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Inspiring Women: Dr. Katie Abouzahr

March 22, 2018I met Dr. Katie Abouzahr at a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) event. After being introduced to her, I couldn’t help but ask, “How in the world did a medical doctor—and emergency room (ER) doctor at that—end up joining a consulting firm?” As she told me her story, it reminded me of all the incredible women out there who are forging their own paths. The one thing I’ve learned from my time at Catalyst is that a woman’s career path is rarely straight. It zigs and zags. There’s no right answer and no standard answer. Katie’s story is not only inspiring because of all she’s accomplished, but also serves as a reminder to women that you can keep moving forward without moving in a straight line. 

Today, Katie splits her time as a Principal at BCG running BCG's proprietary research and thought leadership on gender diversity in the corporate workplace and helping healthcare clients solve their toughest problems. In addition to her busy professional life, she’s a wife and mother. She is married to a Scottish cardiologist and they have two young daughters, Olivia and Sophia.

I’m happy to share Katie’s story based on an interview I conducted with her. I hope you find it as inspiring as I do.

Deborah:You have such an incredible career story. Tell us how you went from being an ER doctor to a consultant at a prestigious firm like BCG.

Katie:As these things typically are, my career path has been a mixture of serendipity, luck, and passion. 

I trained in the United Kingdom to be a medical doctor and was practicing in an ER in central London when I decided to make a career switch. I really loved practicing clinical medicine—and I still miss the patients—but I wanted to be able to effect more change. As a physician, there was a lot about the total patient journey that was beyond my control. I was frustrated with that and looking for a way to make a difference at the system level. 

How I found management consulting was a little bit of serendipity. Honestly, I didn't really know the landscape out there. But I had a friend who worked in executive search, and he said, "I think you should look into these types of organizations," and that quickly led me to BCG. 

Deborah:Was it an easy transition from ER doctor to consulting?

Katie:I will confess that at the time, I was racked with self-doubt. I felt like I was standing on the edge of an enormous cliff with no parachute and I was taking this leap of faith. It remains to date one of the hardest things that I've done.

Deborah:What is it like being a woman in an industry that's often viewed as being difficult?

Katie:I had the benefit of joining straight out of hospital clinical practice, which is also a relatively high-stress environment and was previously less gender-balanced than it is today. So, it was helpful to come in with that similar experience.

For their part, BCG not only gave me a lot of training but also so many people to turn to for support. They sent me on all the right trainings and I learned business essentials, which was helpful because the day I joined I couldn't read a P&L and wasn’t clear what a balance sheet was! I always felt I had somewhere to turn and there was always some kind of safety net to catch me when I felt like I was struggling.

Deborah:How have you managed to balance work and family?

Katie:At BCG, we talk about One BCG, Many Paths, and I think I may have now explored dozens of those paths, which is a total privilege. When I started with the firm, I was client-facing and in the healthcare practice, and I became a Principal in the London office.

During that time, I had two children, took two relatively long maternity leaves, and came back to work part-time. BCG gave me the flexibility to alter my model as needed, so I tried 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, and back again. I readjusted depending on what my family and I needed at the time.

Then a few years ago, I was faced with another fork in the road of my career when my husband was given the opportunity to relocate to Philadelphia for his job. I didn’t know how I was going to make that move work, especially considering that our children were four and two at the time.

BCG was fantastic and worked with me to come up with a customized solution.  For the last 18 months I have run BCG's research regarding gender diversity in the corporate workplace as our [email protected] Fellow.

Now that my husband and I have decided to stay in Philadelphia for the foreseeable future, BCG has once again allowed me to adapt to a mdel whereby I’m back at 50% running teams as a Principal and 50% still within [email protected].

Deborah:BCG has been incredibly accommodating at helping you pursue challenging roles as well as balance personal needs. What advice do you have for other firms? 

Katie:We know from our research that flexibility is key to retaining women, and I’m the living proof that if BCG hadn’t let me flex the model—be that my capacity, my geographical location, or my role—I wouldn’t still be here today.  So flexibility is key.  This includes men, by the way.  Men are also looking at how to balance being part of a dual-career household and be around for their families.  And we see a huge uptick in the number of younger men looking for part-time working models.

Then there are times when the support needs to be dialed up a notch—at BCG we call these “moments of truth”—whether it’s the return from maternity leave, or during a mobility placement, or any other major life event.  Each person’s needs are going to be a bit different and the key is working out how best to support individuals in those critical moments. The research tells us that the investment will pay back dividends later on. For example, when I came back from maternity leave, the only thing I cared about was not traveling, but someone else might choose something different –it might be about working with a familiar client or doing specific hours. Being willing to customize support—within the boundaries of what’s reasonable—is crucial. 

Deborah:When you reflect on your experience, what is it that makes a workplace work for women and, perhaps to pick up on your earlier point, work for men as well?

Katie:I think it’s the culture. BCG has put in place policies for part-time working, antidiscrimination procedures, and all of the structural changes that we might need.  But in the end, it wouldn't work without the culture.  

For example, when I had to relocate to Philadelphia, people said, "Great! Let's think about how to make it work," and not, "That's a real pain."  When I need to go home and pick up my kids, or fly back from a conference on an earlier plane, nobody bats an eyelid. Every single trade-off that you make as a working parent is made easier or harder by the culture of the firm, and in the end it’s those daily interactions that make the biggest difference and that ultimately shape how you feel about pursuing a long-term career in a company.  

Deborah:What’s your advice to other women who are looking at navigating the same set of different and competing demands?

Katie:First, I would say it sounds easy when I talk about it, but every step of the way will feel difficult. You just have to try and do the right thing with the information you have at the time. What you want now is not what you will always want, so take the next step forward as best you can.

Second, if you don’t ask, you won’t get. If you have to move to Philadelphia and you know what solution might work, ask for it. The worst that's going to happen is someone’s going to say no. 

Third, seek out the right people to have on your team. And, I mean the team ahead of you and the team behind you. A good group of people who want to work with you and for you is like gold dust. The right people ahead of you that will sponsor you, give you advice, help you navigate some of the politics and the decisions is also like gold dust.  

Finally, own your branding. Branding is the stories you tell about yourself, because ultimately those are the stories that other people will tell about you too. So, I could tell you about endless trade-offs that have taken me out of clinical medicine in London and into gender diversity in Philadelphia. Or, I could tell you about a series of amazing opportunities that have allowed me to work with a variety of organizations to shape the future of healthcare and women in the workplace, and about how today, I feel like I’m making a bigger impact on the world than I ever have.  

Deborah:What's the best piece of advice that you've ever received?

Katie:That's a good one. I would say it’s “worry less about the choices you have to make.” I have a propensity to agonize about each individual choice, but what I’ve learned is that the real reason I’m finding a choice difficult is because both options are good. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a difficult! 

At some point, you have to trust that you are making the best decision you possibly can with the information available to you. So relax, because whichever path you go down, it will be the right one in the end.  

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.