This is the story of one man’s journey of career and character through a deep health crisis to a phase of creativity and renewal. An experience of cancer and recovery was the well-spring for a new organizational merger and ways of seeing how to develop many leaders across whole organizations.
Claudio is one of the founders of Aberkyn, a Senior Partner Emeritus of McKinsey, and Senior Advisor at McKinsey; between 2017 and 2019 he served as a Board member of Aberkyn. He is the author of three books: Serial Innovators, When Execution is not Enough, and Leadership at Scale. As a thought leader, his thinking has shaped what we do at Aberkyn and is used in Aberkyn’s leadership development work.
Mike is one of the founders of Aberkyn, and a Partner at McKinsey; he first joined McKinsey in 2000, having been an officer in the Royal Navy and Deputy Chief of Staff in the UK maritime force. His latest book is The Manager – Inside the Minds of Football’s Leaders (Bloomsbury, 2013). Here they reflect on Claudio’s extraordinary personal journey into Aberkyn, and his bringing Aberkyn into McKinsey.
Claudio, we worked together 2016 - 17 to bring Aberkyn into McKinsey. And I have found you to be a remarkable and open-minded colleague. Your journey is extraordinary. For me it follows a Scharmer-like U-Shape. You first enjoyed a time of great success, then encountered the most challenging phase I can imagine, and finally created a renaissance that has enabled you to find a new purpose in your life and work in middle age - and this is when I first met you. Where to begin?
Not sure my journey is extraordinary Mike, but thanks for the compliment. Like many others I started fresh out of Business School. What struck me in the very beginning was this talk about values, being unique, partnership and so forth. It felt artificial, just a big talk. It made me become cynical. I wasn’t emotionally connected with the Firm back then. Actually, I didn’t have many friends at the Firm.
And yet you were highly successful at McKinsey in the following years. Did you simply go along with the values you seemed to find? Tell me about that.
I was kind of a lone guy. I did nothing for the Office. Organized no events. Did no knowledge development. I wasn’t very collaborative. As a consequence, no-one pulled me in. But I loved the client work. I was appreciated by clients and my work had impact.
This really is news to me, and I am not sure I would have liked this version of Claudio. What were you like to work with?
I was incredibly driven, ambitious and very competitive. There were a few people I actually nudged out of the Firm. It’s fair to say that I was good with clients. I somehow have the ability to understand what they think. Some said that I was a rainmaker, but not a nice guy to work with. My people reviews were never stellar. Few colleagues truly wanted to work with me.
Knowing you now, I am surprised to hear that. How were you successful within the Firm?
Well, ambition, drive, competitiveness, understanding clients, working hard, and delivering on commitments – that can get you far. I was office manager in Greece at the age of 35, and in Switzerland at the age 40. I was highly respected, but I wasn’t particularly liked.
I’m curious about how you acquired this mindset. Was this a way of seeing the world that came from your family?
It is a heritage from my upbringing. My father was irritable and introverted. At dinner you could say something wrong and he would explode, and you might then go to bed without eating. So, my brothers and I have developed the ability to read facial expressions and body language – missing those could mean not having dinner! And at work, reading people is useful; but if things do not fall out the way you want, then this ability to read signals becomes a draw-back. Over-empathetic people can see a problem when there isn’t one. I was sometimes very tense and irritable.
OK, so I see a driven person, a gifted rainmaker, an ethical yet somewhat cynical professional, and someone who can be tense, irritable at home. And this continued?
All the way to Senior Partner. I was driven to prove myself and impress others with my achievements. But I didn’t have much of a purpose, other than proving to myself - now that my parents had passed away - that I was worthy. I may have been respected and admired, but I still didn’t feel people really liked working with me.
I sense something is about to change, right?
So, at 45, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a Follicular Lymphoma. It is slowly growing but terminal cancer. It can be treated. A treatment prolongs your life, but it can’t be cured. And I was in stage 4. Stage 4 is the last. That means the cancer has already built metastases in various organs. At the time my diagnosis wasn’t particularly good. When I started chemotherapy the oncologist said, “Make sure that everything is sorted for your family.” That was a shock.
And for you this is the lowest point. It cannot be worse. We are at the bottom of the U-shape, your personal journey.
