She is the first Filipina to become managing partner of a leading global management consulting firm, she is known by her maiden name even if she’s married. She knows her biological imperatives (she’s had her eggs frozen). She holds court in the boardroom.
Kristine Romano is perhaps the epitome of the modern woman, but she rose to the top the old-fashioned way - through hard work. “So I think, if I'm very objective, I did. I think everyone would say I always push myself harder than most, like my bar is higher than most. But I like the idea of being able to give your hundred and one percent.” Kristine shares, “There’s now this concept—the flow, you’re in your flow, you’re in your element. I feel like that when I am at work and I just enjoy the job which I think is also important. I think also part of being a Filipino is being adaptable regardless of what [lies in front of you]. People now call it resilience; like whatever your life throws at you, you just roll with the punches, and you grow from it, and have this growth mindset—and I think that's also very important. Just given the pressure you face in the job.”
McKinsey and Company, which Kristine joined in 2004 as its first hire out of the Philippines, is the world's biggest partnership. Its clientele are eighty percent of the world’s biggest corporations. The global company has 28-thousand employees with about 1,600 partners. It’s “structured much like a law firm.” Partners are elected the same way, back when there were only a hundred partners. “So it's a very global thing, to make partner,” says Kristine, “it's a sign of you meeting global standards; before that, you're a junior partner—which the way I interpret it, very loosely, at least in the region that you work in, like Southeast Asia, they say 'hey you have potential' kasi it's the regional guys that make you a junior partner. But to become a full-fledged partner, you're up against the guy from Peru, California and it's the same barrier.”
She also credits her journey to her ‘sponsors.’ “I used to take it for granted but now I see how complex it is to navigate any corporate setting. I think the role that they played behind the scenes, creating opportunities for me was so important. Sponsors go out of their way. They use their influence to create opportunities for you to pull you up. A mentor is just, ‘okay I'll give you advice, it's up to you, bahala ka.’ That’s the one thing I really appreciated about McKinsey.”
Were it not for them, Kristine says she wouldn’t have risen to a position she didn’t really aim for in the beginning, “There are people who sponsor you because they have to hit their target but the ones that I have, I call them "my mentors for life; like, I think honestly even if I left McKinsey they would still be helping me out. So like one of them, I went to grad school in the US for 2 years and he would still call me like every month, every other month and just say "hey, how are you doing?" Those people honestly made my career and I think I grew so much because of how they pushed me in there.” Kristine was elected partner in January 2017. She joined McKinsey in 2004, the first hire from the Philippines.
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More importantly, it was not until a female colleague in Singapore was elected partner that Kristine realized she can be one too, “I always thought ‘wow with all this travel, like, no way I can make a family, with work and all of that.’ But that's why for me, the power of role models is so underrated and again if you asked me ‘what was the biggest barrier to you?’ I would never have said ‘oh because I don't have role model.’ But now that I do, I realize pala, it was there.”
And now Kristine realizes, it might just be possible to have it all, as the conversation shifts to having babies. “Everyone tells me something is beautiful about it, so I don't deny that, it's just that when I also think about 'wow how my other colleagues do it' and I have tremendous women peers who just have given birth or are just coming back from maternity leave. So I say they are experienced, and I think ‘oh it's possible.’ I can barely survive on my stressful days when I'm not carrying another human being, so I can't imagine it but again, I see and I hear how others do it,” she says as she ponders the idea. She has after all, had some of her eggs frozen, just in case. “Also under discussion, I was telling my husband, if there was technology where you could carry the child, would you? Because for me I have no choice, I said if you had a choice, are you up to doing it, with all of the obligations you have, your travel schedule. I said sige, let's decide once there is technology,” Kristine laughs. Seriously she says, even surrogacy should be on the table, as she pushes the boundaries, ever the modern woman.
As head of McKinsey Philippines, Kristine has two targets: give more opportunities to Filipinos and women, “We have to put the Philippines on the map. By absolute size of the economy, we're the same as Malaysia. There are more Malaysian partners for example.” And for the time being, hectic as the job may be, it’s in the boardroom that Kristine can give free rein to her nurturing side. “That’s my goal which is the next generation, in fact I've already told some of them like ‘you can make this work’ and have had explicit conversation with the women around like ‘here's the path for you.’ That would be the dream for me and that's my building something here. Number 1, we put the Philippines on the map of McKinsey, globally. Number 2, the women here, also the men, see it as a viable career, cause I never did. So I feel like, I can show them ‘Hey guys, this is a great career path for you and you can keep on learning.’ It may be too early but that is the legacy I would love to leave for the Philippines. I'm also learning the joy of getting my kids here, when you see them succeed and go out in other countries and they are highly rated. So the Philippines actually always has these proportionately high performers, and I’m very proud of that. In Southeast Asia, people know that if you staff a Filipino on a project, they will thrive and they will do well.”
Photographs by Paul del Rosario