Inspirational Women: McKinsey director shares her story about flexible working


Welcome to our interview series, Inspirational Women. We are speaking to ambitious, impressive career women who have made flexible working work for them – these women have achieved the work-life balance that so many of us are yearning for.

Meet Dorothee D’Herde, she is Director of Sustainability and Social Impact at McKinsey management consulting firm and has been with the company for 8.5 years, with a year off when her daughter was born. She lives in West Hampstead, works in Piccadilly Circus in London and has a 2 year old cheerful little girl. She studied literature and linguistics in Ghent, Madrid and Nijmegen and European Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges.

Working at McKinsey

M&C: What do you love most about working for McKinsey? What is the company culture like? Do they have a good flexible or family friendly working policy?

The people – I’m constantly inspired and challenged by my colleagues who each bring passion, commitment and sharp thinking to the firm. That is very energizing, but can sometimes also be tiring because the bar constantly moves higher. For most people work is much more than a job (for some it’s even their life), and whilst the firm has many policies and practices in place to be a caring workplace (we have stepped up our efforts to be a flexible and family-friendly place over the past years, with initiatives to help people get back into work after a break, childcare back-up options, room for flexible working etc), many people are too demanding on themselves. So it’s as much about changing their mindsets and biases as about an institution having policies and flexibility programmes in place and encouraging people to use them.

Flexible working at McKinsey

M&C: What is your specific flexible working arrangement?

McKinsey has a wide range of flexible working programmes that we can – and do – use. These programmes also make the firm an attractive place to work for new recruits.

I took a month of unpaid leave last year and this year under our “Take Time” programme. It has allowed me to take one or two half days off each week to take my daughter swimming and dancing. Another flexible working arrangement I and many others use is working from home. Depending on my meeting schedule and the teams I’m working with, I work from home 1 or 2 days per week.

I also took my daughter (and nanny) along on a business trip, which everyone loved. It sent a strong signal to external people about the flexibility we offer, and to colleagues about how we can find ways to combine being a present mother and an engaged colleague. (I should add though that it wasn’t easy, and I could not be 100% engaged in networking events, but it was so much better than not going on the trip)

M&C: What were some of the initial challenges you had to overcome?

Meeting an (own/imposed) full-time work aspiration in even less time (since the half days off are different than a proper holiday: no one – including myself – really takes them into account in the planning). Not being able to be flexible towards colleagues and take a call when having a half day off. I had to change my mindset and work ethic from “always on” to being more efficient when “on” and really “off” at other times.

M&C: What have been the benefits?

Being able to take half days off has allowed me to spend proper time (not just eating and bedtime) with my daughter during the week, meet other mums and build a network, and get my head around the combination of being a mother and a sustainability professional.  It really helped my transition back into work.

M&C: What have been the reactions from your colleagues?

Very positive. They are often more protective of my time off than I am myself. They understand and adapt as much as they can. And they back me up when needed.

Daily Routine

M&C: Walk us through your typical, daily schedule; from when you wake up to start of the evening.

I usually get woken up by my toddler in the middle of the night (on good days only once, on bad days I don’t sleep much at all), at which point she moves over to my bed and falls asleep for another few hours. Mornings are a balancing act between giving her my full attention and doing lots of practical things as swiftly as possible (emptying the dishwasher, getting things prepared for nursery…). We get out of the house to get to nursery for 8:30-ish, and into work for 9-ish (going through emails on the tube). I send a few mails and then start the calls and meetings of the day – and see my to do list grow rather than shrink. I try to block time during the day to work on bigger things (the constant balance between the urgent and the important…). I have lunch at my desk most days, but try to find time to catch up with colleagues in 5 min corridor chats. I rush off at 5:15 for nursery pick-up, jump, sing, play, laugh and read books with my cheeky girl and tidy up whilst she is mesmerized by (2 episodes of) Maya the Bee. When she’s asleep and I’ve finished household chores, I get back online to get some more work done. On the lucky days (few and far between), I squeeze in 20 mins of yoga.

Motherhood and Work-Life Balance

M&C: What advice would you give to someone interested in a similar set up? Any great tips you would like to share with us?

Be honest with yourself: about what you need to be able to combine motherhood and a career, about your limits, about what you can get done. Acknowledge that there are only so many hours in a day (even though you work more efficiently during those hours, they are still limited). Accept that you will sometimes feel frustrated, unsatisfied, and very often exhausted. And breathe.