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An alum builds a launching pad for leaders at an inner-city school system

Former Ombud Ralph Johnson wants his Breakthrough Schools to become known for creating future stars in the education sector.
Image of Ralph Johnson
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Ralph Johnson (CLE 92-97, 01-21) is a familiar face to many current and former Firm members. For nearly 10 years – from 2012 through 2021 – he was Ombud for the Americas, helping colleagues who needed thoughtful, confidential advice and counsel. Other roles Ralph held at the Firm include Director of Professional Development for the Americas Operations Practice, and Director of Operations for the Social Sector Office.

No matter what specific role he was serving in, though, there was one common thread: the desire to make a positive impact in people’s lives, particularly those who found themselves in challenging circumstances.

Ralph has taken that to his post-McKinsey life. In 2021, he left McKinsey to become CEO of Breakthrough Schools, a nonprofit organization that runs ten public charter schools in historically underprivileged areas of Cleveland, Ohio. We spoke with him about what he loves best about his role, why he wants the schools to be a launching pad for leaders, and how the Firm has influenced the way he works.

Students, class of 2035
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Tell us about what you do at Breakthrough Schools.

Breakthrough is a network of ten public charter schools in Cleveland. All of our schools are in the inner city, and our kids by and large come from the neighborhoods around where they are located. We're a Kindergarten-through-8th-grade network; we have five schools that are K through 4 and five schools that are 5 through 8. We serve about 3,100 kids here in Cleveland.

The schools were founded 13 years ago, and I succeeded the founding CEO a little over a year ago. I did a lot of pro bono work with Breakthrough and with its predecessor schools while I was at McKinsey. And my son attended a Breakthrough middle school too, so I was quite familiar with the organization when I joined.

I'm in charge of helping chart the next decade of Breakthrough's growth. McKinsey is quite missional and values-centric but running a public organization that is missional in this particular way – educating kids – is really different. It’s cool to be a part of that.

What is your favorite part of your role? What do you enjoy the most?

What I enjoy most about this is I really believe in education. I believe in education's power to lift folks. And I'm right in the middle of it.

The second things is that I work with a really good team. I have a team of six chiefs who report to me, and I have been able to rebuild that team with some key additions.

Finally, whenever I'm having a bad day I just walk into one of our schools. There’s one right across the parking lot from our network office. I don't care what's going on, you cannot be unhappy when you walk into a kindergarten room, or when you're helping a first-grader tie their shoes. Kids notice everything. They’ll say "Oh, I like your tie, Mr. CEO," and the middle school kids will ask, "What kind of boots are those you're wearing?" You can't be in a bad mood when you're around that.

Image of Ralph Johnson and a student
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Is that what the kids call you? “Mr. CEO”?

They call me a lot of things. There's a group of them who call me Mr. CEO. Whenever I go to visit schools, I wear a suit. So, I get a lot of "Mr. CEOs”, and I get a lot of "Obamas." That's what the middle school kids at two schools call me – "Hey, Obama."

Where do you see Breakthrough Schools in ten years?

I see Breakthrough having expanded our reach, and that could mean a bunch of different things. It could mean more kids in the schools we have. It could mean more schools, or it could mean reach outside of the geographic bounds of Cleveland. Those are all strategic questions that we'll have to figure out.

One of the things that I am very keen to make sure happens here at Breakthrough is that we become known as a place that grooms and grows leaders for this sector. I want people to say about us, "This place knows how to grow executive talent." I'm purposeful about that, and I want us to be known for that. It'll be a pain, but I want other charter networks or public school networks to come and hire away the best of our people for bigger roles at their place.

During your long tenure at McKinsey you held a number of different roles: consultant, Professional Development director, Americas Ombud. How does the work that you did at the Firm influence the way that you work now?

I have used all three of the major roles I've had at McKinsey in the 14 months I've been here at Breakthrough. One thing I learned as a consultant is that when you do good analysis, it makes people ask that next-level, deeper question. It's a great thing, and it’s something I'm getting my team and our board comfortable about. It's not a good thing when you present a bunch of data and you don't get any “what about…” questions.

I've also shamelessly stolen the SAR process from McKinsey. We started doing it a couple of months ago. I brought that from my Professional Development experience – the importance of competencies, the importance of rigor around them, and the importance of transparency to lift everybody's performance.

Then, being Ombud taught me a lot, especially as I interact with any of our staff who might be having a particular challenge that they're dealing with, or with any of our students’ families. At least once a week, I'm out on the sidewalk in front of one of our schools, greeting kids when they get out of the car or school bus, I'm talking to their moms and dads, thanking them for sending their kids to Breakthrough.

And occasionally somebody will tell me about an issue they want to discuss with me. The skill I learned as an Ombud is listening with lots of empathy, making sure I really understand what their issue is, and helping them think about how they might be able to address the issue themselves. And when they can't, being clear with them about what I think I might do around it. I'm very careful to make sure people know I'm not going to solve their problem out on the street. But my skill as an ombud helped me find the right words about that.

Image of Ralph Johnson and young girl
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Where does your keen interest in helping people come from?

I always remember when my dad said to me when I was a kid, "When you succeed without suffering, it's because somebody else has suffered before you. And if you're really blessed in your life, you'll be in a position at some point to suffer on behalf of somebody else."

So, if you find yourself in that position, do it. Not that I feel that the work I did at McKinsey or that I do at Breakthrough is particularly “suffering.” But the example I saw from my dad and mom really did sharpen in my own mind this idea that the highest and noblest thing we can do in our lives is help other people.

And perhaps the best thing we can do is to help people who really don't have a lot of other people trying to help them, or who probably aren't able to reciprocate. You don’t expect anything back.

Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

The last thing I want to add is that I am really, really proud of our Firm. When I joined in 1992, I think there were around 3,000 consultants in the firm, and probably around half of them were in North America, something like that. At the time there were only 22 Black consultants.

To see the intentionality with which McKinsey has changed that number and that percentage, all the way to include things like interviewing a Black alum for Black History Month, is really cool. It makes me proud to be part of the Firm, and proud to feel like I was part of helping that happen in the Firm.

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