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What McKinsey Taught Me About the Power of Positivity

At the core of leadership traits are the emotions that you evoke from people.

Even a brief stint at a place like McKinsey will help you build ninja-like capabilities in the beloved corporate strategy toolkit of PowerPoint and Excel. I never thought I’d be one to get excited about bar charts, Harvey Balls, and two-by-two matrices – but there’s an undeniable nostalgia that forms around that quirky, jargon-filled language that strategy professionals love to use.

But for me, McKinsey was so much more than a training ground in building PowerPoint slides and frameworks. Before I joined, I shared the common outside-in belief that a place like McKinsey had a secret sauce – there was an elusive, magical quality that drew me in immediately. At the time, I could only articulate it as an enthusiasm or an energy that made me want to jump in and spend hours tackling the hairiest problem I could find. In hindsight, I now recognize this quality as the firm’s ever-present commitment to a leadership-centric work culture. It became clear to me as soon as I joined that building PowerPoint decks was only part of the equation – the most meaningful things I ended up learning were the lessons that helped me uncover the empathy, resilience, and self-awareness that I needed in order to develop my skills as a leader.

Suffice it to say, I learned a lot. Technical skills, in my opinion, cannot be grouped in the same category as leadership skills. My technical skills fade easily with time if they aren’t maintained with some sort of regularity. My leadership skills, on the other hand, feel as though they’ve been seared into my brain. Unlike technical skills, these softer skills have an emotional resonance that has allowed me to internalize them in a much deeper way. For me, I believe this is because many of these skills are imbued with a sense of purpose and meaning that not even the most sophisticated financial model or slide deck can convey. At the core of leadership traits are the emotions that you evoke from people, and nothing feels more real or important to me than generating a connectedness with myself and my colleagues that makes us want to be better and do better.

So what exactly does a leadership-centric culture look like? There’s a lot to it, but there’s one piece that McKinsey undoubtedly excels at: leveraging the power of teamwork.

There’s a reason that our training offsites involved unconventional activities like racing against our colleagues in crew boats and solving group puzzles that make Escape Rooms look like child’s play. When forced into these artificial, high pressure group situations, our behavior mimics an all too common sequence of emotions that we experience when we get thrown into an ugly group project at work: confusion, frustration, and ultimately, resolution.

Most of us have been through this pattern many times in our careers. First, there’s confusion. Something unexpected comes out of left field. It is not easily managed, it requires cooperation from multiple stakeholders, and the path to getting it done is completely unclear. We figuratively flail around and spin inside the hamster wheel until we are able to gain clarity around what the goal is and how it will get done.

The old ‘ignorance is bliss’ adage looms heavy once the confusion dissipates. When we lacked a firm grasp on the details and tactics of the work, we were blissfully unaware of the pain that lied ahead. Once the objectives start to crystallize, visions of long, over-attended group meetings and inefficient handoffs begin to cloud our minds. We feel a compulsive urge to try to contain the chaos that is coming, but we know from experience – this is the kind of chaos that can’t be contained. Dread turns into annoyance, and that familiar sense of frustration starts creeping in.

Frustration is inevitable when team-based work reaches a certain level of complexity. No matter how buttoned up the team or the processes, the shape-shifting nature of the business world means that even the most well-coordinated teams will occasionally get thrown a nasty curveball. The power of teamwork isn’t in the avoidance of frustration, but rather in the team’s ability to pull itself out of the negative space that frustration brings.

This shift has less to do with the mechanics of how the team is working together, and more to do with the mentality that the group adopts as the work unfolds. I’m at a loss for technical terms on this one, so I’ll describe what this looks like using the most fitting term I can think of: it happens when the group starts vibing.

There’s a reason we instinctively notice who gives us good vibes and who gives us bad ones – a person’s energy impacts the people around them. The energy of a group is even more potent; when it goes sour, the suspicion, skepticism, and negativity that develops is palpable and highly contagious. People shoot down ideas, interrupt one another, and try to dominate unnecessarily. But when the energy is positive, the sense of openness, optimism, and shared determination can be uplifting and intoxicating. Creative ideas get thrown out, built upon, and refined until they become greater than the sum of their parts. There’s an eagerness in the air that helps people instinctively settle into roles that leverage their most authentic strengths. In the end, resolution is achieved faster, at an up-leveled quality, and with a lot less pain than if the group had failed to pull itself out of the negative slump.

It’s pretty rare in today’s business world to be able to accomplish anything significant without a team. The more ambitious the goal, the bigger and messier the team will likely be. This means that many of us have the opportunity to uplevel our capabilities as leaders simply by examining the role we play in influencing team dynamics during these challenging situations. This can be difficult, no doubt. When we’re feeling overworked, stressed, and forced into an impossible situation – positivity is often the first thing that goes out the window. In fact, being told to cheer up when we’re working under tough conditions can be downright annoying. But it gets easier over time as we begin to witness the transformative power of positivity and the resulting cohesiveness that it can bring to a team. And not only does it help us achieve better results – as an added bonus, it makes us feel good, too.

I finally understand why I was subjected to rowing crew in the San Francisco Bay with a bunch of McKinsey colleagues who were complete strangers to me. No offense at all to those who enjoy crew – on the contrary, I tip my hat to you now that I know just how difficult the sport is. The water is unforgiving, the boat heavy and stubborn, the oars massive and unwieldy. I could barely get a handle on my own rowing, let alone get myself coordinated with my team. I was physically and mentally uncomfortable, and the last thing I wanted to do was smile at the person in front of me who was throwing off my movements.

But the professional coaches patiently delivered cues to help us get into rhythm even as we struggled and complained. It felt like ages, but eventually we transitioned from painful stagnation to rowing in unison. The boat picked up momentum and began to cut along the water faster and faster. The rush of success and the newfound speed gave us a high that made us forget how angry we were at one another just moments ago. Our frustration was replaced with an eagerness to keep the boat moving, and suddenly we had forgotten how tired, cold, and wet we were – the potential thrill of crossing the finish line was all we could focus on. And just like that, with tired arms and wet feet, I bore witness to the incredible power of what has now become one of my most cherished professional values: positive vibes.

The saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch is very much true for Robinhood.