When Retirement Isn’t Retirement, With Scott Williams
Just because you’re retired, doesn’t mean you can’t still be a part of the workforce. If you’re curious enough and still have the knack to learn, you can still go out there and volunteer. This is what Scott Williams did and still doing up to today. He is 15 years past retirement, but that didn’t stop him from being a backcountry ranger and firefighter while still being a Senior Advisor for The Boston Consulting Group.
Join James Lowry as he talks to Scott Williams about his career before and after retirement. Scott worked in the banking industry, insurance industry, and management consulting. He has also done independent consulting work and is doing park service volunteer work. Listen in and learn why retirement is not the end for you. Find what you’re curious about and do it. Never stop learning today!
Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/scott-williams
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When Retirement Isn’t Retirement, With Scott Williams
On Moving From Finance And Consulting To Being A Backcountry Ranger And Firefighter
PathWise is dedicated to helping you live the career you deserve by providing career coaching, content, courses, and community. Basic membership is free. Visit PathWise.io online and join. My guest is Scott Williams who I met when we were both working at McKinsey in the late 1990s. Scott is a Senior Advisor for the Boston Consulting Group where he provides counsel to private equity clients, evaluating opportunities in the mortgage, consumer credit, and consumer risk information services arenas. Scott started his career as a credit policy officer for the Bank of New Orleans. His career then wound through banking, insurance, and management consulting with stops at Wachovia, JP Morgan, US F&G, McKenzie, twice, Mitchell Madison, and HSBC.
Scott then left the traditional corporate world and has since occupied his time with a combination of independent consulting work, his work for BCG, and work as a volunteer backcountry ranger mostly working in Grand Teton National Park. Scott earned his Bachelor’s degree in European History from Washington and Lee University and his MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He and his wife live in Arizona.
I’m glad to join you.
Thank you. I appreciate it. Talk to us about what you’re doing with the mix of things that are keeping you busy in the non-traditional career part of your journey.
Most of what I’m doing is actively goofing off. I play a great deal of tennis, so that consumes a good bit of time. I’m still involved with two corporate boards. Even though I swore I was not going to do any more nonprofit boards, I got involved as the treasurer of the board of a nonprofit that benefits Jackson Hole Fire/EMS. It’s my former colleagues and I feel like I need to help them out. That’s something I’m pretty committed to doing.
Being a nonprofit treasurer is a lot of work and fairly thankless from what I have experienced secondhand.
I swear I wasn’t going to do it anymore and I got roped back in.
You’re doing this work with BCG as a senior advisor. How did you get involved with them?
I had been with McKinsey and then I joined HSBC. When I was there, I met several of my HSBC colleagues who had been at BCG before. When one of them retired and then subsequently I retired, he called me up and said, “Do you have any interest in being a senior advisor?” I said, “Sure.” That was much of the chagrin of McKinsey colleagues but later, when I talked to one of them, I said, “BCG called. I send them invoices and they pay them.” I’ve done most of my work with BCG around the consumer risk space on customer finance and credit cards which is where I spent the last ten years of my career.
How much time does that take? Is it a heavy commitment or pretty light?
It’s decreasing. I spent a good bit of it right after I got out. I retired in January 2008. The value of my insight goes down with time. I’ve spent a fair amount of time fairly actively with them before. As it works out, I get a call periodically. They’ll say, “We need some help with the due diligence.” That usually will be a couple of days leading to a bid. If the bid is successful, then it’s a couple of more days of working with teams.
What’s shocking to me having been on the other side of that is I talk to the teams at 6:00 or 7:00 at night. They work all night and then a new deck appears in the morning. What is different than when you and I were associates in the consulting game is PowerPoint. I was hand-drawing charts back in the day, and now, I’ll get 200 pages the next day, which is a little shocking.
That part is a bit overkill. Private equity, diligence, and efforts that consulting firms do are high-burn efforts. I did a few of them when I was at McKinsey. It is incredibly demanding to do those.
They pay a lot for a very short turnaround. They expect a lot and they’re not overly tolerant of sleep or private lives. That’s the game you go into with what’s going on, and it’s fine. Coming out of that, I got involved in two boards and that’s led to what I’m doing. I would say my day-to-day involvement with BCG these days is pretty limited. It’s episodic when they call.Consulting firms pay a lot for a very short turnaround, they expect a lot, and they're not overly tolerant of sleep or private lives. Click To Tweet
How much of your own consulting are you doing? I know that was part of the mix at one point as well.
