“Moving away from your status quo may be perceived as the risky move, but we underestimate how risky it is to stay in the status quo.”
Irene Peschel
Engagement Manager
McKinsey & Co.


What was your path to your career today?

I grew up close to Frankfurt and decided to study Political Science as my family was often impacted by political shifts. I believed that a diplomatic career could be interesting and did an internship at the German Embassy in Moscow, which was a good experience, yet not something I could imagine at that point of my life.

So after my Bachelors, I decided to test the IT industry and moved to Barcelona for a job at Hewlett Packard. I enjoyed the structured, very metric driven way of working and I also enjoyed the city itself and the good food. After a while, my mother encouraged me to take a masters degree, which I also completed in Barcelona, before returning home to Germany.

Once in Germany, and looking for a permanent job again, I considered start-ups, banking and consulting. The environment in start-ups and investment banking wasn’t quite for me, so 6 years ago, I joined McKinsey – mainly because I was approached by a female consultant after an event and I absolutely admired her. But also, because I could see myself further exploring different sectors, countries and opportunities within the firm.

Now, after 6 years, I have found my home in the Banking practice and the Copenhagen Office, where I work across digital, strategic and financial topics as an Engagement Manager (Project Leader in more classical terms). So far, I have enjoyed each role more than the previous one, which keeps me motivated.

What career advice would you give to someone at the start of their career journey?

Firstly, learn to think differently about the risks you are taking: Moving away from your status quo may “feel” riskier that staying there, but that is not always factually true. There is a cost associated with staying where you are – e.g., missing out on great opportunities – and this is easily neglected, as it is less apparent. I believe my move to Copenhagen was such a case.

Secondly, experiment more and become comfortable with “being uncomfortable”. There are always new things you need to learn where you are uncomfortable, but the earlier you get exposure to those and learn the skills associated, the better. Along the same lines, keep in mind that sometimes “what you don’t want, is what you most need” and that to evolve as a person you need to go into areas that are not traditionally ’you’. For example, in the past, I always thought that “mindfulness and meditation are not for me”, while now I know, that this is exactly what I need and I need a lot of it. 

Lastly, on both the personal and the professional side, be very careful about who you let be part of your life: Select the people around you based on their love, commitment and good intentions for you and forget about the rest – this will determine so much of your happiness.

Who has been your role model?

I have very strong female role models in my mother and my sister. My mother for example always told me that everything was possible, and if it is not going to happen today, it will happen tomorrow – I should just keep on trying and not worry about the “how” and “why”. She is very creative in making things happen and has the craziest ideas. I like to call her my female ‘MacGyver’ – she always finds a solution and there’s little that she cannot solve.

What qualities have helped you getting to where you are in your career today?

In my family we are not perfectionists, but we have learnt to make the best out of every circumstance. It’s empowering when you can find creative solutions to difficult problems. I know that I can improvise, and I will find a way. This gives me room to pursue things I like. As girls and women we are trained to strive towards being “perfect” – and that can limit your self-development. Having the flexibility, and the trust that everything will be fine, even if you take risks, is important.

What should an ambitious young woman pay special attention to?

I was advised by another female partner in the firm (a big role model for me!) that your most important career choice is not the sector or the job, but your romantic partner. She had seen many women with enormous potential not living up to it, for fear of over-shining their partners. Either you have a partner that is totally different from you, but happy for you to shine, or someone equal to you who understands where you are coming from. Anything in between often seems like a set up for failure.

Why do we see a leadership gap at the top of the talent pipeline?

It’s not that women don’t want top leadership roles, it’s that the cost for them to get there is so high. In my opinion, it’s not a question of how driven you are, it’s how much others/society allows you to be driven.

Before I worked at McKinsey, I was on the trading floor in a bank, in a very masculine environment. I constantly got feedback that I wasn’t pushy enough, until one day I decided to show I could be pushy, so I stood up and shouted across the trading floor for one of the traders to take a call. I expected them to be happy that I was taking their advice, but instead they questioned whether it was okay for a junior woman to shout like that. On the one hand you will be punished for not performing, but on the other hand, you will be criticized for not living up to their standard of what a “good woman” is. In this situation there is no way to succeed and unfortunately, I see those double standards fairly often.  

What does good leadership mean to you?

Leadership doesn’t exist if you don’t have anyone to lead. Rather than solely ‘thought leadership’, I think a good leader is defined by a deep and caring understanding of their team and by taking the time to look beyond just how somebody presents, to see what their intention is. It is very easy for senior leaders to dismiss a valid idea that is poorly expressed by somebody more junior, and it’s important for me that leaders have the willingness and humbleness to put in the work to understand an idea, that may not be packaged in the best way.

You can’t get to results if you don’t manage the team. It’s not an ‘either… or…’ it’s an ‘and’.