For the first time in my life, I had completely lost control. With cancer, you can’t control anything; you don’t have the power; you don’t have the energy. Chemotherapy just sucks everything out of you; everything collapses. My frame of mind throughout much of my career was that I controlled my destiny. People followed me because they could do a career doing so. I would win client work and they could develop a career with it. I saw my relationships with colleagues as give-and-take relationships. Now there is nothing I can give them. My world was collapsing.
Sometimes at the bottom of the U there is total surrender and something happens. I know something changed significantly for you …. .
My frame of mind was that everyone would take advantage of the situation, “take over” my clients and push me out. But not one person did. Not one. Colleagues at the Firm helped me, not for my achievements or for what they could get from me, but simply for who I was. And at home, my family gave me enormous strength and love. I began to realize I wasn’t just respected; I was loved too. And I just did not know.
So you began to see the world differently?
It was maybe the first time in my life that I realized that there was no need for control. I didn’t need to control everything. I could rely on others. I could be a husband, a friend, a colleague, a Senior Partner; in all relationships we could do things together and they would help me. There was no need to be in control and to win all the time. It was incredible. I felt loved.
So, everything changed. You know, in a way, my relationship with my wife changed. We always loved each other, but now our relationship is so much deeper. It changed the relationship to my children - we’re so much closer now. We speak every day. I feel loved, and they feel loved. It’s amazing that I spent 45 years of my life without it. I became generous with myself and others. More appreciative. You know, suddenly I started to see the good things, everywhere. Sadly, I almost had to die to get there. So, this is it – this is what changed me.
And after this awareness, how did your thinking change as you looked at the future, what became different in you?
When you’re about to die, you look at your life and at all the things you have achieved. They’re worth nothing. Nobody at your funeral will talk about what you achieved – your leadership positions or the scale of your clients – nobody cares. They care about who you are, how you treated them, whether you cared, how you connected with them. Were you there when they needed you?
And did this change lead to your being treated differently? How did people react to the new Claudio?
People say I’m understanding, constructive, generous. I can be demanding, but I now know that there are different ways you can connect to people, to engage them and to help them instead of criticizing them. It all comes from the same place. And I’m so thankful this happened to me. Losing control and realizing that people were with me because they loved me. And I became gentler with myself. Less perfectionist. More human. And, I became gentler with everything around me. That was the beginning of a new life for me.
And where is that place of renewal for you?
My purpose. Helping others is now probably the core.
This aligns of course with your work with us here at Aberkyn. We see the role of leaders in business and government going forward is to run and transform their organisations more feelingly, in a more human way, principled and values-based, and at the same time empathetic. And you – and we – believe that Aberkyn was made for such a time as this.
Right. Aberkyn has everything it needs to help leaders become more human. And if leaders do become that, then the organization they lead will become more human too. And what is the best way to make this contribution? Scaling through McKinsey.
I knew that we could create individual change within a large organization. That meant looking carefully at how people grow as individuals, in many ways, becoming more self-aware, shifting their mindsets, taking on new practices like meditation and mindfulness, developing an awareness about their purpose in life and society; and, at the same time, paying attention to sleep, bodily health, and exercise. All this can apply to an individual, but my idea was how to bring these personal developments to bear across an entire organization. And for me the best way to do this was through McKinsey.
Claudio, another of our founding fathers, Michael Rennie had a comparable experience with cancer at a similar age. He also returned to the Firm with the intention of “Bringing Love back to business.” In many ways, that was the original conceiving of Aberkyn. Then 15 years after Michael’s vision to create Aberkyn, it fell to you to bring Aberkyn into the Firm. You co-wrote a book with Michael – "Leadership at Scale" – with contributions from many here at Aberkyn. A coincidence? Maybe not ….
Yes, I believe in opportunity maybe more strongly than synchronicity. The book was a collective effort, with many contributions from Aberkyn colleagues – Michiel Kruyt, Arne Gast, Andrew St George and of course you, Mike. It also brought together for the first time the best thinking from right across McKinsey, so in a sense it became a symbol of the collective work I had envisaged between both Aberkyn and McKinsey, work that the Aberkyn founders had also planned.
And how do you see the message of the book?
