Every three years, our senior partners elect one of their peers to serve as global managing partner. The role is unlike that of a corporate CEO (for example, individuals serve a maximum of two, three-year terms) but the managing partner makes key leadership appointments and plays an important part in shaping McKinsey’s direction.
Bob Sternfels has been elected as our next global managing partner. When his first term begins on July 1, he will become the thirteenth leader of McKinsey since our 1926 founding. A senior partner who has worked with colleagues in nearly all of our 130+ offices around the world, Bob focuses on expanding McKinsey’s capabilities in digital and advanced analytics, while ensuring we continue to answer our clients’ most urgent needs amid times of rapid upheaval.
We spoke with Bob about his life and work—and how he plans to help McKinsey continue moving forward.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in place called Lodi, which is a fairly small agricultural town in northern California.
How did your upbringing shape your outlook?
Lodi at that time still had a tailwind from California’s growth boom in the 1950s and 1960s. Although it was a lower-middle income town, there was this feeling that you could achieve anything if you put your mind to it. I guess that stayed with me. I’m an optimist. I believe in potential.
Does that sense of optimism influence your leadership style?
I think so. My starting place is that we are a firm of leaders, and the partnership model works because we all assume the mantle of leadership as a governing thought. But do you really lead leaders? Or do you inspire and enable them? I aim for the latter.
People describe you as organized, proactive, and a systems-thinker. They also say you’re very direct. Is that fair?
I think that’s too generous! If I had to describe myself, I might go back to this notion of enabling people and what it takes to do so. I think part of that is being direct, and I would say that I’m pretty direct. I’ve always liked the saying, “Do what you say, and say what you mean.”
Aside from that, I really believe in distributed leadership and empowerment. We are a global firm that works in local contexts, and I think this notion of trust and empowerment enables speed.
Speeding things up can make them riskier. There’s been speculation in the press that your election is a reaction to the tighter client selection and risk management processes adopted by the firm over the last three years. How do you respond?
I reject that narrative. I’ve spoken to many of my fellow senior partners, and I don’t sense that there’s a rejection of our journey to work more responsibly. These reforms are not the work of any individual. They were voted on and agreed to by a body of senior partners, of which I’m a part.
I also reject the “or” in this notion that you can have a faster or safer firm. I believe you can have a faster and safer firm, and I think the origins of how you square that get into design. I come from an operations background; if you get the design of a product right, you don’t have to do recalls and modifications and so forth—it just works.
I think that's our next horizon: as we innovate, we create a firm that gets it right first time, as opposed to trying to figure it out later.
Leadership change, a global pandemic, and questions about the firm’s reputation and the work we do. What will it take for McKinsey to get this moment right?
I am determined to use this moment to make our partnership stronger, more inclusive, and better able to help our clients thrive in a fast-changing world. And I’m committed to build on the important changes that Kevin Sneader helped launch and our partnership embraced—and on the good work our firm does with our clients and in society.
You’re about to step into a hugely demanding role. What will energize you?
The thing that gives me the most energy every day is thinking about how I can help our clients—not whatever leadership role I’m playing in the firm. I expect that to continue. We take on leadership roles at McKinsey because it’s an obligation not because it’s a desire.
How are you thinking about advancing the progress we’ve made on diversity and inclusion?
First, I’m eager to build on the progress we’re making through initiatives like the Institute for Black Economic Mobility and our 10 Actions to combat racism in the workplace. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be treated as a separate initiative—it must be embedded into everything we do.
We need better mentorship among diverse groups to unlock phenomenal client leaders, and we want to focus on all of this as a signature process around everything we do when it comes to our people.
I plan to spend time looking across our processes, from evaluations to apprenticeship to leadership appointments, to ensure we are following through on our commitment to be an unrivaled environment for all of our people.
You played water polo at Stanford University. What did that experience teach you?
One of the great lessons I’ve learned is that irrespective of talent mix on a team you have to figure out how to work as a unit. A unit that works together that may not have a superstar can beat a unit that has a superstar but is not working as a team. This notion that a great team can beat great talent has stayed with me.
And, you know, sports aren’t easy—and water polo in particular is a pretty difficult sport, so there’s a resilience aspect. You will have setbacks. Leadership isn’t about avoiding setbacks—it’s about knowing how to pick yourself and others back up when you run into them.
What do you do outside of work?
My wife and I have three children, and I love to spend time with my family. I also love to fly. Both granddads were pilots in the Second World War and my dad was a pilot and had a small plane growing up. I started flying about 10 years ago. It's a wonderful stress-reliever.
Finally, how do you like to start your day?
I hit the gym, or run, or swim. I always start with some form of exercise. My wife and I used to run ultra-marathons. These days my knees can’t take the mileage, so I need to be more varied. I try to keep up with her on the road at the weekends, but that is proving harder and harder to do.