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McKinsey’s chief learning officer: “A teacher first”

Nick Van Dam

– A passion for learning runs through everything Nick van Dam does. McKinsey’s chief learning officer (CLO) oversees leadership development and skill building for our 25,000 people around the globe. He is also a visiting professor in corporate learning at both Nyenrode Business University, in the Netherlands, and the University of Pennsylvania. On top of that, Nick still finds time to lead e-Learning for Kids, a foundation he set up 12 years ago, in 2005.

“When I was a kid, I always thought I wanted to be a teacher—to help others to learn and grow,” Nick explains. “After more than 30 years in the field, it still excites me just as much today as it did then.”

And that’s no coincidence, according to Nick. “If you look at the research, there is a clear link between learning and leading a fulfilling life. Over the last 40 years, scientists have proved that previous assumptions that our capacity for learning diminishes as we age are not true. We now know that people can learn throughout their lives.”

What interests Nick most are the approaches that organizations and individuals take to learning and development. “Companies are starting to invest in professional learning as a strategic priority. Many are also using the latest technology to enable learning,” he says. But it is individuals who will need to take responsibility for their own lifelong learning, he believes, in light of the disruptive effect that automation and other trends will have on the future of work. “Studies show that people who maintain their ability to learn outpace others professionally,” he says.

Learning has always played a central role at McKinsey. Until the 1960s, consultants attended Saturday morning training sessions in our offices. Today a culture of learning is integral to who we are—we invest significantly in developing knowledge and building capabilities. Apprenticeship, our form of on-the-job learning, is a critical part of almost every colleague’s career development.

Children in Vietnam access free e-lessons in a range of subjects through the e-Learning for Kids platform, founded by McKinsey’s CLO, Nick van Dam.
Last year, Nick was a finalist in McKinsey’s own social-impact awards as the founder of e-Learning for Kids, which has helped educate over 15 million children, in more than 190 countries. Last year alone, students took 4.5 million online lessons developed by a global team of volunteers.

“My professional career has been built around learning, but it has always struck me that more than 100 million children never have the chance to go to school,” he recalls. Early on, he encountered skepticism about whether children in developing countries could access online learning resources, but the Internet’s growth made that possible. Today, developers in India and project managers in the Netherlands help run a truly global and virtual organization.

Never content to stand still, Nick wants to deliver a complete elementary-school curriculum, based on the International Baccalaureate standard, in different languages and across different technology platforms, including mobile and low-cost tablets.

“Whenever I go on holiday, I try to connect with users of e-Learning for Kids,” Nick says. “When I was in South Africa recently, one school principal allowed me to take over a classroom for half a day! But what really hit me was when he explained how the teachers themselves were using the e-lessons to improve the quality of their teaching.”