I’m not doing very much of that. I got calls from people that I knew again back in the day. I spent pretty much 60% or 70% of my first couple of years being out of HSBC doing private consulting work and then also working with BCG. That surprised me because I didn’t do a lot of active solicitation for the work, but people were calling. As you’re out longer, the calls decrease in time. I don’t answer head hunter calls because I don’t really want to go back into the corporate game.
Do you do board roles?
I have done board roles. The board roles that I’ve received have either been because of the advisory work that I’ve done or because I’ve known the folks on the board and then they put my name up. It could also be an investment banker that I worked with that put me on one board.
The head hunters aren’t calling about board roles then.
They’re not. A lot of board roles get called because of the position you’re in or the position you’ve had recently. I retired at 49, so I’ve been out of the game for quite a while. It doesn’t bother me in the least. My wife was on several boards, one of which was a New York stock exchange REIT. She continued to get calls, but like me, she’s been out for the same amount of time. We’re enjoying easing into retirement and doing other things.
You use the word retirement. We’re going to get to the more interesting part of what you’ve been doing perhaps over the last X years, which is volunteer rangering that you’ve been doing in Grand Teton. Talk a little bit about that. How did you even get into that in the first place?
My career, and I use that term loosely over lots of things, has been a random walk. I had always been enjoying outdoor activities, hiking, backpacking, etc. When we were in Chicago and I was still working, we bought a house in Jackson, Wyoming. In part because it was a straight flight from Chicago to Jackson and then a 20-minute drive to our house.
When Amy and I were done working, our daughter was finishing up school in Glencoe and was contemplating looking at New Trier. It is a phenomenal school, but it’s a huge school. We had talked about moving to Jackson after she was done with high school, and then she said, “Could I go to high school out there?” We looked at it and said, “Sure.” She went to the Teton Science School, which is a wonderful private school. We moved so that head us in Jackson.
I got connected to a friend who is the chief backcountry ranger. The park service has a very active volunteer program. There are about 25,000 paid national park service employees of all strokes. It goes from rangers all the way down to the guys who clean the bathrooms. There are about 220,000 volunteers in the park, some of which will volunteer for a couple of days. Others are head cases like me who volunteer almost full-time while I was there.
The park service depends on volunteers and actively creates opportunities for them. In my case, I spent time in the backcountry, so they asked me if I’d join what was a backcountry patrol role. That led to going back to picking up my certs again for an EMT. I then became a structural firefighter, a wildland firefighter, an engine captain, and a bunch of other things. It mushroomed out from there. It was my second career. I still am tangentially involved, but I’m not going up to Grand Teton. I spent a summer living in a backcountry cabin that was built in 1936. It was 14×16. It was me and a whole bunch of very active mice.
You were doing it almost full-time all over the years. As I would see the things you would post on Facebook, it did not feel at all like you were retired with wildland firefighting training and things like that that you went through.
The satisfaction you get out of doing something like that is different than the corporate world. With the corporate world, what we did in McKinsey, and what I did for HSBC, you’re driven by numbers, profit, and creating a good environment for people to work in. The satisfaction is a little more intangible. When I worked in the park, I was involved in several pretty important rescues of people, including one that I went and brought him in. He was having heart problems.
I ran down the trail and found him. We got him out. We eventually got him to the hospital. His wife came up to me and said, “You were sent by God.” I said, “It was the park service, but thank you.” I never ever got thanked like that in the corporate world. That was satisfying to me to know that you’ve made a difference albeit only in one person’s life, but in a big way. I enjoyed that part of it, and I still enjoy it.
When you were out in that shelter cabin as you described it, how long would you be out there for it to pop?
I was there for the whole summer. I lived at the end of what you might call a road. It was passable. I would patrol out from there. I would go from there out on patrols for 2 to 5 days and then come back in and do ambulance shifts.
Those are reasonably intense stuff for a guy who is retired.
I would say the intense stuff is anything involving fire, whether it’s structural fire work or wildland fire. Few things in backcountry patrol are going to kill you, but wildland fires and structural fires can. That gets your attention pretty quickly.
You’re the second person I have spoken to who spent a stint as a volunteer firefighter. The other person I spoke to, her name is Stacy Belf. I worked with her at State Street. She did this right after college. It ultimately had a role in shaping her career because she got involved in a murder case with a baby that was dropped off at the fire station. She testified and spent time in court. It convinced her that she wanted to be a lawyer. Things went from there.
Thankfully, nothing that I did in the fire service or any of my EMS work resulted in me going to court for anything. I’d like to keep it that way.
