Carolyn Dewar: Author of CEO Excellence & Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company

Episode 327

In this episode of The Kara Goldin Show, we learn more from Carolyn Dewar, coauthor of CEO Excellence and Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company San Francisco. Carolyn founded and co-leads McKinsey's CEO excellence work which includes coaching many Fortune 100 CEOs to maximize their effectiveness. She works extensively with clients to drive organizational effectiveness at pivotal moments in a company’s journey. Now she has co-authored her first book, CEO Excellence, with Scott Keller and Vikram Malhotra which is excellent! In it, they pull back the curtain on how some of the world’s greatest business leaders have achieved success with many super valuable lessons captured and shared through various stories. Learn about the “6 key points” and so much more. This episode will leave you wanting more. Don’t miss this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone. It’s Kara Goldin. And we are here at the Kara Goldin show. I am so so excited to have my next guest with us. We have Carolyn Dewar, who is the author of CEO excellence. And she’s also a senior partner at McKinsey and Company. I’ve was so excited to meet her actually at a dinner in San Francisco a few weeks ago and was just inspired by everything that she’s been working on at McKinsey. And also this book. I read a lot of books, but this book in particular was just exceptionally good. So I was very, very excited to have her come on and share a little bit more about it. As I mentioned, she is at McKinsey and Company she founded and CO leads McKinsey CEO excellence work coaching many Fortune 100 CEOs to maximize their effectiveness. And she works extensively with clients to drive organizational effectiveness, pivotal moments such as mergers, strategic shifts, and crisis’s. She’s also leads large scale performance improvement programs. And she has authored co authored actually this amazing book called CEO excellence, and it is quite excellent. And she co wrote it with Vic Malhotra and Scott Keller. And it really pulls back the curtain on how some of the world’s greatest business leaders have achieved success was super valuable lessons through shared stories. I loved the six key points, by the way. So so good, we’ll get into that for sure. And more than anything, just how she’s highlighted some incredible leaders, some of them I’ve met, I knew, but I loved all the little tidbits in her book. So it really got me thinking quite a bit. So excited to jump in here. So let’s get started. Welcome, Carolyn.

Carolyn Dewar 2:38
Thanks so much for having me, Kara. I’ve been so inspired by your journey. And it’s so fun to be talking today.

Kara Goldin 2:43
Oh, so fun. So well. Before we get started speaking about the book, I’d love to hear a little bit more about you. So first of all, you’ve been at McKinsey for 22 years. I mean, amazing. There aren’t very many people that can actually say that they’ve been in a role for that long these days. So I was really, really impressed with that. What’s the most surprising thing about your journey so far, I can’t imagine that you ever thought that you would be at a company for this long, but you must really enjoy it and enjoy the work that you’re doing.

Carolyn Dewar 3:15
Have? Absolutely. And it’s funny when you say it that way, because it doesn’t feel like one job. Right that one of the fun things in what I get to do is you do get to explore and reinvent. And a lot of that comes from all the different leaders you get to meet. And so I’ve worked across financial services in tech, been in Canada, the UK now I’m here in the Bay Area. And so every day feels new, and just so inspired working with leaders who are building and leading these incredible companies.

Kara Goldin 3:41
That’s very cool. So talking about inspiration. So you wrote this book CEO excellence, what inspired you to write it?

Carolyn Dewar 3:50
The inspiration really did come from clients and executives that I had a chance to work with were there in the CEO role always referred to as a lonely role, a unique role, but such an important role, right? We need people to get it right. They have extraordinary influence on their employees and their customers and everything they do. And more and more I was hearing from them. You know, I know I’m in this role, and I’m figuring it out as I go. But what do others do? How do others do this? I’m sure others have faced this before. And because it can be a lonely role, there’s not always a chance to learn from everyone else. You’re all kind of sitting in your in your offices all around. And so we really wanted to gather and share those stories. So the book itself is, you know, 10% Consulting 90% stories of these extraordinary CEOs and how they’ve navigated the role and how they do it. Well.

