Post-undergrad, you spent a number of years in a variety of engineering roles before landing at Delphi. Can you tell us about your early career with the automotive supplier?
The opportunity came about when I finished my national service, which I completed by working in the United States for a French auto supplier. I had to go back to France at the end of my service and I was looking for an engineering position with a company that worked in engine management systems or anything related to engines or vehicles. I interviewed with multiple companies and at the time Delphi had just acquired Lucas Diesel based out of France and the UK to develop some new engine systems technology, so they were hiring engineers like crazy. I liked the fact that it was a U.S. – based company because I knew that I wanted to go back to the U.S. permanently. So the technical challenge alongside the potential to come back to the U.S. in the future made the position very attractive to me and compelled me to take that first role with Delphi.
And you did end up in the U.S., completing your Master of Engineering and MBA at Northwestern in 2007. Considering your engineering background, the M.E. makes sense, but what about the MBA?
The MBA became a priority for me only in 2003. When I was in engineering school, I was seeing myself as a very technical person, so I loaded up on very technical classes with minimal attention to leadership or management electives. After I got to Delphi and began doing very well there, I came to a crossroads that probably many engineers run into at some point in their career: technical expertise or management? And I reached that crossroads faster than I expected when I was about 25. I chose to go down the path of managing a team and managing projects, still obviously situating myself in the technical world, but with a lot more going on than just technical activities. Very soon I came to like it and I realized there were many fundamental things that I didn’t know. As I got to meet more and more Delphi executives, I realized most of them had an MBA. And that was a gap for me that I decided to close. So I applied to business schools in the U.S. and ended up going to Northwestern University as a Delphi Fellow and that is why I went back to Delphi after my MBA.
Did you entertain any other professional opportunities post-MBA or did you always have your mind set on going back to Delphi following your time at Northwestern?
I did not look for opportunities outside of Delphi while I was in my MBA program. However, some employers are amazingly gifted at finding your resume. So I was contacted by several companies because at this point I had seven years of professional experience in engineering and manufacturing. I had managed large projects; I had managed large groups of engineers and other employees; I was an interesting commodity for several employers. But while I was approached by several companies during my MBA program I did not follow through past early informal discussions with one major exception: McKinsey.
Delphi had always been good to me. I had had a lot of opportunities with them: a lot of opportunities to grow, a lot of opportunities to work on great projects with a huge business, a lot of opportunities to be mentored, to gain new training, etc. However, Delphi filed for bankruptcy between the first and second year of my MBA and as that played out I was concerned about what would happen after my MBA. In my mind, it was always clear that if I felt confident that Delphi would not be liquidated, and if they had some interesting work for me after completing my MBA, I would go back. When they offered an assignment in finance to work on the bankruptcy, I realized it’s was a good way to not go back immediately to work in a purely operational role, but to learn something new and capitalize on my MBA. So as soon as Delphi came back to me with a full-time offer I knew it was the right thing to do to go back.
After another year and a half with Delphi, you left the company to join McKinsey. When did management consulting get on your radar and why did you join the firm?
Considering the context of the bankruptcy, my mentor from Delphi advised me to work on a backup plan in case the Delphi bankruptcy went poorly. I didn’t really know McKinsey before going to business school, but when I got to Northwestern I realized every single student there was interested in joining McKinsey. So I thought “Wow, I should learn more about McKinsey!”. I applied to McKinsey during my second year at Kellogg and eventually turned down their offer when I decided to go back to Delphi. We stayed in touch and when the conditions were right 2 years after my completing my MBA, I joined McKinsey’s Chicago Office as part of the operations practice.
Did you join the firm as part of a general post-MBA class or as an experienced hire, given your professional experience post-MBA?
I was hired into the operations practice and joined as an experienced professional. I joined in October, the same day as a lot of students fresh out of business school, but I was an experienced hire considering my then almost 10 years of professional experience.
What was the transition like from industry to management consulting given your extensive background in engineering roles? Were there any surprises or challenges?
To be completely honest, my first three months at McKinsey were a little challenging for me. I questioned whether or not I would really fit in at McKinsey. First and foremost, I had more experience than many of my colleagues and I had learned how to do things a certain way. When you get to McKinsey, they “force” you to kind of un-learn what you became used to before and to re-learn their specific problem-solving approach, their communications frameworks and how they do things. Besides, in consulting, you are less hands-on with your approach and your process. You are trained to think through a problem deeply and to come up with some recommendations and a solution, but you are not necessarily executing anything.
