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Caroline Webb is chief executive of Sevenshift, a consultancy that works with clients to strengthen their ability to lead and inspire change. Previously a partner at McKinsey, she also remains an external senior adviser to McKinsey on leadership. This includes working on a programme for improving the confidence and capability of senior female clients.
Ms Webb has degrees in economics from Oxford and Cambridge universities. She has delivered guest lectures at Columbia Business School and London Business School and will be teaching at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School later this year.
1. Why did you decide to leave McKinsey and set up your own business?
Over my 12 years there, I discovered that I loved creating and experimenting with new science-based coaching techniques, and that I enjoyed sharing the ideas with a wider audience through writing and public speaking. So I decided to create a portfolio life that allowed me to have the best of all possible worlds. I run my specialist coaching firm, I do a little teaching and a lot of writing, and I’ve retained a senior adviser role with McKinsey. It’s a wonderful mix.
2. What was the biggest challenge making this move?
Things I’d thought would be challenging about leaving a large company really weren’t – for example, many admin, IT and accountancy firms have unbundled their services to allow start-ups to buy the support they need by the hour. So there were fewer initial fixed costs than I’d feared. But the unexpectedly difficult thing was choosing a name for my business that was evocative, that would grow with the work I planned to do over the coming years and where the .com domain was still available! That challenge turned out to be a good metaphor for what running your own business is like – deeply personal, strategically exciting and very pragmatic.
3. What have you enjoyed so far about teaching at business schools?
Teaching a couple of classes on a personal leadership course at Columbia Business School, I was struck by the fact that the students had made a positive choice to invest in their self-awareness and emotional intelligence by signing up for the elective. I’ve coached many executives who are decades into their careers before they realise that these qualities are important and that developing them will make them not only more rounded people but also more successful in their work. That was uplifting to see.
4. How do you recommend women in business improve their self-confidence?
The thing I’ve seen to be most transformative for the women who have attended [the McKinsey programme I teach] is this: the recognition that they don’t have to copy anyone else’s leadership style. We all have things to learn and blind spots to address, of course. But by doing the work to figure out their personal strengths and being thoughtful in how to play to those strengths more fully, I’ve seen them relax into a way of working that feels more real and sustainable. And that naturally gets reflected in their confidence and general joie de vivre.
5. What are your top networking tips for women in business?
Many of us feel shy about asking for support or time from others without any natural introduction. But we feel a deep pull towards reciprocity as human beings. So I’ve found the most satisfying and reliable way to build a strong network is to be supportive of others yourself. It means rewording those emails that ask if you can ‘pick someone’s brains’, and instead getting creative about whether there’s something you might be able to offer that person you’d like to connect with. Maybe you could give them a couple of hours of your time to help on a project? Or offer to publicise what they do? If you can find something, however small, it feels easier to get in touch – and you’re more likely to get a response.
6. How do you deal with pressure?
Well, I have a lot of techniques, as you’d expect for someone who works to help people deal with workplace pressures! There are some I personally reach for time and again, though. For example, taking a moment to project forward and ask what I’ll think when I look back on this stressful time in a month or a year’s time – that helps remind me what’s really important. I recall tough things I’ve handled before, infer it’s statistically likely that I’ll therefore survive this upset, and remind myself of the things that helped me on previous occasions.
7. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
You have the best chance of achieving extraordinary things if you’re doing work that you truly enjoy. If you don’t pay attention, your career can end up being determined by what you think you’re supposed to do, or what others think you should do. I learnt over time to be more adept at noticing moments when I was truly energised and at my best, working out why they lifted me, and plotting how to get more of those moments into my work. It meant I took a pretty idiosyncratic path through my many years at McKinsey and it was an overwhelmingly happy one. It led to opportunities I couldn’t have imagined when I started out.
8. What are your future plans?
This year, I’m on a sabbatical to get my book How to Have a Good Day written. I’ve learned that taking a book to market is as involved as any product launch and that the project will have barely begun when I hand over my completed manuscript at the end of this year. There’s a large and impressive machine that starts turning – not just involving the editorial process, but also production and marketing operations.
9. Why did you decide to write a book called How to Have a Good Day?
Great insights have emerged from behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience in recent years, giving us new understanding of how we think and why we behave as we do. But there’s been little translation of those insights into practical advice on how to improve everyday challenges of working life – how to handle packed schedules, tricky meetings and always-on technology, for example. So I decided to write a ‘how to’ handbook that shows readers how to use the science to seriously improve their odds of having a better day, drawing on my work with hundreds of clients over the past decade. We all face constraints, but it’s remarkable how much influence we have over things that can seem like mere luck. I’m hoping it will be a manifesto for realistic optimism about modern working life.
10. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I’d ask more questions when things seemed confusing to me, rather than assuming everyone else had some inside knowledge that I didn’t have. When I was working as an economist in the 1990s I had a lot of unspoken questions that got ‘answered’ 20 years later in our recent wave of financial crises. It turns out that the things that seemed odd to me, like excluding the banking system from forecast models, really were odd. I know now that when you feel like asking ‘why?’ you’re probably not the only one who wants to know the answer.