UCLA Anderson alumna Leslie Parker (’03) came to a
fortuitous crossroads 25 years ago
january 30, 2023
- Leslie Parker has been a management consultant at Kearney for more than 25 years, and her election to partner in 2016 made her the firm’s first “home-grown” Black partner
- As a board member and a leader in Black@Kearney, Parker helps to oversee her company’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion
- The same collegial culture that Parker has embraced at Kearney is what drew her to enroll in UCLA Anderson’s MBA program
UCLA Anderson alumna Leslie Parker (’03) is an award-winning management consultant with more than two decades of experience across industries that include communications, media, retail and chemicals. As a senior at Georgetown University in 1997, though, Parker found herself at a crossroads.
Parker was finishing up her B.A. in psychology and had already been accepted into law school. But she was beginning to experience doubts. “Law school is a big commitment, and I realized I was about to spend a lot of money on something I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to do,” she recalls.
At the time, Parker was part of a scholarship group at Georgetown for liberal arts students interested in business. The global management consulting firm then known as A.T. Kearney (now simply Kearney) was offering interviews to seniors in that small cohort, and Parker, in the process of reevaluating her career plans, was intrigued. “Consulting was hot, Kearney was hot,” she says. “And so I went for it.”
Nearly 26 years later, Parker is still at Kearney — now as a partner. As her long tenure with the company attests, the fit proved ideal when she was getting her start and remains so today. “Consulting is the perfect profession for a young person who doesn’t know what they want to do, because you work on projects with different clients and are exposed to so many different things,” Parker says. “I don’t know of many other fields where you get to learn so much so fast, with so many opportunities for growth.”
In business since 1926, Kearney employs more than 4,000 people and operates in 40-plus countries, consulting across all industries — including more than three-fourths of the Fortune Global 500 — as well as with influential governmental and nonprofit organizations. As a partner based in Los Angeles, Parker is an owner-operator of the firm, charged with developing relationships with senior clients and working with them to improve profitability and performance, typically by defining and helping to execute large-scale transformations. Since January 1, she has led Kearney’s consumer goods and retail practice in the Americas.
Parker also holds a position as one of 11 members on Kearney’s board. The firm is distinguished by what she describes as a highly collegial culture, with a one-partner, one-vote approach to governance rather than top-down. “That creates a need for the type of person who can drive consensus and pull others toward their point of view,” says Parker, who says she is proud to have played a key role in partnership votes that have steered the company in a more nimble and decisive direction.
But Parker is proudest of her work with clients. One particularly satisfying experience came several years ago when she led a consultation with a major news organization. “We know how hard the publishing business is, and when we took a look through this company’s financials it was very clear they needed to make significant changes or the end was near,” Parker says. “It took about eight weeks, and it was one of the most intense and fun things I’ve ever done — figuring out a way for them to get enough runway so that they could be proactive and able to make decisions they wanted to make, as opposed to decisions they would have to make.”
The executive who led that client’s effort has gone on to become CEO of another media company; in addition to continuing to consult with Kearney from his new perch, he has referred other clients. “When the client is active in the decision process, succeeds and then has fond memories of the experience, that’s the best,” Parker says.
Compared to when she was starting, Parker notes, today’s clients have higher expectations — and they should. “They can hire out of top business schools, just like we can,” Parker says. “And the number of things you need to be proficient in has exploded. Problem solving has become more efficient, so you’re expected to do much more, much better, much faster. I always had to be on my toes as a young professional; I feel that way even more now.”
Substantial travel was always a given in Parker’s line of work, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a reassessment. “On the one hand, COVID taught us we can do a lot of the job remotely, and that we didn’t need to travel all the time,” Parker says. “On the other hand, nothing quite replaces being in the room and building relationships with clients as they show you their model. I think we’re still in the process of finding the right balance.”
As a board member, Parker helps to oversee Kearney’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion. Like many management consulting firms, Kearney has struggled to retain women as they ascend in their careers. “We often start to lose women right around the time they make manager or newer principal, and there’s been a concerted effort across the industry to stop that from happening by creating more flexible work models,” Parker says. That can mean allowing professionals to take time off when they have children, work part-time or fulfill internal roles to cut back on travel during certain periods of child-rearing. Parker, who has two young children, says that flexibility at Kearney made all the difference when she became a new mother.
Parker has also been a leader in Black@Kearney, the resource group for advancing Black professionals at the firm. The group, which predates Parker’s tenure at Kearney, grew significantly last year. Parker says her election to partner in 2016 made her Kearney’s first “home-grown” Black partner; now there are five. The police killing of George Floyd in the spring of 2020 served as a call to do more, leading Kearney to issue nine public commitments toward advancing social justice and racial equity, ranging from tripling Black leaders by 2025 to putting all employees through ally training. “I think what we’ve done is pretty impressive,” says Parker, a member of the steering committee that drafted the initiatives. “I always felt welcomed in this industry, but today there’s much more awareness and recognition that, in an ongoing war for talent, if you’re excluding portions of the population, there’s no way you can go to your client and credibly say you have the best people.”
Because of her many roles and responsibilities with the company, Parker says one of her biggest challenges is prioritizing. “You’re told about the importance of prioritization and how you manage your time when you start out as a young associate, and it all applies when you’re a partner as well,” she says. “Because my time is limited, it’s critical to make good judgments around what’s the most valuable use of that time and when I should hand to other people the opportunities that were handed to me.” Her biggest lesson on that front? “I’ve never regretted delegating sooner,” Parker says, laughing.
She says she’s also had to be careful not to merely fill the hours freed by delegating tasks with additional hands-on work. “It’s important to maintain some headspace so that I can step back and think more about clients and their issues, or about our firm, the practice and what we’re trying to do,” Parker says. “I grew up in the world of ‘do, do, do,’ but I’ve learned that big-picture thinking time needs to be blocked out.”
The same collegial culture that Parker has embraced at Kearney is what drew her to enroll in UCLA Anderson’s MBA program in 2001, four years into her career as a management consultant. “I wound up at Anderson because of Kearney,” Parker says. “In my initial projects, the first two people I worked for who I thought were great were Anderson alums. What I really appreciated was their collaborative style — the elbows were not sharp. I figured that because these individuals were my kind of people, Anderson was probably my kind of school.”
In the 20 years since Parker completed her MBA, that impression has been confirmed time and time again. “I have often picked up the phone to call classmates and say, ‘I’m not part of this industry,’ or ‘I’m not familiar with this problem; can you explain this to me?’” Parker says. “I continue to benefit from the Anderson network.”