Kara Goldin 4:41
So you set out in the book to answer one question, what does it mean to be a CEO? And I would love for you to share how you picked the CEOs and how different were the answers based on this prompt?

Carolyn Dewar 4:55
Absolutely. And in particular, we wanted to know how to excellent CEOs steward the ones who really outperform. And so we started there, we took the several 1000, about 3000 CEOs who’ve led kind of mostly public companies in the last 20 years. And we looked for the ones who had been in the top 20% of performance versus their industry peers, so they outperform their competitors. They’d been enrolled for at least six years, because we wanted you to have been a CEO long enough that you had to eat your own cooking right decisions you made early, you’re having to live with it, the implications of that. And then we filtered for reputation and some other important factors. And so with these high performing CEOs, we wanted to know, not only what do they do, what do they do that’s different from maybe those who’ve struggled? And is there? Is there a common set of kind of secret sauce answers for how to do the job? Well,

Kara Goldin 5:47
so I mentioned this in the intro, I love the six key points that you identify in the book, can you share those with us? And maybe hear your thoughts on whether CEOs that you interviewed perform? Well, if they only XL and a few of these? Or did you pick the ones that did all six, correct

Carolyn Dewar 6:06
salutely. So as a CEO, there are these six elements of the role, right. And before we get into the mindsets, it’s setting the direction, you know, aligning the organization, working through your team, your board, your external stakeholders, and yourself. Those are almost the six spinning plates. Some people refer to it as six spinning plates that you need to keep in the air as a CEO. None of them can drop and hit the floor, right? All those things need to be true. Of course, you might balance your emphasis differently over time, the question we were really looking into is against those six parts of the job. How do you do it? Well, and that’s where we came to the subheading, which is about the six mindsets that really set apart those who are excellent. So for each of those six pieces, there was a certain mindset or way of thinking, that really sets you apart. If we take one, for example, on setting direction, right, which is all things strategy and resource allocation. The mindset that was consistent across these high performers was be bold, right? There was a boldness in their thinking that really set them apart, maybe even from other CEOs. Now, to be fair, we probably should have said Be bold and be right. Because if you’re bold and wrong, you probably wouldn’t have been in the in the high performer set. But if you weren’t bold, if you were incremental, you also wouldn’t have been a high performer, you have to be willing to take some risks.

Kara Goldin 7:26
Interesting. How about personality and sort of like, you know, just more than anything, charisma? And how did that I’m so curious how that ranked? Or what did you see in these people? I think

Carolyn Dewar 7:39
the part that we’re excited about is the mindsets we identified in talking to folks are mindsets that anyone could choose to have. Right and to because I think there is some mythology around you have to be this big charismatic leader, or an extrovert or all those things. We saw the full range, some of these incredible CEOs were quite quiet, quite introverted, very thoughtful, they needed think time on their own. Others do their best thinking, working in groups and kind of iterating. So everyone had their own style, but the mindset where they thought, What is my job, really, of being bold, really, kind of the other one around treating the soft stuff is the hard stuff, which essentially means treating the culture and the talent issues as important as the operational issues. These mindsets can be held by anyone, regardless of your kind of personality or your type. And that that’s what got me excited. It didn’t feel like it was some exclusive club that only a certain personality could could occupy. And

Kara Goldin 8:37
did you feel like if they were maybe not comfortable in one of these, or or you didn’t necessarily see them scoring high? And one of these six points, did they have a team member or a partner who was, you know, highlighted in some way? I mean, I know that they were not one of the CEOs, but just as an that you highlighted, but just as an example, you know, Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, I mean, definitely played a key role prior to leaving at Facebook. So it and was often speaking on behalf of Facebook as well. So I’m just curious, where did you see examples of that? Where there were kind of one other person within the company that was maybe just as critical in the outward facing messaging as as the CEO?

