Mary Meaney: Reimagining how organizations operate for the future

We launched the third topic of our knowledge partnership with CNBC this week—reimagining organizations—as senior partner Mary Meaney explained how companies must transform the way they operate for the next normal.

We spoke to Mary about COVID-19’s impact on global organizations, the role purpose plays in reimagining how companies do business, and her work with clients as co-leader of McKinsey's Organization Practice.

Reimagining the way businesses operate

Reimagining the way businesses operate

1. What learnings have we uncovered during the COVID-19 crisis?

Given the acceleration of digital during the pandemic, companies have had to operate at a pace unimaginable before COVID-19. Now leaders want to understand how they can hardwire these behavior changes into the organization so that they remain stronger in the years ahead. A lifelong approach to learning will be an important factor to success: For example, technology skills are becoming obsolete faster because of the pace of digitization, so in order for organizations—and their talent—to thrive, it’s important to remain curious, have a learning mindset, and have an ability to reskill, renew, and innovate in an ongoing way.

2. What should organizations that want to reimagine the way they do business for the future ask themselves?

Even before the pandemic, there were many mega trends, such as digital, automation, an increasing focus on purpose, and changing consumer expectations, that were affecting global companies. COVID-19 has accelerated those trends. We’ve been looking at the three questions organizations who want to succeed over time must answer: First, on the simplest level, who are we? Organizations need to identify their purpose, understand how they create value, and develop a unique, purpose-driven culture. The second is: How do we operate? Companies that are more agile, have a flatter structure, make decisions faster, and put their talent into the critical roles are coming out thriving. And the third is: How do we grow? Organizations that have resilient ecosystems, the right technology and data platforms, and a learning mindset are far more likely to succeed and thrive over time.

3. In the CNBC segment, you said that having a “resonant purpose” has never been more important when it comes to motivating talent and driving deep change. Why has purpose become a critical priority for leaders?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, 82 percent of U.S. employees said it was important for organizations to have a compelling purpose—but only 42 said their company’s stated purpose had much effect. This year, as leaders have navigated the pandemic, they’ve realized they’re responsible for more than just shareholder value. Belonging matters, and we are all interconnected in ways we couldn’t have imagined before COVID-19. Leaders have also seen how their teams have shown up during the crisis to accomplish incredible things, and they won’t soon forget that impact. So I think the bar on purpose is only getting higher, but purpose has to go far beyond nice statements on posters in the office. Employees are really looking at how organizations operate and work to deliver on those commitments—and the choices and decisions their leaders make.

4. How are we seeing some of these themes play out with our own clients?

During a crisis, things tend to accentuate: Teams that were fragile have either come together to do amazing things—or they’ve fallen apart. The crisis has been an unfreezing moment for our clients. Through fast, high-quality decision-making, organizations have been able to transform at a pace that would have been unimaginable before COVID-19. And I think what’s really exciting is that our clients are now embedding some of these changes into the way they work to ensure they’re not just returning to the previous normal, but resetting their operating models to succeed and thrive.

5. You have been one of the leaders of McKinsey's research on women since its early days. How do you stay motivated even though change has been slow?

Part of is professional—we know diverse organizations outperform their less diverse peers—and part of it is personal. I have 6 children, including 5 amazing daughters. And I want to improve the world for them.

If we look at the statistics, we see that progress on diversity is variable at best: We see more women on boards, but we see all-too-few women CEOs or senior executives. And COVID-19 has made the situation worse: Our latest research shows that more and more women are considering leaving the workforce entirely, and the impact of COVID-19 on women of color is even more dramatic. Without real attention to this issue, many organizations will lose the progress they have made.

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