Most change agents don’t survive their own change. The job of those following them is to help the organization get over the trauma inflicted by the change agent and then move forward benefitting from the most important of those changes. This requires an emotional, rational, and then inspirational approach.

McKinsey had to change. It was heading down an Arthur Anderson-like path to self-destruction. Just as Arthur Anderson’s Texas partner fatally destroyed the firm’s reputation with their poor judgments in relation to their work with Enron, McKinsey’s relatively independent partners embarrassed the firm with their work with Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin, Altria’s Juul, and Saudi Arabian politics.

To his credit, McKinsey’s current leader, Kevin Sneader, instituted the potentially institutional-saving changes. As the Wall Street Journal’s Vaness Fuhrmans put it, Sneader exerted “more control over the firm’s decentralized culture.” This was part of “moving McKinsey from a culture that relied on individual partners’ judgments to one based on systems, rules, and processes.”

But, per my earlier article on The Real Reason McKinsey Is Firing Its CEO, Sneader either had to lead an evolutionary change, fire everyone, set someone else to fail, or sacrifice himself. Consciously or unconsciously, he chose the last option.

Now it falls to his replacement as Global Managing Partner, Bob Sternfels, to pick up the pieces and lead the firm forward. There are lessons to be learned from his early words on the subject. Wisely, McKinsey is not making Sternfels available for outside interviews yet. But they interviewed him themselves and put it up on their blog, inviting the world to Meet our next global managing partner: Bob Sternfels.

Helping an organization get over the trauma inflicted by a change agent and then move forward benefitting from the most important of those changes requires an emotional, rational, and then inspirational approach.


  • The emotional part is empathizing with the pain inflicted by the change agent.
  • The rational part is a logical acceptance of the value of the changes they wrought.
  • The inspirational part is about moving forward with the benefit of those changes.



We’re never going to know the details of how Sternfels communicated emotionally with the partners in pain. All we know is that he did it well enough for them to select him as their “first among equals.”

The lesson for the rest of us is the need to connect emotionally with people to earn the right to lead.


Sternfels words encourage a logical acceptance of some of the changes:

“I don’t sense that there’s a rejection of our journey to work more responsibly. These reforms are not the work of any individual. They were voted on and agreed to by a body of senior partners, of which I’m a part.”

“I’m committed to build on the important changes that Kevin Sneader helped launch and our partnership embraced.”

See it? He’s paving the way for his partners to reject Sneader’s leadership (which they’ve already done,) while accepting the most valuable reforms which “our partnership embraced.”

The lesson for the rest of us is to help people focus on the good things to carry forward. Part of what Sternfels is doing here is helping people own the good things. If you tell someone to do something, the best you can ever hope for is compliance. If you want them to contribute, you have to invite that. If you want them to commit, you must let them co-create. Even those most of them did not co-create these reforms, they did agree to them as a body.


Sternfels words point the way forward:

“The thing that gives me the most energy every day is thinking about how I can help our clients.”

“I really believe in distributed leadership and empowerment. We are a global firm that works in local contexts, and I think this notion of trust and empowerment enables speed.”

“I believe you can have a faster and safer firm.”

The lesson for the rest of us is in how Sternfels is rejecting false trade-offs between clients and profits and speed and safety. His McKinsey will focus on helping clients (profitably) and finding ways to distribute leadership and empowerment within the firm-preserving systems, rules, and processes for which Kevin Sneader sacrificed himself.