Carolyn Dewar 9:27
Absolutely. I think in some of these cases, it was like an ensemble cast. Right. Maybe there was one other person, maybe there was a team. I think these roles are too big for any single human to do at all. And there was a recognition and the CEOs we talked to, you know, you might have thought maybe if we’d done this 20 or 30 years ago, there might have been the all singing you know, the All Knowing CEO who was going to have all the answers and cascade it down. Those times are long gone, right? The world moves too fast. The role is too broad for any single human to do at all, but they did make sure That work was getting done. And they manage the psychology of that group to get it done. Right. So collectively, we need to be setting a bold direction, managing the health of our organization, engaging thoughtfully with stakeholders, all those things need to happen and, and the CEO is sort of at the center, making sure all of that happens, right, even if it’s not them. But you’re right, you’re the managing through and with other leaders is absolutely critical, given the scale of the role. So let’s talk

Kara Goldin 10:27
about the word transparency as it relates to the CEO role. I’m curious what any of these leaders had to say about transparency?

Carolyn Dewar 10:36
Yeah, it came up time and time again. I mean, to give a couple of examples on the board piece, the big mindset for engaging with the board was, how do I help the directors help the business? It’s a very different mindset than Oh, I got to get through a board meeting. So I get to go back to running my day job, right. Yeah. And so one place that showed up was in transparency with the board, these confident, high performing CEOs told The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, brought their board along, which really built a lot of trust. Right, Jamie diamond at the first hour of his board meeting, not at the end, sits with his board with no paper says, here’s what’s keeping me up at night. Here’s what’s going well, here’s what’s not. There’s a transparency with the board is one example of stakeholders, but increasingly, with external stakeholders with employees, this idea of of having a narrative as a CEO of what we’re doing, what’s working well, how we’re going to get there. And in telling that same story, everywhere you go, that’s true. And authentic, is the way that you’re aligning, aligning people towards your vision.

Kara Goldin 11:36
Yeah, I thought that was super, super interesting. So what about founder CEOs? I am a founder, CEO myself, so how are they different from maybe the the CEOs of large scale companies and CEOs that were brought in? For into these companies?

Carolyn Dewar 11:56
Absolutely, maybe I’ll think I think there’s a whole conversation there, which is fascinating. If I think about maybe three differences. First of all, we had some founder CEOs in this set of 70, Reed Hastings in there, there’s a couple, we purposely didn’t over index, because in a way, founder CEOs have more degrees of freedom than other typical CEOs have. And so we wanted to make sure the lessons applied broadly, I do think, as a founder, CEO, you tend to with the board and with other stakeholders, you’ll have a lot of influence, and you’ve really shaped the company. And with that comes a lot of power. I think what we hear from founder CEOs and where they sometimes struggled or looking for help is, as they scale the organization beyond themselves beyond being able to hire everyone on their own, tell the story themselves. How do you find that right balance between you being kind of the secret sauce and somehow institutionalizing that in the company you’re building so that the culture exists even when you’re not in the room, so that the talent is there so that the vision can grow and evolve beyond your initial vision. And I think it’s that scaling piece. That is sort of the counterpoint that founders are trying to do, you know, they have all the nimbleness, they’re trying to institutionalize, the big companies are the opposite, right. They’re overly institutionalized, and they’re trying to recapture some of the magic. And so both are kind of trying to find that sweet spot in the middle.

Kara Goldin 13:18
So interesting. So you touched on what Jamie Dimon does. And as you know, Christine touched on this at the dinner that we were all laugh that night, who she used to be at JP Morgan, but I’m such a huge fan of Jamie, were there other kind of key things that you thought that people did inside of their company? Any other stories that you thought were really kind of? Interesting?

Carolyn Dewar 13:44
Yeah. I mean, so many stories. I think, you know, Satya Nadella at Microsoft has done an incredible job of just build boldness and strategy, as well as real commitment to culture change, right? You think of the culture as he inherited, which really was getting in the way, right, there was a sort of No at all culture that was heavily siloed and squashed innovation. And he popularized and pushed this whole idea of growth mindset, but didn’t just say the words and it wasn’t just HR posters, or a pretty culture campaign. They deeply institutionalized growth mindset into how they run the place, right? The expectation of leaders, how they, you know, how they set up teams, how they learn from mistakes, he took something soft and squishy like culture and made it very hard and very concrete is a great story. One more maybe have a lesser known name, but to think about dunk Baker, who was the CEO at Ecolab, so kind of an industrial cleaning company could have easily gone on the wrong side of the ESG agenda. And he stepped back with his team and said, Well if our purpose in our mission is to make the world a cleaner place, how can we do that without integrating ESG and environmental policy deeply into not just, you know, writing checks and public but into how we operate, right and they radically transformed their art durations. So that as they grew, their positive environmental impact actually grew, as opposed to, I think it was his quote, you can’t do evil from nine to five and make up for it by writing big checks in the evening, he found a way to link those two together and scale, an incredibly high performing company.