How much are you still involved?
It is much less. I developed a related hobby. I do moulage work, which is fake injuries. I’ve gotten pretty invested in that. I’ve gone to classes. Our medical director sent me to three DOD classes back in Washington for three weeks. I now have more makeup than most women have. All of it is designed to make you look terrible. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve taught EMT classes. I still do a lot of work with the local fire department and also with the park service. It’s all about raising the reality of training. If you raise the anxiety and the reality, people will perform better. In theory, they should perform better in real situations.
I can remember doing wilderness first aid training. They would take a little gauze pad out and bloody somebody up with some fake blood. The biggest thing I was worried about was not getting that fake blood on my clothing because I didn’t want to ruin my clothes. I’m not sure how real it came off to us. It sounds like you’ve gotten much more elaborate about presenting injury to somebody who’s doing training.
I can make you look pretty wretched. I’ve got spurting blood and all kinds of things. I’ve made people look bad, and I’m proud of it.
That’s a really unique skill that you’ve developed.
I got into it because for some of the same reasons you had. I was going to training and people would say, “Imagine that his arm is bleeding. You have to do something about it.” You’re looking at his arm and it looks like there is nothing wrong. I thought, “That’s lame.” I then went to one training where the guy who was leading the training had done a pretty decent job on moulage.
It raised the anxiety and excitement about it. I thought, “I’m going to look into doing that.” It leads down a path of studying endless YouTube videos on Hollywood special effects. Halloween is a big special effects time for people doing moulage work. In addition to doing fake injuries for fire departments, they also do a lot of makeup for Halloween.
You’d spent a lot of time in the backcountry. I’ll give you a moment to do a public service announcement that’s not particularly career-related. What’s your guidance for people who want to go out in the backcountry in terms of staying safe? What are the things that get them into trouble the most?
There are two things I would suggest. Number one, if you’re going in the backcountry anywhere, let somebody know where you’re going. Write it down on a sheet of paper. I worked on a bunch of searches because I was part of the SAR or Search And Rescue team. Unfortunately, a lot of searches end badly because the person didn’t let anybody know where they were. Maybe they got hurt in the backcountry, but we didn’t know where they were. It took us 4 or 5 days to find them. Instead of a rescue, it’s becoming a recovery. Had they stuck a note on their computer that says, “I’m going to be in this canyon,” that would have ended better.
The other one is about national parks. Ken Burns said it in America’s Best Idea and I agree with that. They are not Disney World. They are risky places and people need to treat them with respect. I’ve seen people way in the backcountry with flip-flops, no water, no protection from rain, and no flashlights. We had one case where a man left at 5:00 in the afternoon and hiked ten miles into the backcountry with no flashlight at all. He eventually came back, fell off of a cliff, and died.National Parks are not like Disney World. They are risky places and people need to treat them with respect. Click To Tweet
Have some respect for the terrain you’re in. There is a list of the ten things you always have or the ten essentials. Look it up on Google. It is really important. They are basics like a flashlight, means of waking fire, etc. Those are common sense things. That’s what I would say. That’s my PSA. Leave a note and be respectful.
Especially to the volunteers, right?
Yes. People are really nice to rangers. If you’re in the backcountry and a ranger comes up, most people are delighted to see you because they haven’t seen somebody for a day or two. You’ve got the arrow ahead of the national park service on and you’re out there checking on them. They’re really happy to see you. I’ve rarely had disrespectful people.
It’s good. If you think back to the time you’ve spent doing that and compare it to the corporate part of your career, what transferred over? What was completely different that you had to learn and adapt to?
Not much transferred over from my former life. I would say what did transfer over is the teamwork side of things. There are a lot of things you’re doing. In the corporate world, you’re working on teams, etc. as you take on big projects. Whether you’re in consulting or on the corporate side, there is a teamwork element to it.
That directly translates into back country work where you’re out on patrol sometimes by yourself, but often with another group. It’s particularly the case when you get into bigger incidents where you have a large search that’s going on, or for that matter, a wildland fire. I was on one wildland fire. We had 660 people on the fire. It’s really important to get along with other people and to stay in the lane that you’re playing in there. That was part of it.
The leadership part is different. In the corporate world, you’re pretty well understanding of what the drivers are. You’re like, “We’re here to make money for the shareholders and to do that.” It’s a little more amorphous when you get into the park service where you are out taking care of the resource. We used to say, “We’re trying to protect people from the resource and the resource from people.” It’s a little of that, but it’s not as clear cut as, “We’re here to make money. We’re all going to row in the same direction on that.”
