Dominic Barton

What would CEOs tell their younger selves?

About the event

Dominic Barton talks about four key leadership lessons gleaned from conversations with CEOs

Dominic Barton is Global Managing Partner Emeritus of McKinsey & Company and the latest Visiting Professor at Saïd Business School. He joined Dean Peter Tufano and nearly 300 MBA students to discuss the leadership lessons he learnt while he himself was ‘in the arena’.

As Tufano observed, some of the lessons sound ‘blindingly obvious’ in theory, but are perhaps all too easily forgotten in practice.

Find and invest in your people

When I became Global Managing Partner of McKinsey and Company I made myself a rule that I would talk to two CEOs or leaders every day. I would ask them two questions: what would you teach your younger self, and what are the three issues that excite you or worry you?

Over nine years I think I have spoken to 3,200 leaders, and something I heard consistently was that they would have advised their younger selves to ‘move people faster’. They would say that they took too long to move people who weren’t performing, and that they didn’t give others opportunities soon enough: they should have moved them up even if they weren’t quite ready. Many people said simply that they should have spent more time with people.

Barton addresses the audience
Dominic Barton

Set your agenda and act fast

When I took on the job some of my colleagues advised me to ‘take it slow and don’t rush into any significant changes’. It was hard to reject that advice from people I respected but I felt I needed to make a lot of change in what we needed to do. All the leaders I have met have wished they had more time. The saddest CEOs are those at the end of their tenure saying, “I wish I had moved faster”, when there is nothing they can do.

So I just felt that urgency -- and to be fair a lot of other people in the organisation also felt the same way. The other issue, of course, is that when you get into a leadership role you don’t actually feel as if you belong there. You think, “someone is going to figure this out that this is a mistake”. So you really are nervous – but I felt that I had to try and counteract it.

… but keep an eye on the long-term

What I asked one leader what he would you teach his younger self, he said: ‘I wished I could put a microscope in one eye and a telescope in the other and not get a headache’.

I think people are generally good either at driving things for the short term or at thinking about things in the long term. They are not typically good at both. What I have found is that you have to develop and use tools to think in both ways. For example, for every term that I had as managing partner I had a pyramid of objectives including what I wanted to get done over the full nine years if I was going to stay.

The audience
Dominic Barton

Lead crises from the front

Just after I became Managing Partner of McKinsey, a senior partner named Anil Kumar was arrested in conjunction with an insider-trading investigation. The following year, the previous managing partner Rajat Gupta, who was a phenomenal leader, was charged as part of the same investigation. Trust is the core of what we do so to do that was devastating.

It was very rough. Probably the worst conversation that I had was not with clients – which was tough –or with the media – which was very tough: it was actually with the retired senior partners. They were off their lids angry, and even though I didn’t do it I represented the firm. It was in a large room and I could feel the anger. And I just said, ‘I feel like I have taken on a teenager who has been given the keys to a car for the first time and driven it into the ditch’.

There is a famous saying from Napoleon which I love: he used to tell his generals to ‘go where the gunfire is the loudest’, to go to where the action is. Most of our tendency is to actually to retreat and hope it goes away, assume that time will figure it out. It doesn’t work that way – you just have to go right into it. In fact, one of the things that I didn’t do so well in later crises was to minimise them, say ‘it is not that bad’. I just think you have got to go full frontal.

Barton audience
Dominic Barton

He concluded by offering some personal advice to the students in the audience.

Set your own bar

There is one tip that I would like to pass on that I wish I had learnt earlier. When I was younger I was very much what I call a ‘box ticker’: I would ask, ‘What do I need to do to get an A?’ and then do precisely that. I continued in the same way at McKinsey, asking ‘What do I need to do to become a project manager?’ and then ‘What does it take to become a senior project manager?’ and so on.

But then I didn’t get elected, and indeed took the longest time that it takes for anyone to get elected. This was a real shock to me. It really hurt me and I lost self-confidence. But ultimately it made me question what I wanted to do in the world. Did I want to change the world and make a difference – or did I want to meet other people’s checklists?

The answer was that I did in fact have a pretty big ambition in terms of what I wanted to do. I decided that I was going to follow that ambition, thinking that if McKinsey was the vehicle for achieving it, that was great – but if not, I was going to look somewhere else. I had to set my own standard as opposed to following other people’s expectations. It took me too long to realise that: it’s what I wish I could tell my younger self.

Dominic Barton

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