Author Talks: Suzanne Heywood rides the waves of resilience

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Carolyn Dewar chats with Suzanne Heywood, chief operating officer of Exor and chair of CNH Industrial and Iveco Group, about her new book, Wavewalker: Breaking Free (HarperCollins, October 2023). Rather than being defined by adversity, Heywood shares how experiencing childhood challenges and grappling with isolation paved the way for resilient leadership. An edited version of the conversation follows.

How did your journey begin?

The journey began when I was six years old and my father suddenly announced one morning that we were going to sail around the world; he wanted to follow Captain Cook’s third voyage around the globe. My maiden name is Cook, but we’re not actually related to him, at least not as far as I know.

My father had this dream that we were going to recreate this voyage around the world and commemorate Captain Cook. It was a wonderful excuse to raise money to do this voyage, because we weren’t particularly wealthy. We set sail when I was seven years old, about a year after he made this announcement.

What was the journey supposed to be? And what did it end up being?

It was supposed to be a three-year journey. Captain Cook’s third voyage, his last, took three years and it ended in Hawaii, where Cook was, sadly, killed. We were supposed to recreate the third voyage, going down to South America, across to South Africa, across to Australia, all the way up to Hawaii.

What my father said was, “You’ll be back by the time you’re ten years old. You’ll come back and go back to school, see all your friends,” and my dog that we were leaving behind. That was what the voyage was supposed to be.

What it turned into was a ten-year voyage, in fact, pretty much all of my childhood. It turned into something that started off as a huge adventure and, increasingly—particularly to me as teenager—became a bit of a a prison where I really struggled to have friends and educate myself.

For many people the idea of sailing around the world sounds like a dream.

In some ways it is a dream. I saw some incredible things when I was a kid. At one point, and I talk about this in the book, we sail past an exploding volcano. We met people in very remote islands around the world.

I got to experience lots of different cultures. Sailing is a kind of magical thing when the weather is good. But the reality of sailing is it also involves—particularly if you’re going around the world—very, very long periods of being at sea where very little happens. If you’re a child on a boat and you’re sailing on a six- or eight-week voyage—which sometimes we were—that’s six to eight weeks of sometimes being stuck below deck, not being able to come up on deck because the weather is too bad.

Obviously, you’ve got very limited space, so very limited kinds of toys. It’s very difficult to get an education. I also remember long periods of boredom. And, of course, we were also in physical danger. We were very badly shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean. We had several other moments where we were in quite a lot of physical danger.

The biggest thing from my past which shaped me as a leader is being calm and resilient. One of the things that you learn being at sea and you learn when you’re in life-threatening situations, which I was multiple times as a child and as a young adult, is you can’t panic when you’re under threat.

What was that like, as a family, to be sort of trapped together?

It evolved over time and the dynamic in the family changed over time, because we’re all cooped up on this 69-foot boat. Which sounds like a big boat, but it’s not a big space to live in for a decade, and it’s very narrow. She was about 12 feet wide, so quite a small space, particularly because later on we were also taking multiple crew onboard. They were paying money to come onboard, and that was how my dad was financing the boat.

So it started off as being quite a tight-knit little family. But over the years we started to fall apart. And for me that’s the most interesting part of the whole experience, going back and trying to understand how all those family dynamics started to unravel.

My relationship with my mother in particular deteriorated once I became a teenager. My father would always support my mother. He was mainly focused on the sailing and actually had very gendered ideas of what a boy and a girl should do. So my brother had a much better experience of it than me, because he was allowed to go on deck and do stuff with the sails. He was my mother’s favorite child. I was expected to work below deck, cooking and cleaning.

What were the most difficult moments?

There were a number of them. I think the most difficult moment was when we were shipwrecked in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The whole pretext of this voyage was that we were following Captain Cook around the world; he sailed the wrong way around the world. And the southern Indian Ocean, which is between South Africa and Australia, is the most dangerous ocean in the world. People are amazed that somebody would set sail with two tiny children onboard across that ocean, which is what we did.

I was seven and my brother was six at this point. But halfway across that ocean we encountered a terrible storm that built up for a number of days, and eventually a wave smashed through the deck of the boat and out the side of the boat.

I was very badly injured. I ended up with a fractured skull and a broken nose and a big blood clot on the brain. Eventually we found a tiny island where we managed to patch up the boat a little bit and I was operated on, but with no anesthetic. That kind of haunted me for years afterward.

Tell us about your education journey that followed.

I realized that education was going to be my way to escape from the boat. I don’t quite know how I figured that out. There were people coming on the boat who had some education, and I think I understood that that was a kind of possible means of escape from something that really became increasingly like a prison over time.