Kara Goldin 15:16
So interesting. So McKinsey launched the study around females in the workforce, and I should say, leaving the word workforce, very, very surprising study to many. I’m so curious with all of the work that you’ve done at McKinsey, what was the most surprising about that study for people who have not seen it?

Carolyn Dewar 15:39
So we’ve been doing a joint initiative with lean in for eight years, every year bringing out really data driven analysis of women in the workforce. And each year, there’s different insights and themes this year, the striking theme was the extent to which women as you say, all right, they’re leaving the workforce, or even more, so leaving and switching to a different job somewhere else. It’s not even just that they’re leaving. And what came through loud and clear, and this was from very senior executive women on down was that women are demanding more of their workplace, right. And so they’re leaving organizations that are not honoring the skill set that they’re bringing, recognizing their amazing talents, you know, helping them work in ways that are productive, and help them be their best selves at work. You know, it’s a continuation of the discussion, we’ve been hearing around, kind of microaggressions not being in the room where the decisions get made being passed over for opportunities. And what is both, you know, in some way devastating to hear, but in some way exciting is women are starting to find better options, right? And it’s hard to fault that. They say, like, you’re not gonna give me a promotion or recognize my talent. I’m gonna go over here to someone who is. And so there’s a ton of movement happening. And I think it’s a real wake up call for a lot of organizations that you’re this the women leaders that they have had expectations for the workplace, and they’re not settling for maybe what they might have settled with in the past.

Kara Goldin 17:02
Yeah, I thought it was exactly what you’re talking about. Now, I think that it is about time, right? I think that we just needed maybe the last two years to make a lot of people realize that there’s a lot that can be done outside of the office. But also, I think people have reset themselves after this time, for sure. So one of the things that you touched on in this book is the concept of CEOs and you know, the lonely office that many people strive for. And then once they get there, find how challenging it can actually be. And I, the thing that I thought was so interesting about that conversation, I think a lot of people maybe who have never gotten to the CEO role, they just don’t really realize it, right. They think that the person who’s sitting in that spot is able to control a lot of things, but the thinking that goes on behind and also the they have a whole life to that they’re trying to balance and, you know, maybe homeschooling kids along that, you know, whatever that is, but I I’m so curious to hear any of the stories that you heard from that?

Carolyn Dewar 18:12
Absolutely. I mean, just lots of flavors of that, right? There’s everything from Mary Barra at GM, and she was promoted from within the CEO, to suddenly getting there and turning to the the her now team who had been her peers for years and saying, Hey, guys, I’m still married, right? So part of it is people start treating you differently. Some of the goods, some of it isolating, right, if you’re not careful. And I think the CEOs who are navigating this, well, one of the things they’re doing is making sure they still do have a few folks, hopefully more than a few who keep it real with them, right? who are willing to give them the tough messages, the tough feedback when something doesn’t land, because you also don’t want to be in an ivory tower, thinking that everything’s awesome, when it’s not. Right. And so who are going to be those people for you. Some of them are inside work, sometimes they’re outside work, but you need those folks to keep you grounded, and also be a sounding board for you. So you have a safe place to talk through difficult things that you might not want to you know, broadcast to your whole team. That’s such an important investment.

Kara Goldin 19:12
I’m so curious how the conversations went around, really the relationship with the board. How much did the CEOs talk about that? You talked about transparency with the board a little bit, but I’m so curious what else was mentioned there that maybe even wasn’t mentioned in the book.

