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Kevin Sneader: “I want us to be more open about who we are”

During his first year as a McKinsey consultant in 1989, Kevin Sneader was told by colleagues to always have taxis drop him at least two blocks away from client offices. The reason? “Do whatever it takes,” he said, to protect the client’s confidentiality.

In an Amanpour & Company interview with Walter Isaacson that aired on September 24, our global managing partner shared that anecdote to illustrate our firm’s historical preference to avoid the spotlight—and to describe how we’re beginning to think differently.

We will always protect our client confidences, Kevin said. “But we can be more open about ourselves.” Read on for edited highlights from the conversation. The entire video is available at the Amanpour & Company website.

On “seeking the limelight” at McKinsey

I don’t think there are many previous global managing partners of McKinsey who’ve ever sat down to have this kind of conversation. We have historically been less than transparent, and that was all grounded in reverence for client confidentiality.

It was so pervasive that when I joined the firm back in 1989, one of the first things I got told was when you take a taxi to the client, make sure it drops you two blocks away from the client’s offices. I think times have changed. People want to know more [about McKinsey] We will still protect client confidences. We always will, but we can be more open about ourselves.

If you want to have your photo up there and be celebrated as a great success, go to Wall Street, don’t come to McKinsey.

You’ll find McKinsey is full of people who are, for example, sons and daughters of educators, as I am; my father is an academic, my mother is a teacher. Our people choose to do what we do because they want to help our clients succeed. This is not the place to be if you want to be in the limelight. If you want to have your photo up there and be celebrated as a great success, go to Wall Street, don’t come to McKinsey.

On long termism, business, and communities

I think the cliché of ‘doing well by doing good’ is true. If you look at this issue of short-termism, I think there’s no evidence that says those who take a short-term view ultimately do better. I think a long-term view inevitably leads you down a path that says crude metrics of just a few economic measures aren’t going to tell you whether the health of your business is going to endure. If the community is not doing well and society is not benefiting, ultimately, you’re not going to benefit [as a company] either.

On how he got into management consulting

I went to Glasgow University, the best university in the world I think. I was president of the student union, which meant we ran the largest bar in Glasgow. One night, I was clearing out the bar and sitting there was a printed brochure for McKinsey. I thought, “that’s interesting.” I sent them a letter and then went down to London for an interview. So, I’d love to tell you I always wanted to be a management consultant, but that would just not be truth.

On the automation and the future of work

We have a statistic: in 60 percent of today’s jobs, more than 30 percent of the tasks will be completely changed. It’s an industrial revolution, and ultimately more jobs will be created. But the real issue is what happens in this transition? How do you ensure that people get the skills they need to succeed? I’m an optimist. I think there’s a way through this that requires real investment in training and education.

On technology and the rise of global inequality

I think we have to remind ourselves that the nature of inequality is not straightforward. Why do I say that? There are 1.2 billion people who have actually been taken out of poverty in recent years. So the inequality between countries is actually narrowed. The developing world is catching up. However, within countries, inequality is growing. And to address that, I think there’s a lot of change that is going to have to be embraced.

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“We help clients solve their toughest problems,” Kevin Sneader told Walter Isaacson. “That’s still very true. But increasingly what we’re focused on is helping not just solve the problem but achieve an improvement in performance.”

One is a rethinking of education itself to ensure that it’s actually able to deliver the skills to cope with new technologies. And that’s not happening fast enough. I think there also needs to be a hard look at the way in which health care and the cost of education have risen. That’s also a big issue.

So there’s a number of places where I think we actually need to look hard at the way in which globalization is working in order to just allow it, to do what it does do well, which is actually promote and narrow the gap between countries. But within countries, it’s a real issue.

On our firm’s recent controversies

One of the first things I did when I came into the [managing partner role] was I flew to South Africa. I said we got some things wrong, badly wrong. We partnered with the wrong people. Secondly, the way in which we thought about the fees was just wrong. When it comes to that kind of work [in the public sector] we’re going to cap any fee upside because we recognize that it’s just not the kind of environment where you want to have those kinds of [success] fees in place.

We’re not going to do anymore work on opioids. We are now 100 percent focused on alleviating the crisis. We’ve invested a lot in having a look at how to bring people together to address this crisis, and if you look, you’ll see we’ve written quite extensively about the way [forward]. So, we have a lot to say about how that can be brought to a place in which communities work together to solve this terrible crisis.

It’s not in the world’s interest that Saudi Arabia be de-stabilized or unstable. Youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is 25 percent. Again, it’s not good if those people don’t have jobs to go to. So, I’m actually quite proud of the work we do in Saudi Arabia, and we are not engaging in work that I think touches on some of the issues that are more problematic about that country.

On how we think about serving government clients

Over the last couple of years, we have been looking again at the way in which we think about the activities in some countries and really try to draw some lines about where we will not work: we will not work in defense [in certain countries], we will not work in policing, for example.

I believe we should engage, but I also recognize that we should engage responsibly.

But let me say this: 61 percent of the world, according to Freedom House, doesn’t live in democracies. We, I think, have to decide whether to be engaged with the 61 percent who do not. I believe we should engage, but I also recognize that we should engage responsibly. We’ve put in place and are working through a series of measures to keep focus on ensuring we are on the right side of these issues.

On what he’d say if asked for advice on Brexit

Well, I’d remind myself and I’d remind the politicians that when you look at the United Kingdom, one of its great challenges is productivity. It has lagged Europe in terms of productivity for the last decade. And if you look at the United Kingdom, I’d say let’s remind ourselves what are the fundamental issues, whether you believe in Brexit or you don’t believe in Brexit, that this country needs to solve? You start with productivity and you look at the various elements that Britain needs to address in order to ensure that it is the successful economy that we all want it to be.

On McKinsey then and now

Well, we’ve been around since 1926. Originally, our insight was we take science and apply it to the art of business. We help clients solve their toughest problems. That’s still very true. But increasingly what we’re focused on is helping not just solve the problem but achieve an improvement in performance.

And so we have, over the years, built up a set of capabilities that allow us to help our clients think about how their business needs to change, what they need to do to take on that change, and over time transform themselves. That’s what we do today.