I got myself enrolled in a correspondence course so I could teach myself by post, but of course that was very difficult on a boat, because the one thing that you don’t have, if you live on a boat, is an address because you’re sailing from place to place. So I would ask my father where we were going next, and I would send off my lessons and I would ask them to send the lessons back to the next place we were going to go to. But often my father would change his mind on where we were going, and I would never get the lessons back.

And, of course, there was almost no space onboard to study. My relationship with my mother became so difficult as I became a teenager that she would actually try to interfere with me trying to study. She really wanted me to work on the boat and cook and clean, and not waste my time studying. But I was very determined to do it. Eventually, when I was 16, my parents decided to leave me and my younger brother, who was 15, alone in New Zealand, and they sailed off, leaving us behind.

They did that because they wanted my younger brother to go to school in New Zealand. They were concerned about his education. So they left me looking after him. And that, in a way, was the most difficult year of all, because I was on my own, looking after my younger brother. We were in a very isolated place. But I remained really determined to educate myself, and I started writing letters to universities that I’d heard of all around the world.

I was obviously making up the addresses. It was kind of preinternet. But [University of] Oxford wrote back and Oxford said, “Send us a couple of essays and then come to an interview,” and that’s eventually what I did.

How was your Oxford experience?

The experience of going from the boat, or from this hut that I’d lived in in New Zealand for about nine months after leaving the boat, to Oxford was very difficult, actually. I thought the social side was going to be wonderful. For the first time in my life I was going to be surrounded, for an extended period of time, by people my own age that I could socialize with. And what I found, much to my surprise, was that the academic side was tough but actually perfectly doable.

I just couldn’t get over the fact that I could sit in a lecture hall and somebody would tell me stuff and I could ask questions. And I could learn in the way that everybody else had been able to learn. It was just amazing. I remember being so excited about how available knowledge was when I got to university.

What was much more difficult than I expected was the social side. I found it very, very hard, initially, to make friends. We had almost nothing in common. They couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t really understand them. So it took a couple of terms, about six months at Oxford, before I started to build a group of people who I could relate to, and they could relate to me.

I still feel like I ought to go back and apologize to the initial people who I met who found me quite difficult to deal with when I first got there. Eventually that did kind of work itself out. But it was much harder than I expected.

What made you want to write this book?

I’d always meant to write this book. When I say always, I mean it has been something that’s been on my mind for at least a decade, probably even longer. The thing that stopped me from writing it was that I knew, as soon as I started to write it, I would blow up my relationship with my parents.

After I left the boat and went to university, eventually my parents made their own way back to England. And we created a kind of superficial relationship, but we did have a relationship. It was based on never discussing the past and me never asking any difficult questions, but we had a bit of a relationship. And I had kids and so I felt that I ought to maintain the relationship with my parents.

The relationship that they have with my children is not very close. It’s much more important to me now to write the story and I really want to get people talking about it, so I started to write it. In doing so, it did blow up that relationship with my parents. But in a way I priced that in before I started.

What do you want readers to take away from it?

I learned a huge amount about myself in writing the story. There are questions that come out of the story. One of the big debates is what is the right of a child versus the right of a parent? If you have a parent who wants to create an extreme childhood, is it fair for them to do that, and to what extent do they need to balance what they want to do with the rights of a child?

We tend to idolize and romanticize extreme childhoods. But actually when you flip things around and you look at it from the point of view of the child, if you can’t go to school, if you can’t have friends, you may be living in a beautiful place—I often was in the South Pacific—but to a child, that doesn’t feel like paradise. It feels like anything but.

There is also the matter of resilience and what I took from this experience in terms of being resilient. I do feel that I’m very resilient partly as a consequence of that. And that’s partly because I can put things into perspective. When I hit problems, I can relatively easily say to myself, “Well, this is not as bad as being shipwrecked in the middle of the Indian Ocean.”

What surprised you in writing this book?

What’s interesting is you would think that when you write a memoir you’re writing about something you know, so you’re not going to discover something that you don’t know. What I discovered is that I had not faced what my childhood was really like. It was only when I started writing it and I went back and read my diaries—I had my mother’s diaries and various other kind of documents—that I really faced what had happened in my childhood.

That was hugely liberating, because I now feel like I understand what happened, I’ve come to terms with it, and I’ve been able to really think about it. So that was kind of fantastic. I’ve also been able to do all of that with the perspective now of being an adult and also being a parent myself.

What was the process of recalling your childhood for the book?

The process of writing the book was really interesting, because I’m a very pedantic writer, and maybe this is a little bit of McKinsey legacy there. I used to go down to the gym in McKinsey’s London office, and I’d often be reading documents and making notes while I was standing on the treadmill, which used to cause a bit of amusement.

