Learning mindset: Carolyn Dewar, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company on the traits of the world’s best leaders

September 26, 2022

Learning mindset: Carolyn Dewar, Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company on the traits of the world’s best leaders

Carolyn Dewar

Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company and Best Selling Author

McKinsey & Company Senior Partner and Co-Author of CEO Excellence, Carolyn Dewar discusses the six mindsets of great leaders.

On this episode of the Walker Webcast, we were joined by McKinsey & Company Senior Partner and Co-Author of CEO Excellence, Carolyn Dewar. She and Willy discussed key topics from the book including the six mindsets of the world’s most successful CEOs, methods for managing time and energy, how to successfully lead high-performing teams, the importance of humility, advice for young professionals, and much more. 

This “guidebook on how to be the best CEO” all started on the eastern shore of Maryland, Carolyn explains. During a leadership retreat at the Inn at Perry Cabin, she and her co-authors noticed something about the speakers. “Each had slightly different, yet fascinating, talking points and advice.” 

To create CEO Excellence, the team first drew up a list of the top 200 CEOs. While many were household names, “I was most excited about those who were equally impressive, but lesser known.” 

The next step was to narrow this list down to 70, focusing in on these leaders’ unique talents and gifts. To make it to the list, CEOs needed to outperform their peers and be in the role for at least 6 years, Carolyn says. Three out of 10 CEOs don’t make it past their third year, she points out, and that’s a huge cost for everyone involved. 

What stood out most from her interviews? Willy asks. The commonalities, Carolyn replies, like having the courage to reframe things. She describes how Cincinnati Children’s Hospital CEO Michael Fisher reframed the concept of a to-do as a “to-be” list, reminding leaders that how they show up to different meetings as CEO is as important as anything they say or do. “The implication effect of CEO moods is massive and sets the tone for the whole company.” 

One of the most surprising characteristics among the CEOs, Carolyn reveals, was their humility. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is one example. “He has spent the last five years relentlessly trying to bring his humility and learning mindset deep into the organization,” she says.

Willy and Carolyn also talk about Ecolab CEO Doug Baker. “He has excelled at connecting with stakeholders for the company, taking to heart this external pressures around environmental sustainability and then making them real,” Carolyn says. 

Carolyn talks about how the role of stakeholders is changing. For example, employees and consumers increasingly base their employment and buying decisions on whether a company aligns to their sense of values. CEOs who navigate these changes well are guided by their company’s purpose and “why,” she declares.

The conservation then shifts to mergers and acquisitions. Carolyn and Willy talk about programmatic M&A, where companies make many regular smaller acquisitions over time rather than wait around for a few huge mega deals. Exit strategies also matter. “CEOs have a unique hand over resource allocation and can make the decision to roll off projects that no longer make sense,” Carolyn notes, adding that scenario-planning and resilience-building are important throughout “in the case that things go awry.”  

Willy and Carolyn wrap up the episode with Carolyn’s advice for aspiring CEOs. “The best time to start thinking and acting like a CEO is in the job you are in now,” she says. “Adopt a learning mindset and be inquisitive about all the things there for you to learn.” 

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