Conversations with Shawn Woo

By Soong Hung Hao and Julian Rocero

Shawn Woo’s role as a consultant at McKinsey & Co lends him extensive experience in problem-solving, advising corporate clients, and strategic planning. As part of the sustainability practice, he supports clients who are looking to play a bigger role in building a greener future. He holds a Bachelor’s in Arts, majoring in Sociology and Economics. In our interview, he sheds light on consulting, sharing personal insights and takeaways from the ever-evolving sustainability movement.

I began my career at the Economic Development Board (EDB) in 2017 as an associate, where I did several rotations over the course of a year, before finally deciding on joining the energy and chemicals (E&C) team (which was part of my rotation). It was exciting to be in that team as the problems that we were trying to address came in all shapes and forms. To name some, it is the only industry in Singapore that has a ‘dedicated island’ (Jurong Island) which entails dealing with an additional layer of complexity, an industry that contributes to our energy security, and is also one of the most carbon intensive. All this while I was a junior officer with no chemistry or engineering background, so it was quite a challenge, but I had the support of great colleagues who kindly took me under the wing, and some are still my best friends and mentors today.

After a couple of years, I moved to McKinsey, joining their energy team. The focus of that team was to serve energy clients (including some of the biggest oil majors), and topics I’ve worked on included sales and marketing strategy, organization set-up, and even digital transformation.

However, at this point, the green movement was noticeably picking up steam in the region, and in particular our energy clients, so when the decision was made by the Firm to establish a sustainability practice hub in Singapore, it was a no-brainer for me to rotate into the team, where I was one of few pioneer members of the team. Since then, the topics I’ve worked on include green product strategy and development, strategies for energy transitions, and carbon capture/storage.

The experience varies from project-to-project, so some context will be helpful.

At the start of every project, the entire team and client would have a kick-off meeting, where we discuss and come to an agreement with the client on the project scope, the key milestones, and the end deliverable that is to be presented. The team will then sit together to determine the work that will need to be completed prior to each milestone, and that will broadly serve as the roadmap on how the study will proceed. This allows us to be target-oriented, but also gives us the opportunity to do ‘look-aheads’; to give us a sense of how much flexibility we have to either push or bring forward key workstreams based on how the project develops. At this point, the team also parcels out which member is to work on which sub workstreams, with thought going behind which consultants are best-placed to deliver on that workstream, be it topical expertise or seniority.

With that as the anchor, that means that our a day-to-day is highly dependent on what we have planned out and the stage of the project. At the earlier phases, we may be more focused on data-gathering, but towards the end, its more on refining the messaging of our presentation material. But this is highly dependent on the project type – strategy has a different cadence when compared to an implementation project.

Tangibly, this means that we begin the day with a short morning team check-in (the timing is determined by the team and the working team’s calendar, but it can start from as early as 7am to as late as even 11am), where the engagement manager has a team roll call, with each member spending 5 minutes to list their key objectives for the day, and they can range from number crunching on excel, to running a workshop with the clients. At the end of the day, we may have a check-out meeting where we quickly update the team on the progress of the items that we listed during the check-in. This continues daily for the duration of the project.

With that said, asking for help is always encouraged. You can set up a problem-solving session with your team to look through the nitty-gritty together and overcome challenges you encounter. Regular check-ins with our clients are also necessary as they shape the direction of our solution. This adds up to many calls each day, whether with the team or client.

Of course, a life outside of work also exists, from fun team dinners to personal activities like going for a jog; this is where it is up to every individual to schedule out their time. As such, there is an expectation to take ownership of your day and be deliberate in achieving your goals – if you don’t control your work (boundaries), your work will control you!

That is a perennial question that we face, and my view of our value propositions is down into three key benefits.

Firstly, because we serve a wide range of clients within each domain, we gain insights into the best practices and market trends. We can then bring these key learnings to our clients. Furthermore, our clients are often so focused on the day-to-day responsibilities that they may not have the bandwidth to develop other ways of operating that may be more efficient or lead to better outcomes. Being exposed to industry-leading practices and benchmarks allows consultants to work hand-in-hand with the clients to support that journey.

Secondly, these large companies have many things on their plate and may have an interesting problem for which they require some additional resources to resolve. The idea of consulting is to help augment their problem-solving ability without requiring them to divert attention from their core business. Without outside expertise, their core business could face potential disruption if they were to embark on the project by themselves.

Lastly, we can offer more diverse perspectives to their decision-making framework. Our clients may be too deep into the technical side that the commercial element of their business becomes neglected or vice versa. This is where we bring in various viewpoints and backgrounds from our project team and even external experts, to share relevant insights from adjacent industries and infuse them into our client’s approach towards their obstacle.

Of course, a given is that consultants also need to constantly seek to upgrade themselves and remain up-to-date on the latest trends. The moment you fall behind, your value plummets.