Very early on there were moments where I could have really jumped on and tackled a problem and driven actions for immediate execution rather than waiting to make a nice, concise recommendation at the end like I was being trained to do. There were many moments where I would have handled a situation or a problem differently if I had been on the client team as opposed to being a consultant.
There were also some really good aspects. I worked with people of different backgrounds and profiles than myself. Previously, all of the people I had worked with until then had the same profile. They were mostly engineers like myself: they were passionate about and fascinated by the product. And then on my third day at McKinsey, I am sitting with maybe a couple of engineers and everyone else had completely different backgrounds: folks with Private Equity or M&A experience, background in investment banking or marketing…and my head almost exploded! This experience opened up a lot of questions that I thought I had sorted before.
So it seems like you knew you wanted to get back into a more hands-on product-focused role pretty early on.
I think it was already clear in my head when I joined McKinsey that I needed to keep the door open. It was certainly clear I was not going to become a Partner at McKinsey. I figured that out very quickly, even before I joined the company, from talking with a lot of my friends from Kellogg who told me what they were doing. I knew from the beginning that I was not going to dedicate myself long-term to McKinsey.
I had a very good track-record at McKinsey. My client work was always rated at the absolute highest; I had a very good time with what I was doing on the client-side. But I was simply just not too interested in other aspects of the work at McKinsey. For example, the recruiting side of things: rushing to a university or another on a Thursday night upon returning home to try and convince MBA students to join. Also, I wasn’t interested in going to the office on a Friday afternoon and trying to network with everyone to secure a spot on the next great project… that’s just not who I am. So it became obvious to me that the informal rules of the land were not necessarily for me.
That being said, I obviously wanted to benefit from and get the most out of my time with the firm, to learn many things that would eventually come in handy later when I would go back to an industry role. So I focused on my client work, I focused on learning a lot of things revolving around communication, around developing cross-functional, enterprise-wide solutions to a problem, forcing myself to think at a higher level. As great as McKinsey is as an institution and as a place to work, I knew I would not try to go any higher than an Engagement Manager-level and knew that if an interesting and good opportunity came along at any point I would leave.
So when did the opportunity at Whirlpool come about?
I got a call from a headhunter and the proposition was very intriguing. He told me essentially that his contact at Whirlpool, who at the time was the President of North America, but was looked upon as the next CEO by many observers, was looking to bring new people with a lot of runway to move quickly into VP roles and above. He wanted to hire these individuals as Directors and accelerate their careers through coaching, mentoring and stretching assignments. After talking to a few people in my network and after interviewing at the company I realized that there were a lot of exciting things happening at the company and decided to make the jump back into the industry.
What was most important to you when evaluating the post-consulting opportunity at Whirlpool?
When the opportunity presented itself to join Whirlpool, there were a number of things that were compelling me to take the role. Firstly, the position was a manufacturing role on a large scale and I would be overseeing a large and diverse organization: engineers, technicians, supervisors, team leaders, operators, etc. Secondly, the product was interesting and meaningful for consumers. Thirdly, the appliance industry was nothing like what I was used to in the automotive industry in terms of industrial sophistication, but there was a realization at Whirlpool of this existing gap and a lot of people there were very motivated and dedicated to changing that status quo. I saw all those things as potential opportunities to learn and grow as well as to prove to myself that I could drive change from within the company as opposed to as an outsider from McKinsey.
When the opportunity at Whirlpool arose, you had a long track record in engineering and experience working in a top-tier management consulting firm post-MBA. What was the transition like moving from Chicago with McKinsey to working at a 2,200-employee refrigeration plant in Amana, Iowa with Whirlpool?
Frustrating at the beginning for sure. Very frustrating because there were a lot of things I took for granted in terms of the analytical skills of the people around me, in terms of their ability to properly structure a problem, their autonomy in doing things. When I got to Amana I didn’t see those things right away. The first few months were frustrating, but you have to keep in mind that, when stepping into a new senior position, people are looking after you to be a role model, they are deciding whether they want to follow you or not. So you cannot express that frustration too much, otherwise, you are going to lose your team.
What I had to do was simply slow down, even though there were some things that I knew could have been done at a much faster pace. I had to do this to give the time needed by my team to understand where I was going and what potential I was seeing. To achieve some of this, I had to put in the time to work one-on-one with many people on my team in order to build some new skills that were missing at the time. I did a lot of coaching, a lot of training regarding how to look at a problem from a different angle, deciding what data you really need to make a decision so you can spend less time and resource and move faster. With this type of commitment to developing your team, the engagement of the team increased quickly. I quickly transitioned from frustration to excitement. You start getting the types of responses that you expect, the different parts start moving in tandem, and you see the excitement in your team because they are buying into what you want to do. You can read in their eyes: “Hey, that guy might actually know what he is doing.”