I basically spent about a year and a half constructing and reconstructing an entire timeline of my childhood, the whole ten years, and that was much harder to do than one might have thought, because we’d gone ‘round and ‘round in circles, and a lot of it I blocked out. I just had stopped remembering, so I had to reconstruct this thing in a very painstaking way. I did it basically by starting with every document I could get hold of. I managed to get all of my parents’ documents, copy them, and give them back to them.

I had all of our passports, I had entry documents and exit documents. My father wrote a book on the first bit of our voyage. My mother had a diary. I interviewed lots of people for the book. And I had kept a diary starting at about age nine and a half, ten years old, so I have those as well. I have diaries from some of the crew who came onboard, and I’ve got photographs and so on. Lots of interviews that my father did as we went.

So I started putting all of this together. Then, of course, I can start to put some of my own memories into that. But at least I’m putting my memories now into a kind of factual framework. And then, having done all of that, I had to be able to step back and try to allow the story to come out.

That, for me, took quite a lot of bravery. When I had written the first version of this book, I gave it to a colleague in the McKinsey office. She read it, and she came back and said, “It’s interesting, Suzanne. But what’s really interesting is that your mother is not in this story. Where is your mother? She appears occasionally in the back of scenes, but she’s not really there.”

I realized that what I’d done—deliberately, but I hadn’t realized how obvious it was going to be—is because my mother is such a difficult character, I’d kind of written her out. I thought, “Maybe I can write the story without really putting her in. Because if I put her in, I’ve got to put her in as she really is.” But that comment from a colleague made me realize I just couldn’t do that. So I had a choice: I was either going to write this book thoughtfully, really telling the story, or there was really no point in doing it, because it would just end up being a kind of false book.

Then, once the story starts to come out, you start to knock away vast quantities of material and research and other things that you’ve created along the way that becomes irrelevant to the story. People just don’t need to know every island that we went to and everything that we did.

How has your past shaped how you lead today?

I think the biggest thing from my past which shaped me as a leader is being calm and resilient. One of the things that you learn being at sea and you learn when you’re in life-threatening situations, which I was multiple times as a child and as a young adult, is you can’t panic when you’re under threat. The people who panic generally make things worse.

The thing that you need to do when you’re under threat is to be incredibly calm, because it’s only when you’re calm that you can think rationally and get through things. The second thing I took away from it—and there were many negative things, but I’m highlighting two that have been positive for me as a leader—is resilience.

This seems to be common among others who’ve had very difficult childhoods. If you can escape from those childhoods—and that’s quite a big if, because not everybody does—one benefit is that when something goes wrong, maybe a colleague is difficult or you lose a client or a project is not working, you are able to put it into perspective.

The thing that you need to do when you’re under threat is to be incredibly calm, because it’s only when you’re calm that you can think rationally and get through things.

For me, I can say, “Let me put this against being in that boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean with a fractured skull.” Sounds a bit ridiculous, but I can literally put it against that and I can calm myself down. And then I can pick myself up and deal with something. That is a huge benefit.

What would you like your readers to learn from your life’s journey?

I hope they think it’s a cracking good tale and that they really enjoy reading the book. But beyond that, some people may well want to reflect about this balance between the rights of children and the rights of parents.

I think this point about resilience is a really important one. It’s very easy to get yourself in the kind of trap of thinking that when a small thing goes wrong, it means things aren’t working and you’re going to walk away from things.

I had three children while I was at McKinsey, during that phase of running up to being a partner. There’s a phase in your life when you’re juggling small children, sometimes handling other caring responsibilities, trying to have a job, often with a partner who also has a job. And all the time, things are going wrong. You’re making small mistakes at work. You’re making small mistakes in terms of how you parent, and so on. A lot of people in that situation may well feel that they’ve got to stop doing one or the other. But they just can’t juggle all of it. And many people actually end up stopping working at that point.

The thing that I would really hope, in particular, that people take away from this is that a lot of the things that we beat ourselves up for are just not that important. When you get them in perspective, and you are resilient, you realize that a lot of these things are not that critical. And if you’re going to make a big decision like quitting your job, then it needs to be because things really, really aren’t working, not because you’re making something that’s quite small into something that feels very big.

I remember at McKinsey I would have women come in and see me, and they would say, “I can't manage at McKinsey because my kid came home [today and said] his outfit wasn’t as good as everybody else’s. You’d have to sit them down and say, “OK, does it really matter? In a week will you really care? Will he care? Will he even remember?” You’ve just got to get these things into perspective.

The thing that I would really hope, in particular, that people take away from this is that a lot of the things that we beat ourselves up for are just not that important.

It’s very hard to do that, because it’s very easy to beat yourself up about the small things. But if you can get perspective, then at least you aren’t going to make big, life-changing decisions for not big reasons.

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