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Paul Mango shares thoughts on leadership at the Heinz Lecture Series

Last Thursday, Heinz College hosted a talk for its Leadership Lecture Series, which featured Paul Mango, the director of the Pittsburgh office of McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. Mango spoke about his journey through West Point, Harvard Business School, and the U.S. Army before he joined McKinsey over twenty years ago, as well as what he had learned about leadership along the way.

Starting at his roots, Mango spoke about being a second-generation American and growing up in an Italian, Irish Catholic family in Syracuse, New York in the sixties. As the fourth child of his parents, Mango quipped that he was “basically unsupervised,” and developed a close relationship with his siblings. Mango described his background as “very traditional, but relatively lower middle class.”

As a kid, Mango spent his time playing basketball and baseball. In high school, Mango initially believed that his skills in baseball would allow him to become a professional player, paying no attention to academics. However, a sports injury during his sophomore year caused him to start considering other options for his future. Later, he reflected that the injury was “the first best thing that happened in my life.”

The second self-described “serendipity” to occur in Mango’s life was getting into West Point, in that “it was immediately post-Vietnam, and almost no one wanted to go.” It was a five year obligation, and there was only one degree offered at the time – general engineering. Having to attend class six days a week, Mango had to learn how to study, in addition to receiving training as a cadet, describing how “we all took the same course, every day, as a class, which was actually very good.”

After graduating from West Point, Mango joined the best unit in the army at the time, the 82nd Airborne Division. Its mission was “to be anywhere in the world in 48 hours,” which involved intense and comprehensive training and logistics. According to Mango, “it was a very exciting place, because from a leadership perspective, they ask 22 and 23-year-old lieutenants to take 30 people in a platoon, fly them halfway across the world, and make sure they had enough spare socks in their rucksacks to last for two weeks. You were kind of half den mother…but also had to be very cognizant of all the things associated with the mission.”

Mango’s second assignment was in Germany, years before the Berlin Wall came down, at a time when the buildup of military power had already peaked and was starting to become unnecessary. It was at that point that Mango decided to apply to Harvard Business School. It was a “radically different learning experience” compared to West Point, according to Mango, but was still a “great experience.” Mango described that “at West Point, it was very simple…if you did your homework and you studied, you’d probably do okay. At Harvard, it’s complete ambiguity ... there’s no right answer, there’s no wrong answer, and 50 percent of your grade is based on class participation.”

After Harvard, Mango moved to Pittsburgh to join McKinsey & Company in 1988. In the ‘90s, McKinsey underwent a radical change, transforming from a generalist model built around serving local clients to a “model built around expertise that had to be projected anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world.” Mango chose to specialize in health care. There was no health care practice at McKinsey at the time, but McKinsey started to serve health care clients, and so Mango helped organize the health care practice. Mango explained that “in 15 to 18 years, [the health care practice] went from nonexistent to about 15 to 20 percent of what McKinsey does ... globally.”

Reflecting on his journey, Mango commented on the serendipity in his life. In terms of how he made life decisions, he stated, “the one thing I knew was, whatever field I was going into, I wanted to be part of the best organization in that field.” His advice was not to be “overly fastidious” in how to make decisions, and to look at the quality of the organization in its field and to go for it.

Mango then spoke about the five things he learned about leadership. The first one occurred at a McKinsey partner meeting, in which the Prime Minister of Israel said something that stuck with Mango: “Let me tell you what I think leadership is about. It’s not about being on top, it’s about being out in front.”

“It’s important to understand, it’s not about hierarchy. It’s not about using authority to influence people, it’s about demonstrating through example that they want to follow you,” Mango explained.

The second thing Mango learned about leadership was that leaders have to “selflessly invest in their people’s development.” Mango mentioned an experience from West Point in which the platoon leader responsible for training his group of cadets, despite constantly calling them deadbeats, “really did care about us and his mission. He understood his mission was to make us capable, competent young soldiers, and that’s how he spent all his time. And we realized that ... no matter what he said to us.”

Mango added that “the people that join McKinsey have extremely high development aspirations, so we spend a lot of time on their programs, on their careers, on their advancement, and giving them probably too much feedback … it takes a lot of time, but it’s well worth it.”

The third lesson in leadership dealt with integrity, although Mango clarified that “leaders have integrity, but it’s not just honesty, it’s not just ethics … there’s also consistency and reliability. Think about integrity in a very broad sense.”

Mango’s fourth point in leadership was that “leaders dampen, they don’t amplify anxiety.” He said that “leadership is not just about how you act all day, but it’s particularly when you’re under stress.”

Mango also noted that “we think good leaders are fundamentally optimistic; not unrealistically optimistic, but optimistic.”

Mentioning an incident in which a managing director at McKinsey was forced to fire a regional leader for being pessimistic, he explained that “it’s the whole demeanor that you bring to a leadership role that is quite important, and people do notice. And they respond very favorably to, again, not unrealistic optimism, but certainly optimism.”