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“We live in one of the best times in history”

Philanthropy, conservation and structured problem solving: Two alumni unite their common interests.
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Charles Conn (left) and Rob McLean

In 1993, Charles Conn (TOR, SYD 90-95), a young EM, was staffed on a project for a major client. Also working on the study was Rob McLean (MEL, NYO 71-97), a long-tenured Senior Partner.

Their partnership on that work resulted in a long-standing friendship, a number of collaborations, and – this year – a new book on problem solving, which has been praised by some heavy-hitting current and former CEOs, including James Gorman of Morgan Stanley and Eric Schmidt of Google.

Rob is currently Chairman of The Nature Conservancy Australia, and Charles is CEO of Oxford Sciences Innovation and was, until recently, CEO of the Rhodes Trust. In a recent conversation, they spoke about their early work together, their shared passion for addressing environmental and social issues, and what makes their problem-solving book different from others.

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How did you first cross paths at McKinsey?

Rob McLean: We had a client where we were doing our first oil and gas work. Charles had worked in that area in Canada, so he was a natural to be assigned to it. It’s one of those pretty common experiences in the Firm, in that we were out of town doing an incredibly important piece of work for a major client of the office.

Charles Conn: That work led us to rethink how companies did growth strategy. We wanted to reconceive of this oil and gas company as an energy company and then, eventually, as something even beyond that. That led to what has been called The Growth Staircases, or Growth Horizons Framework, which was published as a book by David White (AUS, NYO, MEL 84-00), Mehrdad Baghai (TOR, SYD 90-90, 92-00) and Steve Coley (CHI 75-03) as “The Alchemy of Growth.”

What in particular stands out about working together?

Rob: The intensity of working together both with the client and on the outside. Besides doing this intense work, we also used to run together in the mornings. While we were running, I used to pepper Charles and other team members with questions. On one occasion, Charles said to me, "Rob, I can run or I can talk, but I can't run and talk."

Charles was elected Partner at the shortest tenure known in the Firm, reflecting just how capable he was. Barely six months after that, he got an offer to lead an internet startup. While I wasn't happy about losing somebody that we'd just elected, he was very persuasive and said he didn't feel he could ignore or pass up the opportunity. He felt the internet was like the invention of the wheel, and he had to be part of it.

Charles: One thing that always struck me about Rob was that, when you were talking to him, you were the only thing that mattered at that moment. He had an ability to set aside all the other things that were on his mind, like running the whole Australasia practice, to be totally present for you. I always hoped I could replicate that later on when I became a CEO: being completely present with whoever's in front of you so that you really can be of service to them. I always wanted to be that kind of leader.

After you both left McKinsey, how did you reconnect?

Charles: When I left the firm in 1995, Rob was an investor in my company, Citysearch. We eventually owned Ticketmaster and and other businesses. And, as Rob said, I got excited about doing conservation.

We quite naturally connected around using problem solving in conservation. What we discovered is that the seven steps to taking apart problems – starting with making sure you're working on the right problem, then using logic trees to disaggregate problems – works equally well in the arena of environmental and social problems.

Rob: We were never really out of touch. Charles started his philanthropic work with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation pretty much at the same time that I was involved in bringing The Nature Conservancy to Australia. There was some common work on the Palmyra Atoll between The Nature Conservancy and the philanthropic interest that Charles was representing. We stayed in touch during that time.

That brings us neatly to your new book, “Bulletproof Problem Solving.” The two of you read about 30 different books on problem solving to see what was lacking. What’s different about your book?

Cover of Bullet Proof Problem Solving
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Rob: We read all those books, and concluded that the book we wanted to write hadn't been written. We wanted our book to focus on the seven-steps process, which Charles had first codified when he was with the Firm in Canada, but we wanted to do it in a way that allowed the reader to see how the same process that we had used in business was applicable to individual issues.

The process is applicable to some of the most wicked social and environmental problems that we face. We ended up with 30 cases in all that range the spectrum from individual problems to how you set prices in a business.

Charles: Our desire was to have regular people become more confident problem solvers at every level. There are a lot of books that purport to be about problem solving or decision making, but very few actually provide a systematic framework for doing problem solving. Like, how should I think about what town to live in? Should I put solar panels on my roof? This is the sort of pragmatic problem that everybody wrestles with, and I think people often end up just going with their gut, because they assume that it’s too difficult to solve logically. What we tried to show in the book is that, with nothing more than pencil and paper and maybe a calculator, you can figure out really complicated problems on your own.

Illustration of people constructing a cube
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Another goal was to show people that even the most difficult problems that society faces today are amenable to straightforward problem solving. When you look at how politicized things like early-childhood nutrition, education, and the environment have become, mostly it's because people haven't sat down and figured out what the answers are. We actually know most of the answers on healthcare, education and environment, and regular people can come to a conclusion about those things with just a little bit of research and a logic tree.

What’s an example of how you’ve used your problem-solving method to address environmental concerns?

Rob: There is a measure called The Southern Oscillation Index that tells you whether you're going into, or are already in, an El Niño or a La Niña event. I worked with a statistician who looked at about 100 years of data and was then able to link this to water levels on Australia’s major river system. We were then able to link water prices to water storage.

Now, we have a water fund at the Nature Conservancy that trades water in the Murray-Darling Basin. It provides water security for farmers and protects culturally significant wetlands as well as species and ecosystems that are threatened by climate change. This was a really helpful practical application of the problem-solving approach that we use, and it’s resulted in a better understanding of Australia's climate and rainfall.

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The Murray-Darling river basin in southeastern Australia

You have both been involved in philanthropy and environmental conservation for a number of years. Why is that work so important to you?

Rob: I think it comes down to seeing how you can change lives and change entire landscapes. It’s all about the impact that you can have.

Charles: If you're a problem solver, you look at the things that threaten the opportunity for future generations to enjoy the same kind of lives that we've enjoyed.

We live in one of the best times in history, by almost any standard. We have great science; we live longer. The biggest threat to that is environmental degradation and climate change. The idea of doing what I can to help ameliorate environmental destruction seems like the right thing to do.

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