Bob Sternfels survives McKinsey election battle to earn 2nd term

07 February 2024 3 min. read
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Bob Sternfels has been re-elected as McKinsey & Company’s global managing partner for a second three-year term, overcoming digital practice lead Rodney Zemmel and a field of senior challengers.

McKinsey & Company boss Bob Sternfels has survived an internal challenge to be re-elected as global managing partner for a second and final three-year term.

Two earlier rounds of voting among more than 700 senior partners worldwide had failed to deliver the US-based leader a majority, with Sternfels ultimately avoiding the fate of his predecessor Kevin Sneader by defeating global digital practice head Rodney Zemmel in the final run-off.

Bob Sternfels, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey & Company

Sternfels was elected to the top role in 2021 after the partnership unceremoniously dumped Sneader only three years into the job as the first single-term leader since the mid-70s, with the former Asia chairman having taken the helm amid a reputational firestorm and then sent packing due to widespread displeasure over his efforts to steer the firm in a new direction. Sternfels ultimately won out against McKinsey Global Institute chair Sven Smit in the run-off.

This time he has beaten fellow US-based thirty-year veteran Rodney Zemmel, in what could signal an intriguing new battlefront over the direction of what is often described as the world’s most prestigious management consultancy. For the disgruntled senior partners who backed Sternfels over Sneader due to the latter’s implementation of reforms in areas such as client vetting and transparency, Sternfels was to continue in much the same direction.

Now, sources of the Financial Times cited divisions over Sternfels’ own leadership style as a major reason he was pushed to compete for his job, including as to the concentration of decision-making and his handling of the restructuring project which led to last year’s axing of 1,400 back office staff. Yet, rather than it being an issue of traditionalists resistant to change, it was McKinsey’s global digital leader Zemmel who emerged as a surprise contender.

Among the ten names in the second-round ballot were McKinsey chief financial officer Eric Kutcher, chief client officer Liz Hilton Segel, and risk chief Carter Wood, along with former Asia chairman Oliver Tonby, who was looking to emulate the path taken to the top by both Sneader and his predecessor Dominic Barton. Zemmel was the one favoured, despite, unlike most of the candidates, never having served on the C-suite or led a major geographic region.

However, according to the firm, McKinsey Digital now accounts for over half of its client work, with a headcount of more than 7,000 digital and analytics specialists. In confirming Sternfels’ re-appointment, McKinsey also pointed toward this ongoing shift; “Building on its legacy as a strategic and management advisor, McKinsey has become a full ‘impact partner’ to its clients, deepening its capabilities in implementation, digital and organisational transformation.”

Here, as the firm accelerates further into the digital era, it has been suggested that Sternfels’ tougher than expected fight to hold his seat ultimately came down to his more staid, operations and private equity background being a mismatch in a period of rapid change, especially as to AI and sustainability, with one former partner telling the Financial Times, “I’m sure there’s a desire for somebody who will speak more compellingly and excitingly about what the firm is doing.”