Kearney Partner Helps Consumer Companies Make Better Products

By the time Caitlin O’Keefe started eighth grade in Atlanta, she had lived in six cities across North America. It is no surprise that she chose consulting – a dynamic career with new projects always on the horizon, making it almost impossible to get bored. What is surprising is that Caitlin joined Kearney right after graduating from Northwestern with a degree in History and almost no experience using Excel, but the Kearney managers she met at an informational event saw a fire in her. That decision has paid off – Caitlin has been at Kearney her entire 16-year career and is now a partner in the Operations and Performance Improvement practice and is Global Lead of Kearney’s End-to-End Supply Chain Transformation group.

Current Role: A Passion for Relatable Consumer Products

Your LinkedIn profile describes your role as follows: “15 years helping some of the most iconic consumer products companies rebuild their supply chains to be more competitive, resilient and sustainable.” In simple terms, what do you spend your time doing? What are some examples of your daily responsibilities?

Every day, I live and breathe supply chain challenges and try to mitigate their impact on consumers. I  work with leading consumer product and beauty brands to help keep their products in stock and on the shelves. Here’s one example: A new CEO who leads a big household products company is facing significant market pressure, has significant excess inventory, and the company missed earnings the last two quarters. We are helping them rapidly improve margin in the near-term and reposition the company to be more efficient in the long-term. This includes launching a significant sourcing effort to lower pricing on direct materials, consolidate their manufacturing plants, and help redesign their distribution network so they ship goods faster and deliver better service at a lower cost. As consumers, we often don’t think about how complex and long global supply chains are, but a failure at any point in the supply chain means we can’t find our favorite face cream or ice cream flavor when we want it. It’s frustrating for the consumer and for the brand.

What attracted you to consulting?

I fell into consulting by accident. I was in my senior year at Northwestern and, as I was starting my fall semester senior year, a good friend said, “We have to get our resumes together and apply for banking or consulting.” I started going to on-campus information sessions, and I knew pretty quickly that I didn’t feel passion for banking, but I was excited to discover that consulting was about being curious and solving problems. The idea of doing that full-time for a job sounded exciting.

When I went to a Kearney session, I hit it off with two managers who had joined the session to talk about why they picked Kearney. They were easy to talk to, and they clearly loved the firm. At most of those sessions, you talk to people for 5-10 minutes, but we ended up chatting for over an hour. I submitted my resume, and a week later, a recruiter called and said, “Based on your resume alone, you don’t have any of the qualifications that we typically look for in an analyst, but we think you would be a great fit at Kearney and you have the fire to learn.  Can you go back to your resume and revise it to include your analytical and quantitative strengths?”

That was something special about Kearney – they felt like I would be a good fit so they took the time to  give me the opportunity to revise my resume so I could get the chance to interview. After I got the interview slot, I prepared like crazy for the case study because I knew I wouldn’t get a second chance if I didn’t do well on that. Luckily, it worked out, and Kearney offered me a job as a business analyst. Before starting, I had never opened an Excel spreadsheet, but I bought the book “Excel for Dummies” over the summer and gave myself a crash course.  I was going to do whatever it took to be successful as a new consultant.

That was something special about Kearney – they felt like I would be a good fit so they took the time to  give me the opportunity to revise my resume so I could get the chance to interview.

How did you get into consumer products and supply chain?

I was drawn to consumer products because I use them every day, and I’m attached to them as a consumer.  In particular, I spend a lot of time helping beauty brands. I love being a consumer of my clients’ products.  Early in my career, I did project work for oil and gas and chemicals clients. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had more passion for solving supply chain issues for my favorite lipstick or shampoo. I’m using these products every day so I’m even more invested in the outcomes of my work.

After three weeks at Kearney, I was sent to Amsterdam to help a client source flexible packaging for their breads and bakery products. I didn’t know you could create so much value through bread bags! I had a manager who wasn’t constrained by standard ways of solving problems, and it was eye-opening for me. It helped me understand that in consulting, your role is to challenge how your clients are thinking about their problem and to push them to transform. This is how you create real value that they couldn’t create on their own.

What characteristics does someone need to be successful in a role like yours?

Intellectual curiosity is number one. Day in and day out, you are solving problems so you need a hunger for challenging yourself and a willingness to embrace a steep learning curve. You need to take a client’s complex, ambiguous challenge and frame a set of hypotheses that can quickly be tested to identify the right approach. It never gets boring because every challenge is unique. Passion is the second thing because it’s what gets you up in the morning. I like working on products because I use and care about them. The third thing is to be collaborative. In doing this now for almost 16 years, I know that results only stick if a client is invested in the outcome and collaborates on a solution with you.

Day in and day out, you are solving problems so you need a hunger for challenging yourself and a willingness to embrace a steep learning curve.

What is your favorite part of your job? 

Above all, building relationships with clients and helping them succeed. After many years of working together, clients become friends, too. When you invest in their success, they invest in your success. too. Second, this role has created opportunities for me to travel the world – I’ve worked in Amsterdam, Zurich, Paris, London, China, and Southeast Asia. Having the opportunity to work and live in so many  cultures has shaped me both as a businesswoman and as a person.

What is most challenging?

I never quite know what I will be doing each week because the unexpected comes up. I have to be flexible and ready to change travel plans, and I’ve also gotten comfortable working from unconventional places when I travel – the airline lounge, the Uber, the subway. I’ve done it all.

