Jacqueline Brassey of McKinsey Health Institute: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective…

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Jacqueline Brassey of McKinsey Health Institute: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Develop a personal operating model: we explain this tool also in our book and article mentioned above. This is about becoming intentional about your life so that you are at the steering wheel as opposed to life leading you. This includes reflecting about your purpose, managing your time, roles, connections and also your energy: taking care of your health, get enough sleep, etc. Reflecting on a regular basis on your operating model helps you set yourself up for success, build resilience, adaptability and lead life with Deliberate Calm.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jacqueline Brassey.

Jacqui Brassey is McKinsey’s former chief scientist and the director of research science for the firm’s People & Organizational Performance Practice. Today she is a Senior Knowledge Expert in the same practice and a coleader at the McKinsey Health Institute which was launched in May of 2022. Jacqui brings over 20 years of experience as a practitioner academic in leadership and organizational development and positive neuroscience in and outside of McKinsey and academia. In addition to her roles at McKinsey, she is a fellow researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and an adjunct professor at IE University in Madrid, Spain. Her research focuses on sustainable human development and performance, and she works across research from neuroscience, business, and leadership development. She has coauthored and presented over 60 articles, books, podcasts, and scientific papers. Jacqui holds degrees in both organization and business sciences as well as medical sciences. She has a bachelor’s in international business and languages from Avans University of Applied Sciences, a cum laude bachelor’s and master’s in policy and organization sciences from Tilburg University, a PhD in economics and business from Groningen University, and a joint master’s in affective neuroscience from Maastricht University and the University of Florence.


Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Thank you for the opportunity, and hopefully I can help readers learn to better navigate the stress and uncertainty that can hurt their wellbeing and keep them from reaching their full potential.

My background is in neuroscience, business, and organization science, leadership development and learning. I am a co-leader at the McKinsey Health Institute and a senior expert in People & Organizational Performance at McKinsey & Company. I’m also a researcher at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, an adjunct professor at IE University in Madrid, and a supervisory board member at Save the Children in the Netherlands.

My work focuses on sustainable human development and performance, and I conduct research across neuroscience, business, and leadership development. My most recent book, Deliberate Calm, takes my personal experience, as well as the experiences of my coauthors, and pairs that with scientific and applied research to create a framework that can help anyone successfully navigate stressful, uncertain situations in the workplace and at home.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The mistake I made actually led to the book Authentic Confidence, related academic publications and also contributed to our latest book Deliberate Calm. During my second year with the firm, just after starting a new role, I had a confidence crisis, and my inner voice kept telling me I wasn’t good enough. My mistake was to hide my insecurity, masking it, coping with it by working harder and harder and not talking about it soon enough. I had always experienced low-grade anxiety and think I’d been doing these things for a long time, but it reached a new level that year. I would freeze in meetings, then work harder to compensate. I even had secret panic attacks. Whilst I never missed a day of work due to the confidence crisis, the experience took away much of my joy at work. Finally, there came a moment when I said enough and started talking to colleagues and friends about what I was experiencing. Several said, “Thank goodness someone is finally acknowledging this; we all are secretly struggling; I hope we can remove the stigma around this.” I dove into research, trying to better understand why we were feeling this way — that led to my additional medical degree in affective neuroscience mid-career, a refocus of my academic research program, publications, my leadership development and professional work and eventually Deliberate Calm.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful to many people and have been very fortunate to have many sponsors in my career. I wish I could mention them all here, but I would love to put the spotlight on my husband and best friend Nic Brassey. We are truly partners in managing work, home, and life together. He has always been so supportive and considerate in enabling my career while building his own. We truly co-lead the Brassey household; he often shoulders more than me and is awesome at laundry! Avivah Wittenberg-Cox once said in an HBR article ‘If You Can’t Find a Spouse Who Supports Your Career, Stay Single’ and she is so right. This goes both ways of course, and I am very proud of the man, spouse, father, friend, and professional he is.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

McKinsey’s purpose is to help create positive, enduring change in the world. By building a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people, we can help our clients make distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements in their performance and navigate uncertain times.

Not long ago, we launched the McKinsey Health Institute. This is a non-fee generating institute with the aspiration to ‘add life to years and years to life.’ MHI is all about purpose-driven work in the areas of brain health, healthy living, infectious diseases, equity and health, healthcare worker capacity, healthy aging and sustainability and health. My focus at the institute is helping organizations become enablers for employee health and wellbeing.

