As president of Washington’s football team, Wright is calling on his experiences as an NFL player, business school graduate, and McKinsey partner to change an entrenched culture.
At a recent McKinsey Black Leadership Academy forum, Jason Wright addressed the nuances of steering the Washington Football Team—set to unveil its new name in early February—through a period of crisis and rapid transformation. In his conversation with McKinsey partner Sara Prince, he also discussed how his parents shaped his worldview, his skepticism of meritocracy, and the importance of crafting a personal story that resonates. “Tell your story in a way that helps others believe in and understand your value,” he says. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Sara Prince: Where and how did you grow up, and what were some of the formative moments that got you to where you are today?
Jason Wright: I grew up in Southern California just outside of LA, in a town called Pomona. My dad was a civil-rights activist turned salesman turned entrepreneur. My mom was the grinder in the background: a flight attendant who was flying turnarounds to JFK and Tokyo to allow us to pay our bills while my dad was trying to build a business.
Both sides of my family have a history of civil-rights activism. My parents believe strongly in expanding opportunities: for us as individuals, as Black individuals in our family, and for Black folks writ large. My parents always said, “We want our ceiling to be your floor.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but implicit in their ethos was the idea of economic opportunity. They saw that as the doorway to influencing society in a bigger way.
So I grew up with that in my mind. My parents also did all they could to insulate me from goings-on in my neighborhood that weren’t so great. They made sure I was in sports, in Boy Scouts—I didn’t ever have a free moment. They were helicopter parents for a reason. They had a purpose for it.
I ended up going to Northwestern University on a football scholarship. When I was heading into my sophomore year, I had a transformative experience: a teammate died on the field next to me during practice.
The pain and grief process I went through ultimately led me to a life of faith. All the lessons my parents had been trying to teach me, and that my coach had been trying to work into me, came together and I just matured as a person then and there.
At Northwestern, I met many people who were living lives of purpose, irrespective of their faith background. Living among that energy affected me in a positive way and led me to the NFL. I didn’t enter the NFL through the draft. I went to the NFL combine, ran really slow, and therefore was not drafted. I spent my first year and a half getting fired every other week. I think I was cut nine times in my first season and a half.
That was an incredibly important time for me. I was living in Atlanta and I ran out of money because you only got paid when you were on the roster. I ended up living in an extended-stay motel. And I thought at one point, “I’m not going to be able to pay my car note.” So I had to move in with my 80-year-old aunt and uncle on the east side of Atlanta, in Lithonia, and drive three hours to and from the practice facility in Flowery Branch.
That was my first moment to really be in the grind and to see that this didn’t come easily. To spend that year and a half being told you’re not good enough, and finding a way to reestablish your confidence, was really important for me and carried over into what I did outside of football.
I left football because I wanted a new challenge. During my off-seasons I did a lot of community work, and it struck me that understanding how to generate capital was crucial. Whether it was running an NGO [nongovernmental organization]or building a sustainable social business, you had to understand how business worked. You couldn’t just be a do-gooder like I was. So I decided to go to business school at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
To spend a year and a half being told you’re not good enough, and finding a way to reestablish your confidence, was really important for me and carried over into what I did outside of football.
Getting out of ‘robot mode’
Sara Prince: You’ve spoken about periods of your life when you had to do the grind, and periods when you were able to create, innovate, and explore. As you think about navigating those ebbs and flows, how did you prepare yourself for those creative moments? What did others do to help you?
Jason Wright: A lot of times we don’t see it ourselves because we’re nose to the grindstone. We’re just trying to get an A on the paper, we’re trying to deliver in our existing job. It’s easy to not take the step back and think about what we can do that’s bigger and broader.
It takes being in touch with people who are outside of your immediate sphere to be able to do that. And I think at every stage in my career, I did this well. I always had a church community; I had people I knew in the neighborhood; I lived in a modest apartment. That connected me to a broader set of perspectives that gave me a different angle on how I would see something.
I’ve fostered this network intentionally because I want to always have someone who can say to me, “Jason, why are you in robot mode right now? I think this is your moment to do something creative and bold.”
Sara Prince: You mentioned you got fired nine times before you succeeded in football. Why did you keep going?
Jason Wright: I just wanted it. I had committed to going after an NFL spot and until that was no longer an option, I went hard at it. I also think if I go back to my 22-year-old self, part of my motivation was not to shame the family name. I was thinking, “Look, I got close. Every one of my family would have dreamed of this.”
If I set a goal, I am obsessive about getting there. I will spend every waking moment thinking about how I can get there, even to a fault. Sometimes when I’m supposed to be playing with my kids, they’ll say, “Daddy, where did you go?” And I’ll say, “Oh, yep, sorry, let me come back.” I get obsessed with the near-term goal, and I get obsessed with the problem. And maybe you can excuse it because we’ve got plenty of stuff to work on here [on the team]. It’s not like we’re just cruising, so I’m pretty focused.
Sara Prince: What has influenced your thinking over the longer term? What were you envisioning for yourself?
Jason Wright: I’m always looking for a platform for influence. This goes back to my parents and the push that their ceiling is my floor. I’m always looking for opportunities to have an impact on society. I don’t know if I could have articulated it back then, but I knew that, as an NFL player, I’d have an outsize voice on things compared to other paths I might take.
As a partner at McKinsey, I had a platform to speak about racial economic equity at scale that influenced the public dialogue around diversity, equity, and inclusion in a way that felt very authentic. My point to organizations was that diversity affects the bottom line: “This is about the money, y’all. It’s not about the moral good, or your charity, or Black and Brown folks needing a hand up. This is good for your pocketbook, so please get on board.” That was the message that was core to my heart and that I was able to continue to work on and invest in.
I’m always looking for a platform for influence. This goes back to my parents and the push that their ceiling is my floor. I’m always looking for opportunities to have an impact on society.
And in classic consultant style, I had PowerPoint slides that included my mission and my vision. To me it’s important to have a concrete North Star. I like to have it written out. You don’t have to share it with folks; I wouldn’t share my current one because it’s very personal.
Having a concrete mission can anchor you when the unexpected comes along. It can help you navigate when you’re facing a messy decision or if there’s no right answer.
Sara Prince: How have you crafted your story, so people know who you are, what you stand for, and what you’re trying to accomplish?
Jason Wright: I think I knew how to tell my story in a way that got people to engage with me and get invested in my path. It’s not because I did something special or have a unique gift.
When I was getting fired every other week in the NFL, my agent and I got busy telling the 32 NFL teams why I belonged on their roster. I could rattle off to a coach or a scout what I brought to the table the same way an entrepreneur can rattle off their elevator pitch.
I told them, “Look, I’m not a perpetual starter, but I’ll save you three roster spots. I play fullback, tailback, and wide receiver. I’ll play all your special teams. I’ll be a stabilizing force in the locker room that provides good culture on your team, and I’m like a second coach on the field.” Boom: there was my value proposition, and I said it over and over. I always told my story consistently, ad nauseum.
People don’t hear your story as often as you play it in your head. The more they hear it consistently, the more they start to buy into it. They know what you’re after, and then it’s easy for them to understand how to engage with you.
This article first appeared in www.mckinsey.com
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