I would imagine more so there that experience and domain knowledge probably matter more than who technically is the most senior person out somewhere.
I worked with some astonishing rangers who are phenomenal people and phenomenal public servants. They get paid not enough and have incredible knowledge about the park, where the risks are, how to help people, and how to interact with people. That was completely independent of their title.
Many of the park rangers that I work with are seasonal rangers. Those folks are in for six months and then they leave. They don’t have a title per se. Their title is Park Ranger. A lot of them would go through a blinding rainstorm to go help somebody and, more particularly, could tell you where that person might have been laid up in a blinding rainstorm so that we can all go get them together. Skills are independent of rank.
I consider myself a reasonably experienced hiker. I have hiked in a lot of different places. I would be the first to admit that I know nothing compared to a lot of other people who are out there about how to hike in different conditions or how to survive. The beauty of it is you can always learn more.
I really enjoyed that. Every time a training opportunity was offered to me in the park, and there are lots, I took it. That’s how I ended up going to fire school. That’s how I ended up going and getting my park medic, which is an advanced EMT level, and all these other things. There is a lot to learn. In some of it, you’re going to learn in a class, and in a lot of it, you’re going to learn by walking trails with somebody who’s been doing this for 25 or 30 years.
You were spending huge amounts of time doing this at points. Did it stop being enjoyable and start to feel like a job? Was it always a passion and therefore enjoyable for you?
I would say it was not an unalloyed intellectual delight throughout that whole time. It was particularly the case where I’d be doing 48-hour shifts for EMS where I’d be sleeping at the station for 48 hours. You start scratching your head and saying, “I’m doing this as a volunteer to let paid staff off.” They’re off, which is fine, but it’s a job for them, and me that this should be enjoyable. I enjoyed much more of my time in the backcountry rather than sitting around waiting for ambulance calls. That was a minor part of it. Occasionally, it got frustrating, but much of the time, I enjoyed what I did.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is in the middle of the state of Virginia. My dad was a history professor and my mom taught first grade. I’m the byproduct of two teachers. My hometown for me was Charlottesville. That’s where the University of Virginia’s located. That’s the biggest reason why I didn’t go there for undergrad. My dad, in addition to being a history professor, was the dean of students at the time. I really didn’t need to go where my dad was the dean.
I went to school in Lexington, Virginia. It was a small liberal arts school called Washington and Lee University. I had a great time. I will say a great time because I started out thinking I wanted to go to med school. Eventually, organic chemistry convinced me that med school was not going to be my future. I ended up as a History major at W&L.
After thinking about medical school, how did you end up working in the credit area of a bank?
It was luck on my random walk. I had a History major. As my dad would tell you or would’ve told you, “History majors are good for going to get a PhD or applying to law school.” Neither of which I wanted to do. I did have a girlfriend in New Orleans at that time. I went down there, and through a friend, met somebody who worked for a bank. They said, “Come on and interview with our training program.” That’s what I did. The girlfriend didn’t work out, but banking turned out to be of interest to me. That did pan out. I moved from there later to a bank in Atlanta and then back to business school.
You fell into it as you described it but what did you learn about yourself in those early days about what you wanted to do and maybe didn’t want to do professionally?
What I liked about the banking side of things is it is numeric. Although I’m a History major, I had Calculus, Physics, Statistics, and a number of other things. I like to say I’m somewhat of a numerate history major. The banking side of things made a lot of sense to me. There was a lot of analytics involved and a lot of examining what was going on and trying to figure out whether this company would or would not pay you back in the case of a lending situation.
What I discovered I didn’t do was regional banking. We were taking participations or shares of larger structured deals, but look at where they were being structured. They were being structured in New York City and I’m sitting in Atlanta. I didn’t like that side of it and decided that I wanted to go back to business school and use that as the stepping stone to moving on to New York. That’s what I ended up doing.
When I got to New York after business school, I started with JP Morgan in the derivatives group, in which we were doing swap marketing. We swapped interest rates, fixed income, and swaps involved transforming one form of debt into a different type of debt. They were relatively new at that time. My job on the marketing side was explaining swaps to some of the treasury people of our different clients. I would talk to the serious quant guys who were working on the desk and putting the deals together.
You then go and talk to the CFO or the treasurer and explain how this would work on a restructuring. It was putting those two groups together. That’s not dissimilar from some of the things we’ve done elsewhere. It’s trying to take a difficult problem, simplify it, explain it, and make sure that it works for the client.