I initially applied to Mechanical Engineering, but kinda did that without giving it much thought. However, with the luxury of free time to consider more deeply while serving National Service, I realised that although I do enjoy math and science, engineering was not for me, and decided to read Sociology instead (It’s a fascinating subject that I wished more people would read!). I began university studying only Sociology at first, did fairly well and was offered the double major program. I felt this was a great opportunity for me to marry the ‘heart’ of Sociology with the ‘hard’ skills of Economics. So, I took it up. I believe this has served me well; I credit Sociology with equipping me with some critical thinking skills, as do many other humanities programs. On the Economics side, it trained me to be numbers-driven and helped developed a certain level of data analysis skills. Fortunately, consulting requires both!

It was a discovery by chance and one that I am happy I made. As mentioned, I participated in some rotations during my time in the associate program at EDB, which included a stint in the E&C team. There, this 4 month exposure really made piqued my interest.

What made me really enjoy this topic was that this industry had a different dynamic from some of the other teams, is that it is uniquely asset and infrastructure-heavy. On Jurong Island, apart from supporting the actual operations of companies (which is already pretty complex), we may face other seemingly random challenges with pipelines, feedstock access, company location placement, waterfront access, logistical access, chemical safety and even workplace attractiveness (e.g. ‘How can we make Jurong Island a more attractive place to work at?’). All these require careful and strategic thinking, as any major decision we make could impact the future attractiveness of Singapore as an energy hub. Even as someone who had no background in the field, I found it so exciting that I decided to dive into it headfirst, so much so that I would spend weekends reading chemical engineering books and articles. At the end of the program, I decided that I liked the E&C team and loved the problems that they were solving. So, I joined them after the associate program and that was how my journey started. Coincidentally, McKinsey then came offering an opportunity in this space and the rest is history.

Save for some highly specialised fields like law or medicine, I truly believe that one does not need to have a degree in the field to be in any industry, but rather a keen interest in it.

On the personal front, the pandemic has taught me many things, including being brave about what I believe in and making sure I am caring for myself as well. As Asians, we generally work in a structured top-down hierarchy, and this has led to perhaps be more ‘reactive’ rather than ‘proactive’.

However, the pandemic forced us to work in silos, particularly so in consulting, where you own your workstream and must be willing to drive it. Compounded with being alone at home all the time, it forced me to sharpen my thinking about what I want; such as setting healthy boundaries for things I value such as family or personal time. For example, becoming more willing to say a certain time does not work for me or being unafraid to voice out a different perspective now come a bit easier to me.

On the professional front, the sustainability journey has been very enriching and rewarding. It has greatly accelerated into public consciousness within the past three to four years, and it is certainly refreshing to interact with others who are truly invested in the cause. While some may perceive environmental campaigns by large corporations as ‘greenwashing’, I really believe many of them are trying their best. The issue is that many touted solutions may not be financially practical for some companies, or technically feasible that it can be adequately scaled up. But what is clear is that companies are investing heavily in this space, and I am very heartened by how companies are thinking about this, and I also feel privileged to be able to play a small part in this.

Collaborative. Consulting requires a collaborative culture because nobody truly has all the answers. It is the free exchange of ideas that brings us to a more holistic ‘answer’. As such people that are in such firms’ are generally not lone wolves, but rather collaborators and team players; it shows in the way we work. For example, there is a structured process to get feedback in not just the project team, and there is a clear commitment to act on them for the betterment of the team.

There is also a strong working ‘style’. Over time, new colleagues will speak in the same language that is in a very distinct McKinsey style. Incredibly, you can bring in colleagues from over the world, and somehow, they can just fit together and work as a team within a day or two. It is quite an incredible phenomenon for a company with over 30k employees globally!

Fundamentally, professional services are people-driven businesses. The essence of these companies is ultimately their human capital, and hence they place a strong emphasis on building a healthy work environment, and I see evidence of this every day. Don’t get me wrong – it is not perfect, but there is a very sincere effort to maintain it.

Of course, this is all underpinned by the ethos of wanting the best for our clients. This means it is also fast-paced, highly demanding and ultimately, incredibly stressful.

Besides being collaborative, having clarity of thought and logical reasoning are all necessary to do well in the role. I believe the interview process identifies these candidates very quickly. While it can be trained, these traits are, at some level, rather intrinsic, so it comes down to whether you are wired that way. In that sense, many consultants perhaps would not be the best entrepreneurs or investment bankers, because there are different inherent personality types and mindsets that would suit each field.

For example, I think Steve Jobs would not be a great consultant, because he is very clear with his wants and that may not fit well with a consulting role. Of course, the opposite applies; being an entrepreneur would be challenging for many consultants, because we think about problems in a different way. Not that one is better over the other, but rather which is fit for purpose. Overall, on the intrinsic side, perhaps if you like solving problems and working in a team environment, consulting could be the right career for you. University, of course, gave me the right environment for that ‘muscle’ to be built and cultivated over time.

Firstly, just because it is highly selective doesn’t mean it is right for you! My personal view is that if you choose something you really enjoy and are willing to invest time in, the results and enthusiasm will show. I encourage students or people who are looking at university courses and potential careers to narrow down what they enjoy. You need some level of passion to sustain you over the long run. So, take that into account rather than going with what is ‘sexy’ or trendy at that time. Don’t forget, when you are interviewing at any job, the person across the table can read whether you are truly interested in the role.