Individual change flows into organizational change; and we can bring about enormous and radical transformation by concentrating on those who are influential at work – leaders. Three things here: first, we know from data from McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index that organizations with better health are more productive; leadership and leaders’ behaviors are fundamental in this shift to healthier organizations. Second, we discovered in writing the book that there is no silver bullet in leadership development – you have to do many things right over a long period. Third, based on what we know actually works, we were able to formulate the structure and methodology for rolling out personal leadership development at scale.
So you can reach more people across an organization with the development you yourself have experienced through your journey.
I am excited now to be going into Leadership Development; and part of that is helping people “at scale”. If we can help say 20 senior executives at the helm of an organization at one time to become better and more human leaders, then perhaps we can have a positive effect on the 100,000 or more people for whom they are responsible.
At McKinsey I helped create the McKinsey Institute, which pushed research and thinking on leadership; and the Bower Forum, which brought together the most senior leaders in many sectors and explored personal and organizational questions of leadership in a discreet and select environment.
And what has become of that young boy who was ambitious, who succeeded at McKinsey, and who achieved so much?
This is so interesting - I haven’t lost the achievement orientation! It’s still there! It’s funny because in a way that’s not needed anymore. I still get energy from achieving, from building, from creating something that isn’t there. Upon retiring from the partnership I joined the board of the Business School at University of St. Gallen.
One of the projects I am supporting is developing and launching a new executive MBA programme together with the Swiss Federal School of Technology – a first for both institutions. I’m really proud of being part of this journey of building this exceptional program. But the amazing thing is that it feels easy. It feels as if all I do has become so much easier.
I’m proud we’re now launching a new executive MBA programme with the Swiss Federal School of Technology and the University of St Gallen – a first for both. I’m so proud of it. But the amazing thing is that it’s been so easy. Everything has become so much easier.
Yes, and why is that, do you think?
Because not only now do I read people well, but I also connect with people really well. So one step is cognitively to understand that you, Mike, might now be a bit puzzled or emotional; and the other step is to connect with you. I still have this energy and I don’t think it will ever go away, because once you are programmed at an early age to go for things, to build things, to create things so that they are seen – it’s there. And it will always be there; but it has become now a positive force.
And how is your health now, Claudio?
Cancer science and medicine have made huge advances in the past decade, so my prognosis is better now. But, I still need to check regularly. One never knows with cancer. I did my yearly PET scan last week. Still in full remission, and so I have another 12 months’ freedom of mind.
Claudio – from all of us at Aberkyn – long life, continued happiness and many years of being a force for good in the world.
Thank you Mike.
Adapted from LEADERSHIP AT SCALE (2018), a letter to a CEO:
“We live, as you know, in interesting times. Since the first industrial revolution until the end of the nineteenth century, organizations prospered from the efforts, broadly, of remarkable individuals (pioneers like Brunel, Maybach, Carnegie, Ford); the twentieth century saw two more industrial revolutions – the electro-chemical revolution and the electronic-information revolution – as we gathered in ever larger groups to make and do at scale. Here, management ruled; the twentieth century was the management century.
Now in the fourth industrial revolution, which is changing work and lives more rapidly than before (by means of technological change and systemic impact), we need leadership at scale.
Here is why. Leadership now means fast decisions based on imperfect information in rapidly changing environments. It becomes ever more difficult for you and your people to align others, execute your strategy and renew your organization.
Looking to the future, we hold the following three imperatives to be true, based on what we have found, what we know collectively as an organization, and what the hundreds of colleagues and friends from McKinsey Academy and beyond tell us:
Learn Everywhere: Leadership development is the quintessence of the learning organization; if you are not committed to learning, you will likely not be committed to developing the leaders you need. The future belongs to those organizations that are ready to learn and create conditions for learning, faster than their competition – in other words, those that have learned how to learn.
Embrace Challenges Fast: The large-scale organizational challenges implied by deep global trends will require swift reaction and response at scale. You get ready for this perpetual change by readying your leaders. Playing catch-up is no longer an option.
Go Beyond Organizations: As organizations change shape, and do so more frequently and profoundly as opportunities and disruptive forces shape them, leadership itself flows beyond the single organization into the societies around our organizations. The leadership in your organization can affect your society for the better, and it is your duty to shape the right behaviors, skills and mindsets broadly.”
CLAUDIO FESER (with Michael Rennie, Nicolai Nielsen, Andrew St George) excerpt from Leadership at Scale (Feser, Rennie & Nielsen; Hachette, 2018).