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McKinsey & Co. Senior Partner On The Mindsets Of Great CEOs

McKinsey & Co. senior partner Carolyn Dewar on the Walker Webcast.

A company is only as strong as its leader, but throughout the centuries there have been many different takes on what makes a great one. 

To help find the answer to that question, Carolyn Dewar, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co. who co-leads the organization's CEO Excellence coaching program, co-authored the bestselling CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest. For the book, she and her co-authors analyzed 200 CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies and interviewed 67 of them to determine the mindsets that top executives share that help them maximize their performance and best support their teams.

Dewar was the guest on this week’s Walker Webcast, where Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker interviewed her about the process behind her book and some of its key findings. 

To start, Walker asked how she determined which CEOs fit her definition of “excellence” when it comes to a chief executive and how she chose who would be in the book. Dewar said there had been some research in the past about CEOs, but it usually focused on CEOs in general. Instead, she wanted to narrow in on those who do the job exceptionally well and what they have in common. 

She looked for those who had outperformed their industry peers and were in the top quintile of performance. She also focused on those who had been in the role for at least six years, and those with solid overall reputations. 

The first mindset Dewar identifies in her book is that successful CEOs are bold and reframe what winning means when it comes to setting a direction within their companies. 

“From the CEO seat you have almost a unique opportunity to give the organization permission to dream big and to understand what could be possible,” she said. 

She gave the example of Anjay Banga, former CEO of Mastercard, who took the company from $12B to over $300B in market cap. Dewar said when Banga first walked the halls all he heard were employees talking about how they could beat Visa. However, at the time, the economy was different and most of the world’s transactions were still happening with cash. 

“He stepped back and said, ‘Why are we over here focused on stealing 8% of the market when the real market is all the world’s transactions?’” she said. “So he came back and reframed his organization, telling them ‘Our job is to kill cash.’” 

Dewar said this gave the firm permission to aim big and think in a different way, contributing to its success.

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on the Walker Webcast.

Another mindset Dewar identified was that great CEOs think about how they can help their directors help them and the business, and how they can engage the board. She said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told her that the job of CEO is lonely because no one below you sees everything that you see, but neither does everyone above you, meaning the board. 

“So as he thought about his board, he was in the mindset of ‘How can I bring them into the tent? How do I make sure that they have enough relevant information about all the pieces going on so that they understand all that I'm juggling and we can be together with the same perspective?’” she said. 

Dewar said one of the more surprising traits she noticed across all the CEOs she spoke with was their humility and their ability to know that they can’t possibly know everything. Also, successful CEOs have less of a “to-do” list, but more of a “to-be” list, which is a phrase coined by Michael Fisher, former CEO of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. 

Fisher would look at his agenda each day and all of the various meetings he had, and determine how he would need to show up to each of them, Dewar said. For some, he would need to be inspiring; for other meetings, he would need to just listen; and for others, he needed to show humility.

“It's not about being disingenuous,” Dewar said. “[Fisher is] an incredibly genuine guy, but it's about reminding himself that how he shows up in the meetings as CEO is as important as anything he says or does.” 

She added that a CEO’s mood will set the tone for the entire company, which is why a “to-be” list is so important. 

Walker closed by asking Dewar if there was anything that set long-tenured CEOs apart from those who only last a few years. She said there’s a natural selection bias — if you’ve done well enough to last long, you’re probably doing a pretty good job — but added that long-running CEOs have a learning mindset. They learned to be transparent with their board, to be ruthlessly selective in what they get involved with and what they don’t from a personal point of view, and how to work through their team and lead through leaders. 

“These are all things that they've learned, and the ones who didn't learn it don’t make it that far, because that’s what you need to do this job sustainably over time,” she said. 

On Sept. 7, Walker's guest will be the legendary golf instructor Sean Foley. Register here.

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and Walker & Dunlop. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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