Excavate the Best Ideas: Q&A with McKinsey’s Lucia Rahilly

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Over the past year I’ve spent a good chunk of time interviewing managing editors. It’s become one of my favorite parts of my job — talking to smart people who are doing interesting work. This spring and summer I’ve been talking to managing editors and heads of content at consulting firms, trying to figure out how they turn consultants’ big ideas and discoveries into interesting content. At the end of every conversation I ask “Who else should I talk to?” In the consulting world, one name kept coming up: Lucia Rahilly at McKinsey.

The content that McKinsey publishes is unmatched in terms of quality. So it’s not surprising that my conversation with Lucia, who manages global publications at McKinsey, was one of the best I’ve had about thought leadership and the future of “content marketing” as we know it.

I asked Lucia what it’s like to manage thought leadership at a respected consulting firm, how she has helped her team evolve to keep pace with the digital content landscape and why it’s important to “excavate” authors’ most interesting ideas.

You manage two teams — one group of editors who develop practice-specific content and another operations team that manages all digital content published on McKinsey.com. What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?

We have had to become significantly more agile as two phenomena have converged.

One is that the volume of content we publish online has proliferated dramatically. And the second is that, in a digital world, expectations for turnaround of that content online, or publication time to market, have accelerated considerably. We have to publish much more content than we did 10 years ago, much more quickly than we did 10 years ago, without a significantly bigger staff. Having a nimble operation is one of the most challenging and essential parts of running a high-volume publishing platform.

How have you shifted your operation to become nimbler?

The first step is a mindset shift. It’s about getting people accustomed to going to market faster, and the trade-offs, nimble decision-making and accountability that accelerating your process can sometimes require. Everybody has to move quickly but remain accountable for their decision-making processes, and be very clear on what our priorities and standards are.

Then we worked on empowering our staff with the skills and confidence to uphold those standards without a lot of discussion or email traffic involving dozens of people. McKinsey is a very consensus-driven, collaborative organization. That's one of its greatest characteristics, and a core value here. But kind of like democracy, consensus-building can be hard. If there's a lot of discussion and everybody's opinion is equally valuable, it just takes longer to get things done. So we try to maintain that value, while at the same time empowering people to move more quickly and make decisions independently, with less oversight and input.

Over time, we’ve also cross-trained a lot of folks, particularly in the production space, so they’re able to chip in on a range of tasks. We’re looking for versatile performers who can all contribute to the shared success of the team.

Let’s talk about results. Even as there’s pressure to publish more frequently, a lot of content directors also face more pressure to communicate the results of their content. How are you managing that?

We have a small analytics team in the publishing group that has very helpfully created a self-service analytics dashboard. Anyone in our firm can access that dashboard and see how any article has performed. We have a good sense of what's working and what’s not and how that should be informing our strategy.

That’s huge. So authors have access to real-time performance data about their content?

Yes. Access to the performance dashboard allows an author not only to see data for the particular article she contributed to, but to compare her content’s performance with that of every other article on the site for any given interval. Authors can look at pieces in their practice, or pieces by co-authors, or pieces that they’ve authored in the past. It's super helpful.

Your team is responsible for getting complicated ideas out of people’s heads and making them digestible. How do you do that?

Our editors are very experienced in their fields. That helps them register quickly whether the ideas an author team is presenting are actually distinctive, and if so, how. If they're not, an editor will push to try to get at the most differentiated aspects of the team’s ideas and then pursue that line of questioning.

There's a lot of thought leadership in the world, and now that the content landscape is so crowded, the signal-to-noise ratio is getting a little bonkers. There's just content everywhere; everybody is making it. There's way more content out there than people are interested in reading, it seems to me.

That’s why it’s so important to work with people who know how to get beyond the default, pat structure and really push on what’s genuinely interesting. Our editors ask questions like “when you’re discussing this work at the client site, what resonates most, and why?” Or, “we've done lots of pieces on this topic — what’s so compelling to clients now? What new perspective can we offer our audience? Do we have some new research? How has the context changed?”

Tell me about the culture of thought leadership at McKinsey.

We have an advantage as editors here because McKinsey has a long tradition of publishing about ideas. We are not new to this rodeo. McKinsey has been using content as a way to identify and address pressing business problems for decades. There's an expectation that client-serving consultants will bring ideas to market as content. It's just embedded in our culture. We have historically been a firm that traffics in the currency of ideas, and the quality and distinctiveness of the ideas we offer to clients has been the hallmark of what we do. That means that consultants are aware of publishing, they're aware of the power and impact publishing can have, and they’re aware of the way content can be used to mediate their relationships with clients and prospective clients.

What lessons have you learned in this role?

Good question. It's imperative to have a relentless focus on the quality of output. And in the push to become more agile, to publish faster and at greater scale, to find ways of achieving those goals without compromising the quality of what you do. It means being incredibly creative in your approach to operations, making sure you have the right people, the right processes and the right tools. If you can create a nimbly functioning operation, then you have more time to invest on the front end in the development of content that really rocks and is really going to resonate with your client base or broader audience.

What it comes down to is that it's hard to scale good content. It's just tough to scale at a high level of quality. You really need editors who are willing to engage and push for the best output they can winkle out of a team. They've got to be willing to get in there and excavate complex ideas and translate them for the intended audience. There's not a lot of cutting of corners that can happen. You've got to have great colleagues and great ideas.

 

Thanks, Lucia, for sharing a peek into your work at McKinsey.

No matter what kind of team you’re working on — whether you have access to the world’s leading experts or you’re on your own, searching for the big ideas — I think Lucia’s advice applies. Focus on building an ironclad editorial process, push back against anything that feels recycled or boring, and keep excavating to find the best ideas.

Lee Price is co-founder of Managing Editor. After 7 years as a content marketing consultant at Rep Cap, she started a thought leadership consultancy to help visionary leaders dig up and develop their big ideas. She's a proud University of Virginia fan, Twizzler enthusiast and feminist. She lives in Georgia with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her on Twitter @leevprice.

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