That is a good segue into the shift then into the McKinsey seat. Other than the business, you’d been in three different banks working in a variety of different things. What led you to jump over into management consulting?
When I had been at Darden of Business School, I had told McKinsey I didn’t want to be a consultant. I wanted to go to Wall Street. Later, I got a call from a director of McKinsey who said, “Let’s go to lunch.” When you think about what people do in banks, you spend most of the day and most of your career thinking about the right side of the balance sheet. You’re like, “How do we optimally capitalize debt equity in all of that?”
Most of the time, in consulting, you’re focused on the left side of the balance sheet. You’re like, “What do we do with all their assets?” That appealed to me of, “How do we make it better? Where do you invest? Where do you not invest?” A lot of the work that I did eventually at McKinsey had nothing to do at all with capital markets. It had everything to do with how you improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a client’s operation.
Looking back, was that a better fit for you at that point than being in banking itself?
Yeah. I won’t say the lifestyle was an improvement because going from an investment bank to consulting is pretty much a push. I did enjoy the nature of the work that we were doing. The downside was it came with an excessive amount of travel. That’s just part of the game you signed up for.
You went back into financial services. This time, it was into insurance.
That is a yes and no. I joined McKinsey and then left because I was in the middle of traveling 256 nights of the year. When I was in the Atlanta office, I tracked three quantitative measures of happiness, which is strange. One is how many total nights are you away? The second is how many Sunday flights are you taking? The third is how many Fridays are you in the office?
At one point, I maxed on all three of those things for the entire office because I used to go wherever there was a good client, a good ED, a problem was interesting, or the client was interesting. I would go there, but it meant that I was spending a lot of time on airplanes. It was great professionally but bad personally. When I was married to a Darden classmate, that was tough so that didn’t end well.
In 1993, I decided to leave and join a turnaround insurance company in Baltimore, Maryland. To be honest, I didn’t want to work in insurance. I didn’t want to live in Baltimore but I wanted to work on turnarounds because everybody has a pretty high desire to get things changed. I imagine I would do that. Most of the things that I did in the work world were trying to do something that created more options for me going down the road.
That isn’t a bad way to think about it.
When I say random walk, a lot of things I did is I went with the flow of something, but it was because it created an opportunity down the road. I thought working on a turnaround would be interesting. It gave me more experience. I ran a unit in Canada for part of that time. We took a nearly failed company and turned it into a thoroughly average one and sold it. It was great for our options. I then went back to a spinoff of McKinsey. It wasn’t a spinoff, but it was a group of people that left McKinsey and founded the Mitchell Madison Group. It was another consulting firm. I did that for a couple of years and then returned to consulting at McKinsey so I was back in the Chicago office.
You went back to traveling.
That was probably even worse because I was a partner but I came back as a specialist in things. I would travel all over the world, which was interesting and fun but hard. I take nothing at all away from McKinsey. It was a great experience, but I wouldn’t want to do that again at my age.
I always looked at those specialist roles, functional or industry specialists, that tended to have a broader geographic footprint than most of us. I, for that reason, thought, “No way.” I was traveling not nearly as much as what you’re describing, but it was still north of 100 days a year. It was probably 150 days a year. It was grueling.
That was tiresome. I spent a lot of time in Seoul. I was traveling from Chicago to Seoul, Chicago to Delhi, or Chicago to Sao Paulo, which I can tell you is a strange day trip. You get on a plane and you fly for twelve hours. You only change for two hours. You get off your work all day, and then you get another plane and fly back. You’ve done one day of work and go to work the next day. It’s a bizarre thing to do. It was the life of a specialist, and that was fine.
When I left McKinsey and joined HSBC, I did so because I’d been serving HSBC. Bobby Mehta, who was also in BCG, met me and said, “You’re a pretty good consultant, but we think you’d be a better operator.” It turns out he was right. I joined HSBC and enjoyed that. I don’t know if you knew Fred Eppinger, but Fred used to explain something. We were all very logical in consulting there. There’s this phase, and then this phase, and then analysis, etc. In the end, there was client implementation. Fred used to say, “The client sees McKinsey and implementation going on forever.” We used to try to hardwire the client to do that, but you can’t possibly do that.
What I enjoyed about going to work at HSBC where I had a good-sized team was building a team, trying things, altering them if they were not working, and continuing to expand and learn. That was a bunch of fun. I had almost 90 quantitative people that worked in my area. It was a bunch of fun until it wasn’t. I managed to get out of the lending mortgage business at the beginning of 2008, which later Bobby told me was good timing.