Early Years: Getting Comfortable with Change

Where did you grow up?

My father was a CEO at several different industrial products companies, and we moved around as he was promoted into new roles. I lived in six cities (Evanston, IL; Rogers, AR; Providence; Montreal; St Louis; and Atlanta) during my school years. Part of that experience influenced my attraction to consulting. Having moved a lot, I am energized by change and the challenges of adapting to a new environment or new client.

Is there anyone in your life (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, employers) who particularly influenced your educational or career path?

I always admired my dad, and his success as a CEO at a relatively young age was part of my decision to go into consulting. I wanted to be an advisor to executives like him. When I got my offer from Kearney, he encouraged me to accept. He’d worked with many consulting firms, and he told me that he trusted Kearney, and I would have the opportunity to deliver real impact at an early stage in my career.

Did you ever dream about a different career?

The only thing I remember was wanting to be like my dad, but I didn’t know how to get there. In some ways, I fell into consulting, but I was lucky to fall into an industry that I’ve grown to love. My passion for helping clients keeps me motivated. Finding that passion is the most important thing you can do.

My passion for helping clients keeps me motivated. Finding that passion is the most important thing you can do.

 What was your very first job (where you had a W2)? What did you learn from it?

The only job I had before Kearney was a counselor at Fleur de Lis camp in New Hampshire. It’s an all-girls’ camp, and I started going as a camper when I was nine.  My summers there gave me independence from a young age, and I developed self-confidence through trying and excelling at new things, like target riflery. I was a counselor for three years, and in my third year, I was asked to be the Head of Waterfront. It was one of my first leadership roles, and I was accountable for the safety of the all campers and staffers when they were on the lake. The position at camp helped me recognize how much I enjoyed leading, which set me up for my leadership roles at Kearney.

Career Path: Ask Questions and Believe in Yourself

After getting a degree in History and French at Northwestern, how did you make the leap to consulting?

I started as an analyst so every day I was learning. On my first project, my manager was very patient with me and answered all my questions, no matter how small. His style influenced how I lead others. I always create time to sit with my teams, get into the details, and provide feedback because I want the team to learn and the outcomes to be successful.

What is it about Kearney that makes it a satisfying place to have a career and has kept you there for 16 years?

There are many of us at Kearney who started as analysts and are now partners so I’m not really an anomaly. The firm and my mentors want me to be successful, and they continue to care about my development. Even as a partner, I always say, “I am never the smartest person in the room at Kearney,” and it’s exciting to be surrounded by colleagues who challenge me to think bigger and bolder.

Looking back, has there been a pivotal moment or decision when you said “yes” that took your career in a new direction?

When I was a new manager, a senior partner, Fred Eng, put me on a project where I had to help a food manufacturer rethink their contract manufacturing strategy. This was a new and uncomfortable topic for me.  Despite being very busy, Fred helped me frame the hypotheses and provided guidance during the project.  He cared about delivering great work for the client and helping me become a better consultant in the process. Since then, he has been a mentor, and for nearly 10 years we have helped many clients transform their supply chains. He was instrumental in helping me believe that I had what it takes to be a partner at Kearney, and I probably would have left Kearney as a manager if we hadn’t worked together on that project.

Supporting Women: Creating a Spotlight for Women

What advice do you have a for a young woman just starting out in her career in business?

Three things: 1. Visibility and exposure are as  important as performance. In my own career, mentors like Fred helped create a spotlight for me and encouraged me, and I also had to also create it for myself. I give this advice to my mentees: You need people to know your name and you need to take up  space in the room. 2. Have a flexible mindset. Even when something is tough, look for the silver lining.  It’s the gritty, exhausting  moments, when we keep going even when we want to quit, that make us strong. 3. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. It is okay to run slower sometimes and faster other times. I see people burn out quickly because they are pushing so hard and not thinking about the long-term picture.

I give this advice to my mentees: You need people to know your name and you need to take up  space in the room….It’s the gritty, exhausting  moments, when we keep going even when we want to quit, that make us strong.

What is about Forté’s mission that makes you want to support our efforts?

I am very familiar with Forté because Kearney has been a corporate partner for many years. and we have recruited some of our most interesting and successful women at Kearney through Forté. The more women support other women, the more opportunities there are for us to get to the top. We need more women in senior leadership roles in consulting and across Fortune 500 companies. To grow into leadership roles, women need to believe early in their careers that they have the potential to one day become a leader.  My role as an advisor, partner, and mentor is to reinforce that belief in the women I work with.

Your bio says you lead the Women in Operations Network at Kearney. What does that role entail, and why is it important to you?
I have three leadership roles at Kearney. One focuses on DEI, one is for women in supply chain, and the other is for women in operations and performance improvement. We focus on events, mentorship, and networking for women in these areas and help them learn from each other and grow their careers.

Personal Passions: Fine-Tuning Her Athletic Pursuits 

Is there anything on your “bucket list” you’d be willing to share?

I love working out. Barry’s Bootcamp is my absolute favorite fitness class, and I try to run at least one marathon or half marathon per year. I’m planning to run the New York Marathon again this year and improve my time. I also love swimming, so I’ve been toying around with the idea of training for a half Iron Man. It would be a big commitment, but I’m curious about the challenge. The other thing I love is skiing, which I just started seven years ago. Next year, I plan to go to a women’s ski clinic so I can push myself to keep getting better.

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