In the world of consulting, where excellence and innovation are pillars, certain personalities stand out for their journey, vision, and ability to influence and transform. Clarisse Magnin-Mallez, General Director of McKinsey France, is such a leading figure who reflects both rigor, audacity, and a profound commitment to positive change. From the halls of HEC to the summit of one of the most powerful consulting firms in the world. A narrative of an inspiring woman 

Founding memories: a rich and diversified foundation 

January. An icy wind gusts down the Champs-Élysées as we make our way to the offices of McKinsey France. Nestled amidst the urban landscape of the city, our meeting with Clarisse Magnin-Mallez awaits, a woman with a broad smile, almost radiant, standing out against the backdrop of the wintry day outside. After two decades with the consulting giant, which employs 45,000 people across five continents, we have a brief window to delve into the journey of the woman appointed as the General Director of France in 2021 for an office that employs 800 consultants. 

With coffee and macarons adorning the table, the atmosphere is infused with warmth as we swiftly transition into unraveling the origins of it all. “I met my husband in prep school, and we both attended HEC afterward. The remarkable feat is that we stayed together!” Clarisse jokes, also a mother of four. This period marked by HEC’s motto: “learn to dare!”, recalls the leader who notably remembers the tradition of skydiving, now a thing of the past but initiated by Robert Papin, founder of HEC Entrepreneur.I was part of the generation that went skydiving. It was a rite of passage, a way of integrating into the Major,” she smiles nostalgically. 

While Clarisse hasn’t forgotten her years at HEC, a place that went up in smoke, remains vivid in her mind. “The memory that I share with my husband Alexis is that of the moments spent at the Blondeau amphitheater. There was a teacher who taught us geopolitics and his classes were absolutely fascinating! His knowledge of geopolitics knew no bounds. He was able to predict future conflicts and always had a head start, years before these events occurred.”, she exclaims, admiringly.  

However, it’s not so much the courses that set her on the path to consulting, but rather the HEC Career Carrefours. “When we are students at HEC, we are well supported, and the career fairs allow us to be in contact with companies, to hear about areas for which we didn’t necessarily have affinities at first. I started to be interested in the consulting branch thanks to this ecosystem,” she remembers gratefully. 

Clarisse’s journey is marked by internships during her major. After an internship as a waitress, Clarisse packs up and flies to India for a two-month internship in a leper colony in Rajasthan. “It was an incredibly impactful experience! We were establishing microcredit mechanisms and a housing construction project. It was an extraordinary adventure, but halfway through, we decided to change course and transition to working in humanitarian aid in the slums of Bombay.” she recalls.  

This was followed by more conventional internships, such as L’Oréal, JP Morgan in London, then Deloitte, and finally … McKinsey!After my internship with the company, I graduated and initially turned down their first offer to join an e-commerce startup. It was a failure, so I reached out to McKinsey again, and they agreed to take me back. It’s thanks to this experience that I am very understanding of young people and their aspirations. I was a Gen Z before them!she jokes. 

USA vs France: the international dimension of the job 

Clarisse begins her career at the firm’s Paris offices, at 79 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, the world’s most beautiful avenue in the world, but soon relocates to the United States. “I lived in Manhattan and was attached to the New Jersey offices. When I was there, I spent my life in the air, rarely sleeping in my own bed.  I took the plane every Monday morning and returned on Thursday night,” she explains. Clarisse adheres to these weekly business trips, but when she becomes pregnant with her first child, things change! “It worked well for me, even during my pregnancy, but after my daughter was born, it was no longer feasible! This constant mobility was not at all compatible with my aspirations as a mother!” So, Clarisse localized her client portfolio, allowing her to remain on American soil until her daughter blows out her first candle. 

Back in the Hexagon, with the noticeable differences that entails. “In America, ‘Business is Business’, you can go straight to the point. Whereas in French culture, formalities matter. The way you introduce the subject, to whom you address it, timing, the subtle signs- we’re a complex, subtle, intellectual culture,” she explains. 

A modern vision of leadership 

In 23 years, this woman has risen to become a partner only 10 years after joining the firm, and another 10 years later: General Director of France. “I would say I’ve made good progress, considering the fact that I have four children and therefore took four breaks for my six-month maternity leaves. I was lucky to be in great shape until the very end. Pregnant up to my neck, I would take my mother and my husband for walks, and I had so much energy that they were limping by the end! I wasn’t as sprightly as time went on,” she laughs. “But I needed, both physically and emotionally, to take those six months after each birth.” 

