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Spotlight On: Caroline Webb
February 23, 2016
Caroline Webb knows how to have a good day and is helping others do the same. In her new book “How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life,” Caroline offers simple tips rooted in psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience to make improvements that add up to more good days. In a conversation with us, she discusses her path to writing the book, and how alumni can leverage and further this work.

This is the fourteenth in our "Spotlight On" series of articles, which feature prominent alumni sharing their thoughts about their careers at the Firm and beyond.

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Caroline Webb (LON 00-12) discovered her sense of purpose at 17 years old, while teaching children from disadvantaged backgrounds to abseil and to kayak, in a program designed to build their self-confidence. Helping others achieve their potential and bring out the best in themselves, she found, was rewarding. “I loved it,” she says simply. “It was one of those formative, golden experiences.” 

As happens with many of us, she discovered other interests, and pursued other goals for a while. “It took me a long time to get back to that sense of my purpose being to help others find something in themselves,” she says.

Her early career was spent as an economist at the Bank of England (she holds degrees in economics from Cambridge and Oxford). "I was under the impression that economics was a human science," Caroline says wryly. "I went into it with that intention. I was very interested in the more psychological, behavioral, and practical aspects of economics, which was partly because of an early teacher I had who taught it very much as a system of thought."

While she enjoyed her work as an economist, she says that the "human bit of the equation" was less present the further she went in her career. "I was really trying to find a way to get back to my original intention in thinking rigorously about human performance," she says.

A potential career at McKinsey seemed to her, she explains, a "very appealing next step." 

"I knew that McKinsey did organizational consulting, and I knew that I enjoyed working on projects in teams with close colleagues, because of the work I did on the Inflation Report at the Bank of England,” she says. “Those two factors made me think that coming to McKinsey to learn what made organizations effective and to learn what made individual leaders effective would be an excellent move."

At McKinsey, Caroline was able to fulfill her strong proclivities to help maximize human potential. During her nearly twelve-year career at the Firm, she co-founded the leadership development service line, and designed McKinsey’s approach to transforming senior team dynamics. She also set up the Remarkable Women Program, the Firm’s flagship leadership development course for senior female executives.

In a refrain that is common to many colleagues who end up staying at the Firm a decade or more, Caroline laughs, "I really only expected to stay two years. I didn't know that I would be able to find such an amazing path.”

Caroline says that the Firm supported her in forging her own path. When she found that she was repeatedly being staffed to do highly analytical work because of her technical background, she successfully made the case for working on more organizational effectiveness projects. “It worked well to be articulate and explicit about what it was that I wanted to do,” she says. “I did that several times in my career at McKinsey; I developed new interests and then found a way to work with them, with everybody else's help.”

A career change and a book tailored to clients’ needs

Caroline says that at some point she knew it was time to take her work “outside the walls of McKinsey” – she wanted to give herself space to write a book and to do more public speaking. 

In 2012, she founded her advisory firm, Sevenshift – so called because it is based on the premise that there are seven particular behavioral ‘shifts’ that can translate into dramatic improvements in one’s everyday professional life.

Through working with clients over time, she began to see that very specific techniques were helpful in coaching people. “I was finding that people who were very resistant to the idea of being coached were suddenly much more open to the idea when I was using some behavioral science,” Caroline says. “I would explain a little bit of how the brain worked and what psychologists say about why we think and feel and behave as we do. Their eyes would light up and ideas would stick – and more to the point, commitments would stick.”

Often, her clients would ask her to recommend a book that did a similar job of translating scientific ideas into practical action. She found herself stuck, and says, “I realized that there was a gap.”  

It was a gap that she aimed to fill. Her years at the Firm had set her up well to do that, she explains: "McKinsey encourages you to be self-starting, so that was a good foundation for writing a book. It definitely equipped me with the sense that it was worth striving for something that I thought was valuable. It was something I felt was needed by my clients, and that it was worth spending the time to do the hardest work I've ever done in my life.”

‘How to Have a Good Day’ 

Her newly released book “How to Have a Good Day” has garnered praise from fellow authors and well-known business leaders, including Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos; Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts,” and former Partner Tom Peters (SFO, NYO 74-81), author of “In Search of Excellence.”

It’s a book that’s not only for leaders, Caroline says. “You can't be a great leader unless you are managing yourself as brilliantly as you manage the rest of your business, and the book is certainly written with that audience in mind. But I chose the examples and topics so that it would feel encompassing enough for people at any level of seniority.”

Another appealing aspect of her book is that one doesn’t have to read every word in order to benefit from it. “I wrote the book recognizing that many of the people who are reading are infernally busy,” says Caroline. “They might buy books, but then they don’t have time to read them. So there are summaries in boxes at the end of each chapter, and you can read the chapters in any sequence, jumping straight to the section you most need on a given day.”

Caroline adds that she was stringent about what she included. “Things could only go in the book if I could find enough replicable science to underpin it,” she says. 

In addition to following her own advice during the work day, Caroline recognizes that outside interests and hobbies are an important part of a happy, balanced life. A keen amateur singer and dancer, she had a small part in the Closing Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics. 

“I've never worked as hard as I'm working right now,” she says, citing her many speaking engagements to discuss the book, adding that she’s looking forward to pursuing her outside interests more fully once things calm down. “Singing is such a communal, uplifting experience. Even while I was writing the book, I did manage to find time for singing with a large choir,” she says. “That is such a quick way to give myself a boost.”

Wanted: Input from alumni 

Caroline would love to hear from any alumni who have read the book. “It's good to feel that you are making a bit of a difference in people's lives, so it’s always wonderful to hear how the techniques are working for readers,” she says. 

As a workbook and app based on the book is in development, she also welcomes any thoughts that alumni have about the kind of additional support they would find useful as they experiment with the advice.

She continues, “I've learned so much from the people that I've worked with over the years. I'm always curious and looking for new ideas, so I look forward to learning still more by hearing stories from alumni around the world.”

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Click here to find out more about the book, download the first chapter, and access the Good Day Index quiz, which will give you personalized tips on how to start having a better day right away.


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