Carol Wingard, Global Co-Head of the Industrials Practice and Managing Director at L.E.K. Consulting

Stepping into L.E.K.’s offices, situated in the heart of Victoria, London, there’s a palpable warmth to all the people we meet on our journey to the client suite. Carol Wingard— a woman who wears many hats in her roles as Managing Director of L.E.K., the Head of the firm’s industrials sector in the Americas, and Co-Head of its global industrials sector—is no exception. Despite flying in from her native Boston the day before there’s no trace of jet lag; Wingard’s energy and passion for L.E.K., its people, and the work she does with her clients is infectious.

And as Wingard talks us through her impressive career journey, the role her energy and passion have played is clear to see. It’s a career that has spanned two continents and which has resulted in Wingard becoming one of the key players in the male-dominated world of industrial products. It’s also seen her take risks, not least when she was one of the first US professionals, let alone women, to forge a career in post-communist China.

So, does her own experience translate into a tried-and-tested manual for success for young women? “I don’t think so,” says Wingard, “I tell them that my experience has had plenty of twists and turns along the way.”

“I’m just an adventurous person, and I wanted to experience the world.”

At the root of Wingard’s success is old-fashioned hard work, an attribute that’s been in evidence since the earliest days of her career journey. The first in her family to attend college, she set her sights high, undertaking a college degree at Princeton. She praises the education meritocracy in the US that enabled her to indulge her thirst for learning.

In fact, a love of learning for its own sake is something that features throughout Wingard’s career, particularly when it comes to her passion for languages, which she has used as a tool to, as she puts it, “open up communication with other people”. It wasn’t long before this passion took her on an adventure across the Pacific Ocean, where she undertook a year’s fellowship studying Japanese in Tokyo. She didn’t know it then, but this would be the first step in a lifelong, career-defining relationship with the Asian continent.

“Oh, here’s this strange woman that lived in China for many years, she’ll have a few good stories for us.”

Embarking on her burgeoning consulting career, Wingard never lost sight of her passion for the language and culture of Asia. For three years she kept her interest fuelled with intensive night classes in Chinese, while working for a strategy firm in the Boston area by day. Then the stars aligned: “In the late ‘80s I received an offer to work for a consulting firm in China, just as things were opening up in the country.”

I was an unusual person being a foreigner and a female who speaks Chinese.

Was it the prospect of a big career move that tempted Wingard back to Asia? “Absolutely not,” she tells us firmly, “no one was really going there.” Instead she saw something different: “There was a chance to set out on a life experience that could be very profound.” It proved to be just that, with Wingard harnessing her language and translation skills to play a key role in strategic projects. “I was an unusual person [in China at that time] being a foreigner and a female who speaks Chinese.” And being one of the few Westerners conversant in the language of her temporary home proved to be a high-value skill, and one which she says allowed her to transcend any prejudices that might have otherwise existed.

Indeed, Wingard encourages everyone to foster unique skills, observing that in the professional services landscape it’s easier to stand out and distinguish yourself if you have a capability that sets you apart from your peers.

“I don’t think a lot of people expect to find a woman leading the part of our firm that deals with factories, chemicals, manufacturing, and building products.”

For Wingard, possessing just one unique skill in her arsenal wasn’t going to be enough. And so it was in China that she developed a keen interest in industrial products, an environment in which few women were establishing their careers at the time. Rising through the ranks in such a male-dominated environment would be a challenge, and Wingard realised that success would require rolling her sleeves up and immersing herself in the sector. She describes spending “a lot of time doing M&A, looking at factories and understanding how they worked”. Elaborating further, she says that on returning to the US “I had a perspective on one of the most important manufacturing centres in the world.” For Wingard, the deep sector experience gained on the factory floor would be crucial to establishing her gravitas and credibility, silencing questions of gender before they arose.

Now occupying a position as Co-Head of L.E.K.’s global industrials practice, which accounts for around a third of L.E.K.’s business, Wingard rightly looks back on her career with pride. Nonetheless, she does have a few words of wisdom for her younger self. While she is completely accepting of the principle that a consulting career will always be a demanding one, she wishes she’d had more confidence to push back at key moments—particularly in establishing firmer boundaries around family time. “I’d be much more upfront about the need to do things my way, knowing I’d still be taken seriously.”

“The environment today is so different in lots of good ways.”

For Wingard, the challenges of balancing a demanding career and family life were made easier by the rock-solid support of her husband, something she continues to be grateful for. Today, most firms are also working hard to remove barriers for women rising through the ranks. As attitudes shift and flexibility becomes commonplace, Wingard notes that young women have a number of well-considered options to help them balance their career and home life. She comments: “L.E.K. is doing some great things to enable our people to reach their full potential; for instance, we offer coaching and mentoring across the firm, manage outgoing and incoming transitions for maternity and paternity leave, support childcare needs, and have active affinity groups such as a Women’s Network.”

Even so, Wingard cites how important it is for team members to pull together if everyone is to benefit from this increased flexibility in the workplace. As she explains, “If I really can’t make something at work, I can usually turn to one of my partners and say, ‘Can you do this one? I’ll take the next.’ I’ve found people are very accommodating in that sense, and it gives our junior team a very clear step-up opportunity. No co-worker has ever said to me, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.’”

It’s incredibly important to have women as role models; it’s about young women seeing others successfully get through the process.

It’s this clear desire of Wingard’s to practise what she preaches and find better ways of doing things that makes her such a compelling role model for young women. “It’s incredibly important to have women as role models; it’s about young women seeing others successfully get through the process,” she tells us. And while support for junior colleagues will always be critical, Wingard observes a growing tenacity and determination in the women rising through the ranks. “I really like the attitude of the younger generation, which is to ask for what you need and what you want, and how you want to do it.”

“Life is long; you don’t have to do everything at once.”

Wingard has practical and encouraging guidance for young women forging careers in professional services. She rejects the idea that she’s had an “accelerated career” herself, describing the times she balanced family with part-time, project management roles to keep all the plates in the air. And rather than telling others they can have it all, she instead leaves us with some words of wisdom: “The advice that I give to younger women is that, hopefully, life is long. There’s a lot of time to do different things, and you don’t have to do everything at once.”