McKinsey's senior partners pick Bob Sternfels as global leader

10 March 2021 3 min. read
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Following weeks of intense debate, McKinsey & Company’s 650-strong senior partner team has finalised the selection of the firm’s next Global Managing Partner. Following the surprise ousting of previous boss Kevin Sneader in the early rounds of the process, Bob Sternfels has won the race to replace him.

Dubbed by many as the world’s most prestigious management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company has around 30,000 employees generating revenues of $11 billion. The privately-held company is led by a Global Managing Partner, elected every three years by the firm’s partnership.

The selection follows a three-step process, with the first step allowing each of the firm’s senior partners to nominate seven candidates. Eventually this whittles down to two candidates – in 2018, those were winner Kevin Sneader and San Fransisco based Senior Partner Bob Sternfels.

Bob Sternfels, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company

Sneader’s predecessors had presided over a period where the firm was buffeted by a series of damaging scandals – including the infamous Gupta family saga. This was not the only reputational matter in Sneader’s inbox, however. The largest of these high-profile reputation crises was perhaps the much-written about opioid settlement, which related to work McKinsey delivered over a decade ago. As a result, Sneader’s first term was a tumultuous one, and when Partners returned to pick their global leader three years later, they swiftly decided a fresh start was needed.

After Sneader was frozen out of the contest at the first round, the remaining candidates were Sven Smit, the Amsterdam-based co-chair of the McKinsey Global Institute, and Sternfels. This time, following a tight contest, Sternfels’ candidacy has been successful – and he will now face the challenge of stabilising a consultancy shaken by reputational crises that have raised questions about its culture, growth strategy and governance. 

Sternfels, who will be the 13th Partner to lead McKinsey since its founding in 1926, commented, “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… 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.”

Under new management

Commenting on the leadership race, one former partner told the Financial Times that Sternfels and Smit were contrasting approaches which could have significantly changed the outlook for the firm either way. Before results of the final vote were known, the source said that Smit was “a towering intellectual” but contrasted this with Sternfels being “more of an operational manager” and suggested he was more capable of “going a couple of steps beyond” Sneader’s efforts to impose more rigorous structures on a firm.

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. He has been at McKinsey since 1994, working in Australia and South Africa before returning to his native California.

In his current role of Head of Client Capabilities, Sternfels oversees the firm’s industry practices and remains closely associated with an innovation agenda that took McKinsey into new markets, including bankruptcy advice, during the leadership of Sneader’s predecessor, Dominic Barton.

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 to continue from the work of his own predecessor, who steps down on July 1st – McKinsey’s first single-term Managing Partner since 1976.