Adam Whybrew

Partner and Director – Boston Consulting Group

Adam founded the Boston Consulting Group’s Asia Pacific advanced analytics function 10 years ago, and has specialized in applying analytics to personalized marketing since then. After recovering from depression while working, he has tried to ‘give back’ for the help he received at the time, and to help others in similar situations realize they don’t need to feel this way, that professional help does indeed help a lot, and to feel that they are not alone and this isn’t the end of a successful career. When he’s not doing this, you can find him tinkering with electronics projects in his workshop, or playing computer games with his daughter.

1. In a nutshell, please tell us a little about your career journey until this point.

I’m a Partner with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Sydney, Australia. I established our advanced analytics function in Asia Pacific. I originally trained as a laser physicist in the UK, with an ill-fated PhD leading to a job in a laser manufacturing company, in which I found I enjoyed the business aspects much more than the science.

A move to Australia for love in 2002, a job with CogState (a company which measures how fast and accurately people make very simple decisions), and an MBA led me to an internship at BCG 16 years ago and I’ve been there ever since.

2. Who is your role model and why?

Jacinda Ardern, former Prime Minister of New Zealand. She emphasized compassion in her leadership – giving a COVID briefing for children, and wearing a headscarf in solidarity with Muslim citizens after hate-crime murders. She showed that work-life balance is possible when she had a baby while in office, and unlike most politicians, she accepted when to stop and left on her own terms.

“She emphasized compassion in her leadership”

3. What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and what’s your greatest career achievement?

The riskiest things I’ve done have involved trying to do things alone. The professional loneliness of a PhD contributed to my first episode of depression. And during my second episode I didn’t admit to myself that I had a problem nearly soon enough, which meant it took a crisis for me get help. When I did raise my hand I was surprised at both the extent and effectiveness of the support I received.

In contrast, when I built BCG’s advanced analytics team in Asia-Pacific, I did the exact opposite of going it alone. As I hired more people with specific skills and applied them to new business problems, we all derived satisfaction from what we learned from each other and how we were able to support our colleagues. For the first five years or so nobody left the team.

4. In a short sentence – what would you tell your 18-year-old self if they could see you now?

If you get miserable, get professional help because you don’t need to feel like that, you won’t always, and it responds to treatment.

5. How has your personal journey shaped the way you navigate your career?

I have a clear “before” and “after” my second episode of depression, which happened about 10 years ago and was the first time I got effective help.

Before, I let work become by far the most important thing in my life, both doing it and thinking about it more and more of the time. I was successful, but I ignored the growing symptoms of a looming problem. When I got to the point of waking up early every morning and vomiting, and being unable to speak coherently until late morning, I finally got help.

And what a difference it made. I learned to enjoy my life again, I worked less hard, and I ‘switched off’ each day and at weekends without feeling any guilt. My wife had seen how hard I’d worked before and was convinced I’d get fired. In fact, I became a Partner at BCG.

6. What is one myth or misconception surrounding mental health that you want to see debunked?

That mental health problems are always and only an affliction that gets in the way of success at work, especially in leaders. I would have thought the same until it happened to me.

I wouldn’t wish my experience of depression on anyone – I felt alone, miserable, and scared. But with professional help, I bounced back better – in myself and in my relationships with colleagues. For example, being open about it with my colleagues helps build psychological safety in my teams; this is known to be an important driver of team success.

7. How has connecting globally with people in other countries/regions influenced your thinking or approach?

I’ve observed that it’s individuals who make the difference much more than anything else. The people who show empathy and can have difficult but supportive conversations are not confined to (for example) specific countries, cultures, races, genders, job-functions, seniority, religions, or expertise. Conversely, having a role or identity which means somebody “should” be sympathetic does not always mean they are. In deciding who to disclose a problem to, trust in that individual is more important than most other considerations.

8. How do you think driving inclusion in your country or region differs from other parts of the world? Are there unique challenges or opportunities?

Australia gets called the ‘lucky country’ and by and large we are – with a very high average standard of living, an effective, if stretched, public health system and a culture which is generally open to diversity and often celebrates it. This isn’t true for everyone – two groups who face entrenched discrimination and disadvantage in Australia are aboriginal people and refugees who arrived by boat. We have a long way still to travel.

9. What are two pieces of key practical advice that you would give business leaders and allies to drive inclusion for mental health in business?

Firstly – encourage treatment. Mental health problems are often both temporary and treatable, and the treatment makes a huge difference to the individuals who need it. Make help available, rapid, free, and confidential and encourage people to access it.

Secondly – talk about it. If you can find people who are happy to share their experiences, whether publicly, privately, or both – do so. If you have people who are struggling, do not be afraid to talk to them about it if they want to. It may be very uncomfortable, but you won’t regret it.

Mental health problems are common; we win by accepting the world as it is and doing something about it.