The concepts we teach in Deliberate Calm fit well with the purposes of McKinsey and MHI. When practiced by organizational leaders, they can lead to more effective problem-solving, decision-making, cohesion, and organizational performance. At the individual level, Deliberate Calm improves learning agility, creativity, and performance, and reduces stress and burnout, resulting in optimism, wellbeing, and stronger relationships. If everyone practiced Deliberate Calm, we’d have a more positive and resilient world.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

One example was when I was leading the design and delivery of an anti-racism learning journey a few years back. We committed to create a digital training for all 32,000 of our colleagues to be rolled-out in a very short timeframe. This was for us high stakes and unfamiliar territory because we had never done that before, and it is a topic that is received differently around the globe. We felt overwhelmed at the start. The key thing I focused on with my team was to acknowledge what we felt and keep an open, safe environment in which we could share our uncertainties while keeping a strong focus on our objective. This was a magical combination, because whilst we all felt the stress of this audacious goal, we were fueled by its purpose and got energy from the mutual support we gave each other. We had regular check-ins as a team and practiced Deliberate Calm together. In the end, we delivered a high-quality product on time. I think back to that project with a huge amount of gratitude. It was one of the best team experiences I have ever had.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

During all the challenging parts of my career, I have had moments in which I’ve felt like giving up. Here’s what I do. First, I give it some time, and see how I feel the next day, week or even month if I can wait that long. Giving things time, if you have the space to do so, is important because you need to find out how deep your feelings of ‘giving up’ go. Feeling that way may mean different things: you want to walk away from discomfort and fear or towards something that matters more.

You can create space for that reflection in many ways; I run. During that time, I check-in with myself about what matters in a situation. Why would I keep going versus why would I give up based on my purpose and values? With these insights I can make a more balanced decision on what to do next.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has inspired me. In it, he says: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” We pulled those themes into Deliberate Calm. The belief that you have a choice in how you respond to any situation is such an empowering one, and it helped me move from a mindset in which I sometimes felt victim to one in which I felt empowered. That helped me through my own confidence crisis years ago and inspired me to write the related book Authentic Confidence, which I co-authored with Nick van Dam and Arjen van Witteloostuijn. The second English edition was published this fall. So, Viktor Frankl’s book has certainly has been a huge influencer in my life.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Leaders often underestimate how much impact they have on their team’s dynamic. We talk in the book about a domino effect — what the leader says and does affects others and the solutions they are able to develop. Leaders create the context in which people feel safe or unsafe, and safety in the context of Deliberate Calm is very important, especially during challenging times. With a team looking for guidance and structure amidst uncertainty, leaders must be able to take in the situation, understand everyone’s needs and the external demands, and use those factors to create the best possible path forward. Being a good leader is not easy; it’s a privilege that comes with a huge responsibility that goes beyond business accountability. Leaders have a huge opportunity to impact the work life and experience of their team members in a positive way.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

We wrote an article related to this during the pandemic that’s just as relevant today. In it, we explain the importance of staying realistic and leading with bounded optimism, which is about mixing confidence and hope with realism. Leaders with bounded optimism give teams meaning and help everyone remember that difficult times and long hours of work serve a purpose.

I usually say: a lot of the ‘magic’ in support of morale, health and wellbeing happens at team level, and leaders play a critical role. In this context, supporting and listening to team members goes a long way. Understanding different experiences gives leaders insight into what’s going on for their teams and help leaders navigate uncertainty. While the responsibility to pave the way forward is a team effort, it’s up to leaders to make the individuals on their teams feel comfortable, included, and heard. Especially in uncertain times, personal connections, camaraderie, and safety are critical. Leaders need to create the time and space for teams to build that and the courage to be vulnerable enough to acknowledging they don’t always have the answers.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

In the Netherlands, we have a saying: ‘There are multiple roads that lead to Rome.’ In other words, there are many ways to do this, and many can be ‘right’ for different people and situations. Personally, I think difficult news should be shared as soon as possible and not withheld. However, you must check in with yourself first:

  • What your is your intention in bring the news?
  • What do you hope to deliver when you bring the difficult news? A message of despair, a message of hope, a solution?
  • What are the possible negative consequences of this news? ‘
  • What can be done to turn this into something good?

Then bring facts in an objective way that mitigates as many of the possible negative consequences identified. Be real, be authentic and offer hope, invite the team to be part of the solution — that you’ll find your way through the challenge together. Don’t hide the discomfort: it’s there, so give it a place while working together on finding your way through it and forward.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Unpredictable times put a lot of pressure on leaders and, pressure often triggers fear and a resistance to change. It’s also a critical element to making change happen.

