectively building the skills but also retain the employees, so that they get the benefit of that investment.”
She adds the same set of criteria can also guide those who’d like to change their career path.
“If you are jumping, I would make sure that it has as many of those three criteria as you can find; firstly, healthy, constructive and effective culture; secondly, good investment in training hours in skill building; and lastly, internal both lateral and promotional career path,” she said, elucidating that the three criteria might be ideal, or at least two of the three could be a good bet for a place that not only will help employees build their skills, but also retain and develop them over time.
Importance of interactive skills
When it comes to specific skill sets that people will need more in the future, Ellingrud pointed to the significance of social and emotional skills.
She said such abilities allow genuine human interactions, like empathy, trust and influence, which only humans can do in times of an increasingly sophisticated technological society.
At the same time, interestingly, she emphasized that more technological skills will be needed in a sense of effective interaction with technology.
“If you’re in finance, or if you’re in marketing, or if you’re an insurance, there’s also more specific skills that will need to be built. But in terms of cross-cutting skills, it’s those two ― social, emotional and technological skills ― that all of us need,” she said.
Real value of diversity
Diversity is another main area that the McKinsey institute that Ellingrud leads has broadly researched on over three times in 2015, 2018 and 2021. She explains that the studies found that gender diversity and ethnic diversity across a management team is highly correlated in a statistically significant way to higher economic results.
“Companies that are more diverse on their management team return higher total returns to shareholders, when you control for geography, industry, all these other things,” Ellingrud said. “About 25 percent more likely to outperform economically, if you are gender diverse; about 36 percent more likely, if you are ethnically diverse.”
She said research also showed diverse teams solve tough problems better: “If you have a really hard problem, such as product innovation, then you want a diverse team, for the very fact that you will question the assumptions that I bring, I will question his assumptions, we will come at it from different ways of thinking, and we get to a better problem and a better solution.”
Two successful decades at McKinsey
The implications from these human capital and diversity studies are actually very related to Ellingrud’s highly successful and productive career path that she has had at McKinsey for over 20 years.
Throughout her teenage years, she spent a number of years in China, Ecuador, France and Japan, living with local families and picking up the local languages. She studied economics and political science at Harvard University and went on to earn her MBA from Harvard Business School.
At McKinsey, she explored various roles and practices during the past two decades, aiming to stretch herself outside of her comfort zone in order to get a little bit better every single day.
“I love a challenge. I love building my skills and I love stretching; it can be a little bit uncomfortable. If I’m too comfortable, and I know it, I get bored a bit. So I constantly question myself how do I stretch myself outside my comfort zone, whether that’s in a new role, or on a project, or in different ways, sometimes a different country,” she said.
She recounts that the reason she stayed at her current firm for many years is that she could stretch herself enough, as McKinsey meets all of those criteria of a great company ― effective organization, investment in training and internal career path ― allowing her to reinvent her roles, shifting operations, to research and publications, and to an overseas position in China. She has now returned to the U.S.
Meticulous self-assessment system
Another secret to her leading a balanced and purposeful life is that she has a meticulous system of self-assessment and evaluation. She tracks her routines and feelings daily and pursues her own definition of a sustainable lifestyle.
“What I do when I feel burnt out is that I step back and think very hard about what is my definition of sustainable lifestyle. And because I do a lot of operations transformations as well, I quantify that by writing down very numerically,” she said.
“So number one, I define it quantitatively. Number two, I track it. So I have a spreadsheet that says, week one, week two, week three, did I hit my definition of sustainable 95 percent of the time or more. You can’t hit it every week, because there are extreme circumstances, but they should be rare. And if I’m not hitting my definition, 95 percent of the time or more, step three is I change something that is often not very convenient to change.”
Ellingrud advises having clear, well-thought-out individual goals first and pursuing them systemically.
“I think the first important act is sit down and really reflect and then write down short-term and medium-term goals, and then hold yourself accountable,” she said, adding that people need to translate these objectives and goals into specific time-spending plans and make progress in a systematic way.