McKinsey elects Bob Sternfels as next leader of crisis-hit partnership

McKinsey’s partners have elected Bob Sternfels as their next leader, handing him the challenge of stabilising a consultancy shaken by reputational crises that have raised questions about its culture, growth strategy and governance. 

The San Francisco-based 51-year-old, whose current role is akin to a chief operating officer, beat Sven Smit, the Amsterdam-based co-chair of the McKinsey Global Institute, the private partnership’s research arm. 

The two men shocked many McKinsey partners and alumni last month by winning enough votes to eliminate Kevin Sneader, who has led the firm since 2018, before the final round of the election. The 54-year-old Scot will step down on July 1, becoming the first managing partner since 1976 to serve only one three-year term.

Sternfels has been at McKinsey since 1994, working in Australia and South Africa before returning to his native California, and was the runner-up to Sneader in the firm’s 2018 leadership election. 

As head of “client capabilities”, he oversees the firm’s industry practices and remains closely associated with an innovation agenda that took McKinsey into new and sometimes controversial areas such as bankruptcy advice under Sneader’s predecessor, Dominic Barton.

One former partner said before the results of the final vote were known that Smit was “a towering intellectual” but that Sternfels was “more of an operational manager who’ll go a couple of steps beyond” Sneader’s efforts to impose more rigorous structures on a firm where partners have had significant autonomy.

In his new role, Sternfels is expected to have to move quickly to reassure alumni, clients and policymakers that he has listened to their concerns and plans meaningful reforms.

Sternfels, who will be the 13th partner to lead McKinsey since its founding in 1926, signalled that he would build on reforms made by Sneader and push back against public critiques of its work. 

“I am determined to use this moment to make our partnership stronger, more inclusive and better able to help our clients thrive in a fast-changing world,” he said in a news release announcing his appointment. “I am also committed to build on the important changes that Kevin helped launch and our partnership embraced — and on the good work our firm does with our clients and in society.”

Sneader took office as McKinsey was struggling to contain the fallout from a corruption scandal in South Africa, and was voted out weeks after it agreed to pay $574m to settle US states’ lawsuits over its work to “turbocharge” the sales of highly addictive opioids. 

His response was to try to strengthen internal risk controls and to be more selective about which clients the firm takes on. Some of the 650 senior partners who can vote in the leadership election bridled at the greater oversight Sneader imposed, while others felt his changes had not gone far enough. 

Leading the largest private partnership in the world was not like a traditional chief executive’s role, the former partner said: “It’s much more analogous to running a political party. There are a lot of backbenchers who don’t like having a boss.” 

Sternfels is a Rhodes scholar with a masters in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford university and an undergraduate degree in economics and history from Stanford. A competitive water polo player at college, he describes himself as an enthusiastic private pilot. 

He will take the reins in the middle of what Alex Liu, managing partner of rival consultancy Kearney, called “a consulting bull market rebound”.

Speaking to the Financial Times last week after Kearney partners elected him to a second term, Liu said the pandemic had been “an accelerant”, pushing corporate clients to move faster on digital transformation and other structural changes and boosting infrastructure spending in the public sector. 

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