According to the adaptability paradox, we’re biologically wired to cling to success formulas that worked for us in the past. However, when extenuating circumstances or unprecedented moments happen, sticking to old plans sometimes isn’t the best option. Coming up with a backup plan is less about predicting the future and more about learning how to adapt old plans to new situations. Adaptability, innovation, and creativity are essential. Pressure can stifle innovation, but by understanding this paradox and putting the Deliberate Calm framework into practice, unpredictability can become motivating, not limiting.

However, as human beings we still like to make plans and feel control over the unpredictability that is human nature. Having the skills to deal with these uncertainties — Deliberate Calm skills — do just that; they provide a sense of control over unpredictability.

A good friend, senior psychiatrist and colleague, Erik Salvador summarized our work in a way that may resonate well with the readers. After having read the book he said: “you can minimize the number of unexpected events by systematically expecting them, but you cannot prepare for all the unexpected. You can and should however effectively prepare for how to react to everything unexpected. Deliberate Calm is an effective method to do this.”

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

If readers take away one lesson from Deliberate Calm, it should be about learning how to change when change is hard.

Deliberate Calm helps leaders become fluid and respond to challenges with intention instead of being limited by old success models. One easy step is for leaders to take a few minutes to breathe and consider how their thoughts and feelings align with what the situation needs, even a micro moment. Leaders need to ask themselves, “Is this a situation for which I have the skills required to effectively respond?” If yes, then the focus should be on managing the stress effectively and performing. If not, then the question is how to create the ‘space’ to handle both the stress of the high stakes moment while learning and adapting. Deliberate Calm is a lifestyle, it’s not just a trick you apply in a moment. It asks you to rethink how you approach life.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

At the core of all three below is ‘intention’ and ‘awareness’ — to avoid the mistakes become aware of the circumstances and how it feels and look like when you run the risk of making the mistakes. Being intentional and aware of these increases the likelihood that you will pick up cues in time so you can ‘intervene’.

  1. In moments that call for change, we’re wired to stick to routine. This is the adaptability paradox, and it often is responsible for stifling learning and innovation. To avoid this trap, leaders must override this psychological barrier and lead through innovation and creativity. There are timeworn strategies and tools in Deliberate Calm designed to help leaders navigate this very situation.
  2. Another common mistake is getting too comfortable and not pushing yourself outside your ‘comfort zone.’ We only learn when we do things that we have never done before. It’s necessary to step outside our comfort zones and into our ‘learning zones.’ This is where the magic happens.
  3. Lastly, during difficult times, it’s easy to feel the pressure to make decisions as quickly as possible to keep up with the environment, but this may lead to problems down the line. Most situations would benefit from leaders taking a moment to pause, breathe deeply, and examine the situation and themselves. Often, this is all it takes to make more solid decisions.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Sure, we have given a few of these in this article and our book, as well.

1. Practice Dual-Awareness: develop awareness of the situations your face (and what they call for) and awareness of yourself and how you feel in moments that challenge you.

2. Regulate emotions: regularly check-in with yourself and learn to manage stressful moments for example by breathing exercises or any of the other tools we provide in our book

3. Set your intention in the morning: look ahead of your day and notice those moments that may need critical attention and deliberate calm, think ahead about how you can set yourself up for success for these moments. It will help you better manage curveballs that come around during the day (remember, this is not about performing exactly the way you intend, it is also about how you want to respond to the unknown and unexpected that may happen)

4. Practice reflection: every day for a few minutes or at the end of week, take time to keep a diary. Reflect on the most challenging moments of the day/week. Ask yourself what happened and why was it challenging. If you do this regularly, you’ll start to see a pattern and you can start learning how to respond more effectively

5. Develop a personal operating model: we explain this tool also in our book and article mentioned above. This is about becoming intentional about your life so that you are at the steering wheel as opposed to life leading you. This includes reflecting about your purpose, managing your time, roles, connections and also your energy: taking care of your health, get enough sleep, etc. Reflecting on a regular basis on your operating model helps you set yourself up for success, build resilience, adaptability and lead life with Deliberate Calm.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It is a lesson I got from my father, who was one of the most authentic people I have known. He encouraged me and my sisters to always be honest and tell the truth no matter what, and he created the space at home where that could be done. I learned that telling the truth could be done safely and that the response would be managed in a fair way and with care. Authenticity and honesty have been valuable in my life, though I’ll admit, navigating different cultures is still not easy; my ‘Dutch’ honesty and authenticity sometimes come across a bit too direct. Living in many countries has helped me learn how to be more diplomatic in an honest way.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can learn more about my research and experiences, and those of my coauthors, Aaron De Smet and Michiel Kruyt in our book Deliberate Calm. They can also find me on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Jacqueline Brassey of McKinsey Health Institute: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.