Carolyn Dewar 19:28
I do think of the six areas, the board pieces, the one where maybe it was most surprising, or there was the biggest difference between these real high performers. And maybe the average advice about boards. I mean, it’s it again, being purposely sort of edgy, but the average advice a little bit as you board you have to tolerate it and then you get to go back. These seals really thought differently. They’re like if I want these people to be helpful to me, how would I engage first I’d make sure there were people on the board who brought skills and experience that was genuinely helpful, right and if they If we don’t have those folks, and I’m not the board chair, I worked with the chair to evolve that over time, I have to give them enough context and information that they can be helpful. And then this idea of like, the board wants to find ways to help. And so you can either channel that or they’re going to make up their own ways right into might not be what you want. And so a lot of CEOs being quite comfortable having board members, even coaching members of their team, if they have relevant experience, tapping individual board members that you know, have certain expertise and say, Okay, that’s the woman I’m going to call when I have a big m&a deal, because she’s a good thought partner for me for that. That’s the person I’m going to call for this other area. So it was in a way, it was almost by omission. It wasn’t about the board meeting, it seemed to 99% about all the other conversations they were having with board members that were really productive. Whether it was with their chair or one offs. One See, I think was RJ RJ banca MasterCard even said they’re the best, almost free consultants you could have right? If you have the right board members, you would use them really differently.

Kara Goldin 21:04
Yeah, I think that’s so true. I’m curious how many mentioned also their role as being sort of external as well as internal, I always feel that was the one thing that I really picked up in, in all of the CEOs that you mentioned is that they can actually, or I think they probably spend a portion of their time outside of the company as well as inside, because it’s just as important not only to spend with your shareholders, but also your consumers, and really getting buy in into kind of what your vision is more than anything. But

Carolyn Dewar 21:38
absolutely, I think 68% of the CEOs we talked to said the job wasn’t at all what they thought it would be. And most of the surprise was the amount of board engagement and external engagement, that the job required, right? You might have run a big business unit or a p&l or a function and you think, Oh, I got this, I can be a CEO. And then there’s this whole other side to the job, which is the external stakeholder management. And I think it’s only increasing, right? Do you think about your the typical external management of, you know, regulators, customers, things to do with your business? And then think about the last few years and CEOs have been asked to make calls and make take a stand on everything from Russia, Ukraine, to the murder of George Floyd to election results to employee safety and COVID? I mean, you don’t get taught that in MBA school, right? And so I think CEOs are really struggling to say, how do I think about which stakeholders to engage with or not in on what topics and those who’ve done it well, or are doing it? Well have a really clear sense of the mindset on this one is start with the why. Right? They know why their organization exists, what the purpose is of their organization, what, what, who they’re trying to be in the world. And they use that as a criteria, or a filter for which topics and issues and stakeholders are most relevant, given who your company is, and who you are as a CEO. I think this one, everyone is still navigating, and it’s changing every day.

Kara Goldin 23:04
So what are the major things anyone can take away from your book CEO excellence, even if they aren’t in a CEO role? Maybe you never want to be a CEO, either. But I’d love to hear from you. What are the major things that you think people can take away from it, I

Carolyn Dewar 23:23
think we started out thinking we were writing a book for CEOs. And while that’s proven to be super helpful, and they’re all coming to us with notes in the margin, and stickies all over it, 99% of it applies to any leader. And I think that’s what’s exciting. Any of us whatever role we’re in, can learn from, you know, being bold in our direction setting, treating the organizational issues, incredibly importantly, working well through the psychology of our team to get that team working well together, engaging with all the stakeholders, regardless of who they are, and really understanding how we get on the same page. And then the last part we’ve talked less about is your own personal operating model, right, tons of tips and hints there on time management, who you’re going to be as a leader, all of that applies to anyone I know, I’ve started trying to implement a lot of what we’ve learned

Kara Goldin 24:12
so so terrific. So definitely everybody picked up SEO excellence. It’ll be in the show notes as well. Thank you, Carolyn, so much for sharing your time with us today. Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally, our listeners, keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug if you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded. Hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk About fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening