By Pola Esguerra del Monte, Multimedia Editor of BusinessWorld SparkUp

A dept at sleeping in one city and waking up in another, McKinsey partner Kristine Romano follows this weekly itinerary: Malaysia (two days), Jakarta or Singapore (one or two days), then Manila (the rest of the week). That is a cinch for someone who once traveled from Manila to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Los Angeles, Sydney and then back to Manila in a span of three weeks.

A Filipina rises to McKinsey’s top

But slipping in and out of time zones isn’t Ms. Romano’s most incredible feat.

From more than 10,000 consultants and 2,000 research and information professionals, Ms. Romano rose to become the first Filipina partner at one of the largest consultancy firms in the world; a company whose alumni include Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The title makes her a co-owner of the firm, among some 1,400 other partners spread across the globe. Hers is one of the 1,400 voices that some of the biggest, richest corporations and governments listen to.  

“This is a job where you can never get comfortable,” Ms. Romano told BusinessWorld during a small window in her schedule on a Friday morning.

The streets of Manila had been Ms. Romano’s playground, where as a child she played piko and patintero, and where she found the street food that kept her fueled as she worked through a five-year course at the University of the Philippines Diliman, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and accountancy. She was convinced she would start a career as a public servant after graduation.

But McKinsey whisked her away from her path after it recruited her from university.

A Filipina rises to McKinsey’s top

Her first month on the job in 2004 was “eye-opening,” she said. At a time when travel was expensive, imagine her surprise when she met her team, composed of “a German guy living in Singapore, the leader was a Japanese guy who was running the Indonesia office, and client was an automotive based in Thailand.”

The feedback she got from that first immersive month: she needed more gravitas.

“I think the mentality that changed for me is I know that I am as good as everybody here, even in an international playing field, and the voice that I have should be heard with the same kind of attention,” Ms. Romano recalled about her adjustment. “I don’t think I was very clear about that graduating from college.”

Part of the protocol for McKinsey employees who travel is that they have to learn beforehand about their destination and the client they are going to serve. The local leader of the team provides this overview, as well as the do’s and don’ts in their destination, whether it’s dressing a certain way or punctuating sentences with “Khrap” or “Kha” in Thailand.

“You want to be able to function in a business setting,” she explained. “You have to be polite.” But the point of the trip is not the pleasantries: “you have to solve the problem of a client.”

According to her McKinsey profile, Ms. Romano works with public and private sector entities in the Philippines and across Asia, “helping transform organizational performance, unlock growth, strengthen public services, and build winning business.” Her expertise lies in education, financial services, capital projects and infrastructure, the public sector, travel and transport and logistics. She has a Master of Public Administration in international development from Harvard Kennedy School of Government tucked under her belt. 

When working with clients, Ms. Romano does not pluck answers off the top of her head.

At the start of every project, the team talks to every single person — sometimes as many as 15 people — in the client’s management team, or, in special cases, the board, to “really understand what the biggest problems are.” They observe work processes, see if the procedures are strictly followed, and survey customers in a diagnostic which takes four to six weeks — all this just to pinpoint the trouble spots.  

The trouble spots could be seemingly trivial, but have major consequences. An example: Ms. Romano’s team was able to help a company with multiple branches save millions of pesos simply by rearranging their filing cabinets. Sitting at the branches’ floors, behind shelves and racks, they observed that each had a different layout with filing cabinets set up slightly differently. If a branch manager were to take an application form and file it, he may take an extra 30 seconds to do so because a filing cabinet faced one way instead of another, and he needed to walk around it. Multiply that situation by the number of clients that could be served in a month, and the corporation could save money simply by changing the filing cabinets’ configuration. 

“Something as small [as that] could make a big difference in efficiency because these are very large corporations who are standardizing their processes,” she said. 

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If working at a company of this stature and complexity is intimidating — imagine interviewing to become a partner, a co-owner.

The selection process includes 30-minute consultations with at least 30 people with whom the candidate has worked: bosses, staff, clients, etc. It is done by an evaluator who does only this. (“If I need to speak with the CEO but I’m sick, somebody else can do it for me,” Ms. Romano quoted her evaluator as saying. “Evaluating you, on the other hand, is something I am not allowed to delegate.”)

After more than a decade of traveling, solving some of the business world’s biggest problems, and missing the comfort of daily family dinners, Ms. Romano admits that at one point she was tempted to go home.

“The most challenging part is the call to come back to the country and serve here. I’ve felt that,” admitted the UP-trained Filipina. “I almost quit. I tendered my resignation because I was exploring a job in government because that’s what I’d been trying to do.”

Then came a call from McKinsey Philippine office’s managing partner, Suraj Moraje.

“We see tremendous potential in the Philippines, and I see you want to do good things for your country,” Ms. Romano quoted Mr. Moraje as saying on the phone. “And that’s what we really want to do. We’re rejuvenating our Philippine office and if the Filipinos don’t want to build the Filipino office, then who will?”  

He reminded her: “We can be a force for good, you don’t need to be in the government to do that. McKinsey itself can be a force for good in the Philippines.”  

“It’s true,” she thought. “We do a lot of economic development work as well,” she said.

“Yes, there’s helping clients but if the client is a country, then we can be a force for good too. We at McKinsey, we do public sector topics and non-private sector topics. We can work directly, and I have had the privilege of doing so. In the Philippines, all my clients are private sector. I’m excited because, yes, you’re working with businessmen but on a day-to-day basis, I am interacting with clients that I am coaching and mentoring, and they are better for it.”

She mused: “Was it for profit, yes, but you also helped another person. That’s on a personal level. At the same time, growth and economic development has to happen through the private sector. Obviously you need to do both, public and private, but if you want to create jobs, have more training and capacity building, you can’t just do that outside. A lot of our clients offer services for the public. Banking, telecom, etc., all these can be social goods too. 

“For millennials, the distinction between, ‘oh I need to do a social thing to have a social impact’ is too narrow a distinction. I think there are ways, and corporates are becoming more aware of it today, by working with a businessman to achieve that.” 

Now, as a partner, she handles this set of people in the Malaysia office: a German guy who lives in Seoul but travels to Malaysia, a Sri Lankan who lives in Malaysia, one Malaysian, with half of the team from Hong Kong.

Of utmost importance to Kristine Romano, McKinsey’s first Filipina partner, are the following: “The problems I wanted to solve on my own — economic problems, how to improve schooling, how to balance the budget, this is what we help governments to solve,” she said.

“And now it’s not just Kristine, I have Kristine and the whole global company to help.”