Killefer Tells HBS Students how to Hobnob with the Brass

The best way to build relationships with senior executives is to start at the bottom, according to McKinsey Senior Director Nancy Killefer.

Killefer, who heads McKinsey’s Consumer and Retail practice, spoke to students, on February 24, about developing high level business relationships.

“Everyone wants to rush into the CEO’s office,” said Killefer. “That’s not the game.”

“The game” is the people business, and it is definitely a “contact sport” The relationship building process starts the first day on the job replica watches. On a typical consulting project, client company employees who have been pulled from their full-time jobs to take part in the study are initially apprehensive because they don’t know how they will be judged. These are the most important people with whom to forge relationships, Killefer says, because they will determine whether the organization actually changes successfully, and big changes only come about through personal commitment. This requires listening on the part of the consultant, empathy, and understanding how to ask the right questions. “It’s not about motivating people, it’s about learning from each other,” she says.

Killefer gives two critical pieces of advice. First, get to know the people you’re working with as people. She recalled one study where a woman pulled her aside and said, “I think I like you but I don’t know because you have such a poker face.” Killefer //, conscious of the need to gain credibility, had put on a “professional” demeanor that was “impenetrable,” when what she really needed to do was to relax and be herself. “They already think you’re smart when you walk in the door,” says Killefer. If you aren’t yourself, “they will never open up to you.”

Second, learn to listen. “Sit on your hands if you have to, but consulting is 75 percent listening,” she said.

Killefer practices what she preaches. She calls many CEOs, including PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Steven Reinemund, friends because she cultivated a relationship with them long before they reached the upper echelons of the company. “The epiphany is when you realize it’s about people, not companies,” she says. CEOs face “enormous personal challenges” and have few personal advisors. Everyone else in the company is a subordinate, discouraging confidences. Killefer says CEOs have few people who can listen to their worst fears, make them face difficult facts, challenge their judgment, and tell them what they don’t want to hear. It is a critical, “privileged” role.

“I don’t serve people I don’t care about,” says Killefer.

After consulting for many years, Killefer moved to Washington D.C. when her husband was asked to serve on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors. Killefer was offered a position as the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Financial Officer of the U.S. Treasury Department and left McKinsey to take that position. At the Treasury, she found the relationship skills she had honed in consulting “enormously helpful.” Her responsibilities included the oversight of 14 bureaus in diverse businesses from manufacturing money with union workers to enforcement with “guys carrying guns” in the Secret Service. Although she had the power to budget and staff, Killefer treated each business as a client. (Notably, McKinsey had stopped consulting to the government due to the lack of impact.)

Persuading people to contribute, rather than handing down orders, proved an effective way for Killefer to manage the mammoth bureaucracy.

Furthermore, her McKinsey experience gave her confidence in her judgment. When the time came to deal with several high level but ineffective executives, she didn’t hesitate to fire them. “I already knew that it doesn’t get better,” she said.

HBS women asked several questions about how Killefer managed her
career with respect to gender. Interestingly, she claimed clients were always receptive to her, and that she was treated as a “little sister” rather than a threat. However, at times her McKinsey colleagues weren’t so accepting. There was once a situation where “my clients were defending me to the partner on my team,” said Killefer. “The world has changed.”

Killefer was also lucky enough to be mentored by a woman partner at the firm, though she acknowledged that there is more than one model for success. Her mentor had given up everything to be successful. “I could never have done that,” she said.

Managing her career and family wasn’t always easy. Killefer and her husband have an 11 year-old girl and a 14 year-old boy. She does, however, have an enviable support system: two nannies, a husband, and an assistant who runs her life while she’s on the road. “I just decided that whenever I had the opportunity to come home, I would,” she said. “It was never a decision – I always went home.” Conversely, her children also came to work.

The plus side of consulting was that neither she nor her husband ever had to sacrifice one career for the other. If he wanted to move, she simply transferred to the closest McKinsey office and continued her career.

One student asked what she finds most difficult. Killefer didn’t hesitate.

“Saying no is what I struggle with the most,” she said. “It is very challenging all of the time.”

HBS student Jennifer Banks (OJ), who worked for McKinsey prior to attending Harvard and has accepted an offer to return to the firm, said that Killefer’s advice about letting down your guard with clients really struck a chord. “I think I’ll change that,” said Banks. “As a woman, you are [always] conscious of being credible. A lot of women fall into that trap.”