Also, in terms of leadership, leading people on a shop floor, who didn’t see what was in front of them as a career, but only as a way to collect a paycheck to support their families, was a very, very interesting challenge. Figuring out ways to motivate these people… that is something that honestly you don’t have in consulting.
Do you think your time at McKinsey accelerated your career trajectory at Whirlpool? In hindsight, was that year and a half at McKinsey instrumental to your success? Or could you just as easily have transitioned to Whirlpool from Delphi?
I think I could have made the jump from Delphi to Whirlpool because we hire a lot of people from the automotive industry without consulting experience at my company and they tend to do very well. I do believe, however, that the time I spent at McKinsey, especially working for and with a specific Partner, has been instrumental in my success at Whirlpool, without a doubt. The way he forced me to generate insights, to focus on actionable solutions to problems, to structure my communication so that I would be much more able to convince senior executives to execute my recommendations… it was all so crucial. There are things that you learn at the firm, things you spend countless hours working on and you don’t know what it will amount to at the end, but it all definitely builds you as an executive and as a person. While I could have made the jump from Delphi to Whirlpool without my McKinsey experience, I don’t know if I would have been as successful as I have been.
Now as Whirlpool’s Global Vice President of Product Development, you have had a great trajectory after only four years with the company. At what point did the growth opportunities appear?
First, to create opportunities for yourself, you have to deliver. So I focused on doing well in my first couple of roles: making a positive difference, creating a followership, bringing thought leadership to my organization…
Second, you need to understand how the organization works, what the different roles are and what makes people successful in the different parts of the organization. You also need to understand the dynamics of what is happening in the organization and what you think is going to be the next strategic priority for the organization. Are you a good match for a key strategic priority of the company’s? For me, it was clear when I came to Whirlpool that product development would become our next frontier to conquer. The product at this time was becoming more and more important: because of increased competition, the product lifecycle was shortening quickly. Product development is my passion, I think I am good at it so there was good alignment between the company’s goals and my career interests!
Third, you need help to make decision makers know what you want to do and that you can be an asset in this role. And this is why a mentor is so important because, as you can imagine, starting with the organization by working for two years in the middle of Iowa… nobody knew me in the headquarters of Whirlpool! So you have to find yourself a mentor, someone who is going to be a champion for your success, help you move into the right places, get the right experiences to prepare yourself. If you have those three things –track record, sponsorship and clarity of thought as to what you want- when a new opportunity opens up your name appears at the top of the list.
From a career management perspective, was the path always clear to your current role? Did you ever arrive at a crossroads where you would have considering taking yourself off the path?
There were opportunities that came about in the last five years, some that I did look at very closely. There was one point in particular where I had a great opportunity to take on a very interesting role in an industry that was never on my radar. Probably a lot of people would say that everything was there to make it work: role, location, timing, package… At that time, I could not make myself comfortable with the industry. I was afraid that it wasn’t going to be a good match in the long run and that eventually, I would not like the field I had stepped into. So I didn’t take the role.
There was another time where I evaluated an external opportunity that came from a good friend of mine. He was my mentor at Delphi and he contacted me to join him and help him in his new role. That one was extremely difficult to pass on from a personal standpoint. At the time there were a lot of good things happening at Whirlpool though and I wanted to see them through and to finish what I had started so I had to turn him down.
What are the most important skills you have picked up that make up the recipe for success for a Global VP at a $20bn+ company? Are there any general career management tips you can share or insights on your lessons learned?
That’s a tough one. In the context of giving guidance to current and former consultants who might consider going back to industry, I think that my big learning experience during these last six or seven years is this: regardless of what people say you should or shouldn’t do, at the end it comes down to what you personally think you can achieve. I don’t think there is such a thing as a golden path to success. A lot of people told me I was leaving McKinsey too early, that I wasn’t going to get the full benefits of the consulting experience because I didn’t wait to make it to the Engagement Manager level, or that I should have left Whirlpool when one of those opportunities was presented to me. It is all about you, your passion, your hard work, and what you are delivering. And if at the end you are thinking about those things, I think wherever you go, provided you are doing something you like, you are going to be successful. Could I have done better outside of Whirlpool? Maybe. Am I happy with what I have accomplished at Whirlpool? Yes, I am very comfortable with it and I am very happy with my experiences.