Interview with Spence Nichol, BA ‘06 (Political Science)
"Don’t believe the naysayers, there's a ton of value in an Arts degree"
By Madisen Gee, Arts Work Experience Communications and Program Support Intern
After graduating with a degree in Political Science from the University of Alberta, Spence Nichol went across the river to work at the Alberta Legislature. At the Legislature, he held several roles including as a speech writer, and policy advisor to the Minister of Education. After nearly 5 years working in public policy, he felt he needed to experience the world outside of government and politics. Spence went to the UK and China to study further. After that he joined McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm as an Associate. Currently Spence is an Engagement Manager based in McKinsey’s Toronto office. I had the pleasure of speaking with Spence and asked him a few questions about his career path.
Can you provide an overview of your career path with McKinsey and some of the responsibilities associated with your current position?
One of the great things about consulting is that you’re expected to do a wide variety of projects within your first year with the firm. The idea is that you build a strong understanding of business through exposure to different industries and different problems within those industries. In my first year I was working on the front line at an open mine pit in the U.S., and on a construction site in northern B.C. During the same time period I was also working with senior executives on projects related to pipelines and pension funds. So that first year really builds a strong tool kit and understanding of business. My current job as Engagement Manager means that I lead small teams of consultants and client staff. McKinsey works with the world's largest organizations to solve their toughest problems. We spend about anywhere from 2 weeks to several months trying to break down a problem and figure out what the best way is to solve it. We work with team members from our clients, and draw on expertise from within our firm as well as outside experts, to come up with an answer we can demonstrate is going to solve that problem. So it's not just a matter of coming up with ideas and saying “hey, do these 3 things, they sound like good ways to solve your problem” its “hey we have these 3 ideas and we can show you detailed analysis of how they will solve your problem.”
What types of skills did you gain from your Arts degree that you use in your role at McKinsey?
In an Arts degree you learn to think. You learn to distill a lot of information down to its most important components. My degree taught me to take an ambiguous situation and quickly sort through it to define what was important. It's really helpful to be able to make sense of lots of information quickly and home in on the facts that really matter to you and what you're trying to accomplish. It might feel like I’m stating the obvious, but you learn to write in an Arts Degree. I can't overstate how important communication is in my work. We can do the most sophisticated analysis in the world, but if we can't explain it in a way that our clients can understand, it’s pretty useless. And I think the other component of that is that clarity of writing is clarity of thought. The clearer your writing is, the easier it is for people to help you advance your thinking.
At McKinsey, we work in pretty diverse teams, so lots of my colleagues who come from business backgrounds, engineering, we've got a few people from fine arts as well. It's interesting to me to observe the different strengths - everyone brings different things to the team and that's why we have the diversity of people on the team. You can tell the people with the Arts degrees because you can see those things I talked about.
Why do you think Arts Degrees are valuable in today’s workforce?
I think every organization - whether it’s a business or government or non-profit, wants people who can think on their feet and have the confidence to make the right decisions in particular situations. I think an Arts degree equips people especially well to deal with ambiguity and decide what the right thing is to do, and go do it. I also see increasing levels of technological sophistication where computers are able to do things or make decisions humans used to make. However I think it's still a long ways away before a computer can think through issues the way that an Arts student can. I feel like I have job security because of that ability!
What opportunities do you see for Arts students in your field of work (i.e. global management consulting)?
I think there's lots of opportunities. Often people look at consulting firms and say “oh you're a business consultant, you must need a business degree to do that,” and that's emphatically not true. McKinsey and other consulting firms care less about the specific degree someone has and more about the qualities the person brings to the job. We can teach the business tool kit. We look for 4 main qualities at McKinsey, the first is personal impact - someone who can develop and implement creative solutions to a challenging problem and work well with teams while doing it. Second is entrepreneurial drive - people who are innovative by nature, and who will take initiative to do something beyond what is presented to them in their day to day job. Third are problem solving skills - intellectual ability and rigour and a sense of what works and what doesn't. Fourth we look for leadership abilities - people who lead themselves, lead their teams, contribute to their communities, and foster effective teamwork to drive results.
What is the best way to go about finding employment in your field of work?
I think a good starting place are online guides, for example the Vault Career Guide to Consulting, about management consulting and how to get a job in the industry. There are guides that speak to all the different companies out there, and what their strengths and areas of focus are. I also think it's a good idea for people to invest a fair bit of time in understanding the recruiting process upfront. It is not an easy process and the interviews are purposefully challenging. Last year McKinsey had about 750,000 applications and we hired about 4000 people, so it's a very challenging and competitive process. Our website also gives details about recruiting.
Networking is also a helpful way to find out “is this the right kind of employment for me?” With that said, I think lots of people in the profession get inundated with lots of networking requests. Take your time to write a tailored message to the person you’re reaching out to. A precise request goes much further.
What advice do you have for students in terms of activities they should participate in while at U of A?
Do the things that are interesting to you, not because you think they'll look good on a consulting resume or any other resume. We want people to pass the Airport Test- if we’re stuck in an airport—and it happens!—are we going to have an interesting conversation? We are ultimately looking for people who have more than just problem solving skills, but are interesting people, who have interesting hobbies, who have done interesting things with their lives. In terms of courses to take, take classes that are challenging to you. Look for things outside of your major, you never know when something you take will come in handy later. Different interests come together in ways you may have never expected.
McKinsey will be on campus in January to recruit third-year students for their summer positions. Full-time recruiting takes place each September for students starting the final year of their degree. For more information click here.