Secondly, beyond your interests, you should also be very deliberate in what you hope to accomplish. Having goals and a roadmap for yourself can be very helpful. I had not known about consulting until my last year of university, and even then I was unsure of my career path. But crucially, my internship roadmap was framed in what skillsets I wanted to be actively cultivating. It could be ‘I want to develop some client-facing skills’ or a ‘I want to build something up from scratch and lead it independently’ So, I sought for opportunities that met these criteria, and coincidentally when all is said and done, it was a personal narrative that I could use during my discussions when applying for new roles.

Lastly, build a network and stay in touch with them. You will never know when that relationship could be helpful. Many opportunities are derived from very meaningful relationships, but these need to be genuinely invested over time.

My internships were really a mix of sourcing them through the school portal and self-sourced.

I was clear that I was going to use my university life to experiment and find out what I like and dislike. That was my rationale for taking up many internships across different fields (technology, F&B, professional services, etc), to experiment and find out what excites me. University is the time when you can take risks and fail, and find yourself in the process of doing so. I was very deliberate in making sure that every summer break I was doing an internship.

All in all, my biggest takeaway was a clear understanding of what I really enjoyed (working in team environment, being client facing, having ownership) and what I didn’t (I realised that I am not someone who enjoys working in a silo), and that shaped how I picked my career. In EDB, I focused on industry development and investment promotion which involved a lot of client-facing work. At McKinsey, we meet our clients often and co-create solutions with them.

Environmental, social, and governance criteria will certainly evolve to become a core part of businesses as more attention is being drawn to these issues. Investors will assess the merits of these companies based on their sustainability efforts, and voice their opinions through the market. This also means that companies who fail to invest in this space will find themselves falling behind.

Fortunately, many movers and shakers of the economy have begun taking action. BlackRock, an investment heavyweight, has already made its stance clear, and will only invest in sustainable companies. Major players like P&G and Unilever understand that sustainability has become a key concern for many consumers, and are trying to ‘greenify’ their supply chains and processes. Even BP, an oil and gas giant, is now transitioning to being a solar and renewable company, by divesting and channelling their focus towards renewables instead. As Tesla’s market cap continues to grow beyond the combined total of many non-EV companies, typical internal combustion engine car manufacturers and competitors like Ford and General Motors are finding themselves trying to catch up, and have invested heavily in that space.

There are more youths, thankfully, today that are interested in sustainability. Public activism has been very helpful in bringing greater attention to the crisis we are experiencing. I believe we need that zest and injection of new ideas to move past fossil fuels. I hope that young engineers and scientists will join this movement and drive it further. It won’t change overnight of course, but this shift is clearly happening.

But the biggest question which remains is the pace of this transition because the environment waits for nobody. We cannot keep waiting for ideas to make economic sense before pivoting, and perhaps it is time for government intervention in the form of taxes or incentives to fund the step towards prioritising our environment – we are already seeing the first few steps today with the slew of announcements at COP26 and for us here, Singapore’s carbon tax.

My advice is to be brave and try new things, to be exposed to what is happening in the world, and this obviously goes beyond just the job hunt. For example, if you are 30 years old and do not know anything about TikTok, why not try it? That is how the youths of today and tomorrow are communicating. Maybe somewhere along that line, you realise you love creating content – that inevitably helps narrow your interest, and what you are looking out for in a career. Expose yourself to alternative ideas, do your research, and get a flavour of it. As you get deeper, you will begin to find out what is and is not suitable for you.

Secondly, building networks and connecting with others is also important. Speak to potential employers during job fairs, ask as many questions as you have, and be genuine about wanting to learn more about their experiences that you hope to gain insights into. I can’t stress enough how being genuine and having that level of personal touch is essential when building a network in a space that you are unfamiliar with.

Lastly, read as much as you can. I find it very refreshing to learn from others. The book I recently finished was by James Dyson, called Invention: A Life. It shed insights into how much thought went behind design thinking, which my line of work would typically not be involved with. This will allow you to gain a deeper appreciation for how things are done in spaces outside of yours – and who knows, could be a source of inspiration for you in the future.

For those hoping to enter consulting, do your research and know what you are signing up for. While it is extremely rewarding, the lifestyle is very punishing; in my last project, my days were on average 14-15 hours during the weekdays. It is certainly not for everyone, and everyone I know has made some level of trade-offs or sacrifice on their personal lives.

Secondly, case interviews remain a very important tool for consulting firms to assess your analytical rigour. However, my personal view is that rote learning and cramming of frameworks will not be helpful. Personally, I did not do a lot of case preparation before my interviews. Instead, I was very deliberate about bringing a structured thought process to work daily. Try to be disciplined in your thought process and maintain a very structured and logical flow, and slowly but surely this form of thinking will just seep in – but it won’t be easy!

A tricky one, but perhaps during the staffing process, I should be deliberately optimising for people, rather than projects and the content. For instance, there may be five projects that are interested in you to join their team. Rather than focusing on the project and what the scope is, focus instead on the team members you will be working alongside! Working in a less-than-ideal team might mean that work becomes a drag. However, when you are in an engaging team that can have fun, inspires and supports you, time passes very quickly and you will have a more enjoyable experience!