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Six highlights from a conversation with the CEO of Carlyle Group

Alum Kewsong Lee shares timely advice on leadership, company culture, diversity, and more.
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Kewsong Lee, CEO of the Carlyle Group

Kewsong Lee, CEO of global investment firm The Carlyle Group, remembers many things from the four years he spent at our Firm. Among those is his FMNO.

"It all started with [****]," he joked.

With nearly $250 billion of assets under management, Kew is pretty busy. Even so, he took some time to join us for a recent Friday lunch. From the wide-ranging conversation about leadership, company culture, diversity, and more, came a few notable highlights—check them out below.

The leadership skills Kew learned at McKinsey still inform his leadership style.

“I owe a lot to my experience at McKinsey, because I think it was quite formative. In my business, you can’t underestimate how important it is to have a clear-thinking perspective to truly understand the very essence of a problem.

Then there’s also the whole notion of being a catalyst for change and understanding what needs to happen in an organization to drive change. These were skills that I started to pick up at McKinsey. I’m trying to push Carlyle to have more lateral thinking, horizontal connectivity, and I imagine a management structure that is lateral as opposed to vertical in terms of execution. All of these ideas were really put into my brain in the four years I was at McKinsey.”

Creating a diverse and inclusive culture enables Kew’s firm to make better decisions.

“The essence of investing well is about making great judgements. You cannot make great judgements unless you have a diversity of perspectives and input to enable you to come to the best decisions. And so, for me, having a culture which is incredibly inclusive and is seeking out diversity of experience, diversity of background, diversity of perspective, only helps you make better decisions.

At the end of the day, that’s really the only way we can differentiate ourselves over the long term in terms of performing.”

The pandemic can be a catalyst for positive change in corporate culture.

“It’s easy to come to the conclusion that it’s not good if we’re not interacting, and if we’re not in the office where there’s spontaneity. But in large part, with a lot of your team’s helpful thinking, I am thinking through whether or not physicality is a real necessity to push and develop culture. If you can use Zoom right, I think it might actually be great for change and great for culture, because Zoom has a great way of actually democratizing and creating a lot of engagement that never could have happened ever before.

The ability to include different perspectives and to create much more participation, I think, is enhanced by Zoom. Especially if leaders take it upon themselves to use Zoom to call on people and allow them to have their voice heard.”

The most valuable thing you can offer is keen judgement.

“But I have a lot of faith that the most valuable skillset is still somebody who has incredible judgement and an ability to see a lot of different things and figure out what’s really important and what’s not really important. ‘What’s the noise that I can just ignore and what do I have to really focus in on?’

Having that broader mindset and an ability to integrate quickly with great pattern recognition and understand what’s really going on here is so critical. I wouldn’t break it down really to a cultural, regional or technical skillset. I think the most valuable asset is still a person with incredible judgement. It’s a combination of IQ and EQ. It’s not any one little thing, but that type of a leader is so valuable.”

There is a major difference between investing and managing.

“A great investor makes really important decisions infrequently. But the consequence of those decisions is exceptionally large. And so, the mentality is one of understanding when you need to make the decision and playing optionality so that you have as much information as you can because the consequence of making the wrong decision is huge.

I think when you are managing, you do every once in a while, make some very large, big strategic decisions. But there is also an aspect to your job, which is you need to make a lot of frequent decisions. Any of which may be seemingly small, but organizations don’t run effectively if good managers aren’t able to constantly make decisions to ensure that people know what they are supposed to be doing and people know where they are supposed to be going.”

Understanding government is going to be increasingly important.

“I think understanding government is going to be even more important moving forward than ever before because of the geopolitics of it. We’re all going to have to search for new paradigms as to how government, corporate leadership, and other major voices need to come together to figure out how to push the nation forward.

I think one of the most disruptive elements of technology is what’s happened to media, the channels, how we receive information. And subconsciously, how we choose to collect our own information, which I think has really upended the way we all get information and how information is communicated. And I think to a large extent that has impacted the ability of business leaders to speak up and the ability of government leaders to push on agendas.”

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