What made you a better operator than a consultant? What was it that really played to your strengths?
Honestly, it is an ego thing. I have pretty good confidence in my judgment when I’m around. I had a very diverse team and I appreciated that diverse team. At the end of the day, when it came down to saying, “We’re going to go do this,” I was comfortable doing that, and that was helpful. I was also pretty comfortable working in the executive team that we had. I’m probably a better number 2 than I am number 1. I don’t really aspire to be a CEO, but I like being in that number two role. That was the role that I took on.
I enjoyed pushing things forward and making things happen. It can come across as brusque and rude at times. That is something I’ve struggled with and I continue to try and manage. Especially when I get on nonprofits, it causes me to breathe and do zen motions. I would say that confidence has served me well and occasionally serves me less well, but I try to learn from it.
It is hard. When you’re in those COO number two person roles, your job first and foremost is to get stuff done and make sure the place is operating day-to-day. You end up playing more heavily sometimes than the CEO does, and that comes with the territory.
I worked for a fabulous CEO. He had an incredible memory of names, so he could walk around our whole organization and know everybody. He maybe met them once a year ago and he still remembers their names. I have a terrible memory of names. Tom was really good. He would make hard calls.
I could be more of the pit bull when I needed to be, and that was something that I enjoyed doing. I wouldn’t say I was intentionally being the pit bull, but I was getting things done. I used to say that I liked hiring mechanical engineers because if you ever hire a mechanical engineer, they not only can do all the analytics but they like to build stuff and get it done. This was a group that I really appreciated.Hire mechanical engineers because not only can they do analytics, but they like to build things and get things done. Click To Tweet
I was an EE. It is a different kind of building than the mechanicals.
I’m not disparaging electrical engineers, but the mechanical folks went out there and had at it.
Mechanical engineers like to remind all the other kinds of engineers that pretty much every other kind of engineering ultimately is grounded in mechanical engineering. That is true to a point, but maybe not completely. You’ve done all these different things including putting makeup on yourself and spurting blood. What would you say are the consistent strengths that you’ve drawn on over the course of those many different things you’ve done?
I’m pretty curious about things. I enjoy learning and expanding my skills so that I can do things for other people, whether that’s going and learning a lot about consumer risk management. I read a lot and talked to a lot of people. We experimented a lot. I enjoy the learning aspect of it. I’m sure many other people would say it is curiosity, but that part of it, for me, is something that has been intriguing.
The other is trying to find something that’s useful. I, at one point, thought I was going to go back for a PhD before I went back to McKinsey the second time. I talked to a friend who was the chair of the finance department at NYU and I talked to some of his students. I asked him about their research. They described all of this detailed research they were doing, how important it was, and everything else.
I said, “Have you talked to anybody in business?” The answer was no. It wasn’t, “No, but that’s a great idea. I should talk to somebody.” It was, “No, why would I want to do that?” That pretty quickly convinced me that academia was not where I wanted to be and that I really wanted to go out and make things change. I enjoyed that side of things.
I always like to interview PhD candidates when I was working at McKinsey. There were a few questions I would always ask them. One of them is, “Explain your research to me.” It is ultimately about, “Can you take something that’s incredibly complicated that I’m not going to understand the nuances of and explain it to me in enough English that I can walk away saying, ‘I get it.’”
The second question was, “How is that used?” That gets to your point about, “Do you understand the practical value of what you’re working on if there is a practical value of what you’re working on?” It was an interesting way of testing whether they could explain difficult concepts and also translate them into business relevance.
That’s particularly the case when you get into business-related things. I understand if you’re out doing basic research in biology, chemistry, etc. If you’re in a business school pursuing a business-related PhD, you ought to be thinking about advancing the practice of business. If you have no interest in interacting with practitioners, I question what you’re doing. I’m not editing journals so it doesn’t matter, but if all your aspiration is to get written up in some obscure finance journal, that doesn’t have a lot of appeal to me.If you're in a business school pursuing a business-related Ph.D., you ought to be thinking about advancing the practice of business. Click To Tweet
It is a really different direction from the one you chose not to take. For other people, they like going deep down the rabbit hole on a particular topic and advancing their state of thinking on that topic. That’s great. My daughter is one of those people. She’s working on her PhD. She knows much more about the biology of E. coli and other gut bacteria than I will ever pretend to know. That’s what’s central to what she’s doing.
My daughter is pursuing a doctor of veterinary medicine degree, so I’m all for the sciences.