For Clarisse, the most important value for practicing this profession is humanity. “I have had so many meaningful encounters at McKinsey! That’s why I’m still here. I believe that if you want to do this job, you absolutely must have the desire to help people. You must appreciate the people you work with,” she expresses with conviction. In her view, to work in consulting, one needs interpersonal skills, empathy, and listening abilities, but also integrity and courage. “The human aspect is absolutely essential,” she asserts. 

As a CEO, Clarisse Magnin-Mallez is not afraid to discuss failure, which she even considers an inevitable component of professional growth. “It would be very presumptuous to believe that we are always right. Sometimes we make mistakes, we’re human, and it takes courage to admit it to the client, but it’s important to keep in mind that failure serves us to avoid making the same mistakes again.” 

This mindset has enabled her to overcome various obstacles. Following the controversy surrounding Covid 19 and vaccination in France (for which McKinsey did not provide any strategic recommendations but offered logistical support), the American branch of the firm found itself facing a critical a book titled “When McKinsey comes to town”, published on last October 8. The new French director defuses the situation: “That’s already behind us, and I noticed that it hasn’t impacted our recruitment; we remain highly attractive for applicants, both at HEC and elsewhere, with 15,000 applications per year. This is crucial for us because our main asset is, of course, our human capital- we only have women and men. And on the client side, it’s the same, we are even changing offices to expand.” She continues by explaining that the book only pertains to the United Sates, not France, and it only recounts events from several years ago. With no new revelations, the firm’s reputation still has many bright days ahead. 

An Unwavering commitment 

As a woman at the helm of a large corporation, Clarisse is vigilant in ensuring gender equality and combating sexism. 

From one coffee to the next, we discuss women, children, and the stereotypes surrounding these issues that are only directed at women. Quickly, memories of the video created by the SISTA collective, which went viral two years ago, comes back to us.  When faced with questions about morning routines, impostor syndrome, and managing mental load, we see François-Henri Pinault looking incredulous, Xavier Niel feeling disconcerted, and Frédéric Mazzela appearing uncomfortable. “I found this video very authentic and amusing. The men interviewed had never had to answer these kinds of questions before, and they were completely thrown off. And I think the demonstration was even useful: the fact that men, who can be perfectly fine men, realize through this humorous sequence the questions that are directed at women sheds light on an unconscious sexism that persists in society. We never ask a man how things are going with his children!” Clarisse faces these questions incessantly. “It must be tough. How do you manage? Do you take good care of your children? Were there times when things weren’t going well for them, and did you manage to see the signs?” She responds to this relentless questioning by stating that “Every mother is constantly guilt-tripped by these questions. It’s impossible to be a perfect mother, we can be more or less imperfect, but it’s very unsettling when we’re continually asked these kinds of questions.” She defends herself.  

Regarding parenthood, Clarisse wants to shake things up: “Being a parent also concerns men. Those who want to do things differently from their father or grandfather and who want to be involved, it’s beautiful, it’s real social progress. It’s for these men that we have implemented parental leave of three-months for men and six-months for women,” she declares. 

Like many of her peers, she also has been subject to daily micro-aggressions: being interrupted, having a clear sentence rephrased, having things explained to her in her own area of expertise, being less frequently invited to speak than a man … To these unacceptable behaviors, the CEO responds and actively fights back, for example, by encouraging her female colleagues to take the stage at major events. Indeed, for the 47-year-old leader, these issues that pollute the professional lives of women are a battle to be fought, with diligence and collective intelligence. “My attitude towards men remains very positive despite everything. There are a lot of men who want to engage on these issues and who want to make a difference. We need to move forward hand in hand!” 

Wholeheartedly engaged in various areas, Clarisse aims to improve inclusion and meritocracy, with recruitment campaigns targeting the LGBTQIA+ community or promoting ethnic diversity at McKinsey. She also spares no effort in pushing clients towards environmental initiatives.  “We apply these principles in our client engagements by offering them strategy projects related to the environment. This can range from reducing packaging and waste to reducing water usage, or even implementing transformations leading to decarbonization.” 

One might think that after advising her clients, she would prefer not to have to make choices in the privacy of her own home. On the contrary. “I never tire of being asked for my opinion; it’s an honor for me, a sign that I am valued and trusted! In reality, I don’t feel like I spend my life-giving advice,” she explains, a smile playing on her lips. 

Through the inspiring journey of Clarisse Magnin-Mallez, emerges the portrait of a modern leader: deeply humane, committed, and adept at navigating the intricacies of consultancy while remaining true to her values and convictions. 

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