Apart from having difficulty remembering people’s names and being brusque at times, what are the other things that you worked on developing over the years?
One thing that became evident to me as I became more senior was there’s a great deal of deference that’s paid, particularly in the corporate world. I would come out and say, “We should do something,” and people would go off and do it. I’ll give you one story. When I was first at HSBC, I went and said, “I’m going to spend six weeks walking around, listening, talking to people, and trying to understand what the issues are before I come out with any re-org or anything else,” which I later did.
I was at a meeting and I said, “We should do this, whatever this is.” A woman pushed back on me and said, “I disagree with you for the following three reasons,” and they were great. She was two levels down for me in the organization and I appreciated that. I later promoted her to be a direct report. What I learned over time is people are reluctant to do that. They just say, “Scott said to do it. The CEO said to do it.” I had an idea, but if you have more facts, push back on me. That level of comfort in being candid is not always seen in organizations.
Frankly, some organizations don’t support it. They really want you to be, “The old man said to do it, so go do it.” In my case, I want to get things done, but I don’t want to make wholehearted mistakes. If you have better information and better facts as many people do, stand up for yourself. Tell us we’re going in the wrong direction, but do it in a fact-based way. Don’t do it because I don’t like it.
That is fair enough. There’s an element of doing it in a respectful way or at least trying to, at first, do it in a respectful way and making sure that you’re more likely to get heard. You’ve hinted a little bit at this, but what else defined the kind of leader that you tried to be when you were a leader?
First off, I tried to recognize everybody. When I was going through college, I spent one summer working as a welder in a shipyard in New Orleans. I appreciated the frontline work and hard work. I also appreciate people on the frontline doing the work, so at the end of every month, we would have a big push for month-end closings. I would go down to the underwriting area on the South side of Chicago, put on an apron and a chef’s cap, and buy a bunch of ice cream. I would roll it up and down the aisles, feeding the underwriters and serving the underwriters. We talk about servant leaders, and that’s a minor example of it.
It’s easy for people to disparage folks that aren’t at the same level and maybe don’t have the same background. I tried really hard not to do that. I got angry with people if they did that. I’m pretty short when that happens with people when they get out of line. You can tell a lot. If you go to a restaurant, watch how somebody treats the waiter or waitress. When they treat them badly, that gives a lot of insight in terms of how they’re going to operate with other people as well. I’ve tried not to do that. I came from a pretty middle-class or lower-middle-class background, so I respect people that are doing that work.It's easy for people to disparage folks that aren't at the same level and maybe don't have the same background. Click To Tweet
How you treat people matters. I can remember one time, and this is when I was at State Street. We had somebody come in for an interview. It was an ESG-related role if I’m remembering right. The person was not nice to the person sitting at reception. The person sitting at reception, who was not a wallflower by any stretch, came in afterward and said, “I want to play back what happened when this person got there,” and that was it.
The other one is about being truthful. I had a situation where a person who worked in my organization was being ordered by somebody in marketing to send out some data. He knew that he shouldn’t because it wasn’t encrypted. He did it anyway on a Friday afternoon because he was being pressured by a more senior person in the marketing area. I found out about it. Unfortunately, he lied to me. We might have been able to work around it, but he lied to me. That was the end of it. If I don’t trust you, that’s a hard thing to rebuild. Nobody’s perfect and people make mistakes, but you get into more trouble when you start lying. You’re better off admitting it and saying, “How do we work forward from here?”
You’ve played a follower role, too, particularly in the volunteer work that you’ve done. How has being a leader made you a better follower in your volunteer work and with others?
I enjoyed being on teams. I understand where my role is and I try to stay in my lane. For example, if you’re on a wildland fire and you’re not the engine boss, you don’t go to meetings. You just stay there. Whoever the engine boss is, comes back and says, “For our ten-person group, this is what we’re doing.”
By the same token, I ended up in an odd role because the people I worked with knew I’d been in the corporate world. They could read LinkedIn and see that I’d done a number of things. I got brought in periodically to give talks on leadership to senior park people. That was a little awkward because it’s like, “You’re the guy who is down there in the ambulance bay.” I’d be like, “Yeah, and that’s okay.”
I did spend a fair amount of time with two senior people being their coach or mentor. I still stay in touch with them as they’ve moved up in their career. That’s been very rewarding. It’s more about helping them out at this point because I’ve done all that I’m going to do in the corporate world and they’re still moving along in the park service. The park service can do a decent job with some managers. There are some good managers and some weak ones, but you’re going to find that in any organization. I happen to work with two of them whom I was pleased with and that have gone on to do good things in the park.
You’re coming up on fifteen years past your retirement. You’ve been doing all these different things over the last couple of years. What does the future hold for you? How involved in the work world do you want to stay? Are you on a continued glide path to tennis and travel?
Honestly, it’s the conundrum that I face because we elected to leave Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and move to Tucson. It is lovely and it’s great when it’s 80 degrees and has 5% humidity. However, it’s not next to any large national parks. We have Saguaro, but Saguaro is a fairly small park with limited roles. My ability to stay plugged in with the park service is limited to me doing EMS training for them from time to time. That’s been a challenge in figuring out what the next big thing is.
I worked thousands of hours for the park service and had a passion and commitment that I had between that and volunteering as a firefighter for the local community and Jackson Hole Fire EMS. I still haven’t figured out what the next big thing is, but I got to figure out something. Two boards are something that keeps you intellectually engaged. I chair the comp committee on one of them, and that’s a thankless, painful job.
It is almost like being the treasurer of a nonprofit.
There is that, too, which is equally thankless. It’s a nonprofit that matters to the local firefighters in Jackson, so I’m happy to do that. I haven’t figured out what the next big thing is. My wife started volunteering for a local food bank. She’s finding a great deal of satisfaction in the hands-on element of packing food and getting people to food that they might not have had if it weren’t for the food bank. She’s found that passion. I might plug in with that, but I got to figure it out. That is my next big challenge. Talk to me in a year.
We’ll have a follow-up conversation in a year. If you look backward, what advice would you give your younger self?
Be less of an asshole. I have always been pretty competitive, and that’s fine. I was competitive in college sports and competitive afterward. That desire to do well and achieve drives a lot of us in the business world, but sometimes, it can drive a little too hard. As I got older, I’ve calmed down a lot on that. My 30-year-old self or even 40-year-old self was probably pretty insufferable at times. If I could wave a magic wand, I would tell that person, “Chill out.”
I never thought of you in that respect. Maybe it was a comparison to other people at McKinsey. I should write up at the top end of that normal distribution curve with a couple of them.
You learned long ago that you should never use McKinsey people as a reflection on society as a whole.
That’s a very good point. Do you have any final career advice you want to dispense before we break?
Whenever I would talk to folks, somebody would ask me, “What would you suggest?” I always told them that they should save up money so that they had what I call a go-to-hell fund. I didn’t ever want to be in a spot where I was financially tied to a job that I couldn’t quit. I saved money in what I called my go-to-hell fund.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to tell anybody to go to hell, but it was there to provide you with that flexibility. I’ve seen a lot of people, especially as somebody who spent a career doing consumer lending work, get themselves way over-leveraged and way committed. That limits your personal flexibility and ability to manage your own ethics in a way that doesn’t conflict with making money. The go-to-hell fund is helpful.
That is good enough. This has been great. I learned a new French word, which is moulage. I will never look at fake injuries the same. I will wonder what you’re dressing up on Halloween. Scott, thanks for making time. It’s good to catch up. It’s been a long time since we’ve certainly had a face-to-face conversation. I know we talked not long ago, but prior to that, it was probably many years before. It’s nice to catch up in real-time more than the emails and occasional texts back and forth about hiking destinations. I appreciate it.
Thanks for the thoughtful question share that caused me to stop and reflect on some things. Reflecting is good from time to time.
I wish you luck in your reflections about what is next.
It’ll be something else. It’s random and I’ll figure it out.
I look forward to hearing about it at some point soon.
I’d like to thank Scott for joining me and sharing his unique yet unfinished career journey. If you’re ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter. Follow PathWise on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks. Have a great day.
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About Scott Williams
Scott Williams is a Senior Advisor for the Boston Consulting Group, for whom he provides counsel to private equity clients evaluating opportunities in the mortgage, consumer credit, and consumer risk information services arenas. He is also a volunteer ranger, firefighter, EMT, and moulage (fake injury) specialist. Yes, that’s a thing.
Scott started his career as a Credit Policy Officer for the Bank of New Orleans. His career then wound through banking, insurance, and management consulting, with stints at Wachovia, JP Morgan, US F&G, McKinsey (twice), Mitchell Madison, and HSBC.
Scott then left the traditional corporate world and has since occupied his time with a combination of independent consulting work, his work for BCG, and his volunteer work, for which he earned a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Scott earned his Bachelors’ degree in European History from Washington and Lee University, and his MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He and his wife live in Tucson, Arizona.