Interview by Jen Itzenson
In 2003, Nancy McKinstry ’84 became the first American — and first woman — to run Wolters Kluwer, the global information services and publishing company based in the Netherlands. Under her leadership, the 175-year-old company has transformed from a traditional publisher to a provider of software solutions; online and digital products now account for close to 80 percent of the company’s revenue, up from less than 50 percent in 2008.
McKinstry, who also serves on Columbia Business School’s Board of Overseers, frequently appears on lists of the most powerful women in business. Here, she talks to Columbia Business about driving change, creating diversity at the top, and the skills she considers essential for career advancement.
Columbia Business: Could you discuss your role in accelerating growth at Wolters Kluwer?
Nancy McKinstry: We’ve had a very exciting journey over the last decade. If you look at the industry that we operate in — we provide professional customers with information software services — what you see is that the industry itself has undergone dramatic changes in recent years, largely because of the impact of technology on how people use information and do their work.
When I started, the company wasn’t doing so well. Revenues had decreased by 2 percent and profits were not what you should expect of a company like this. I was the first non-Dutch CEO and also a woman — a very different type of leader than people were used to. I realized that I had to make clear right away where I wanted to go. Where other newcomers might resort to ‘theater’ to convey their message, I preferred smaller meetings, touring the branches, personal conversations, and a higher level of involvement from headquarters. I personally gave explanations of our new strategy on a regular basis.
And that strategy produced results. In the last 10 years, we have divested more than 50 assets, most of which were legacy print businesses; in turn, we have acquired mainly digital businesses. Today, 77 percent of our revenue comes from electronic products and services, and we’re continuing to balance and expand our geographic footprint.
You're in your 11th year as CEO and chairman. What challenges have you faced in leading an established publishing company during a seismic shift in the industry?
I would say that our first challenge was our decentralized operations. We had probably 200 little companies around the world that were operating very separately from one another. We had to bring these companies together and integrate them along customer lines. We focused our operating units in four divisions: legal, tax, financial services, and health. Our second challenge was investing: we had to make a substantial number of investments to really drive the business digitally.
And a last challenge was people and talent. We had to make a number of changes in the kinds of folks we had at Wolters Kluwer, because we were shifting very much from more of an editorial approach to a blend of software, technology, and editorial skills. We required a rigorous transformation across a number of dimensions.
You’re one of just a few Americans to head a large European company. How did your nationality affect your role at Wolters Kluwer?
I would say it’s been positive in many ways to be the first non-Dutch citizen to run the company. I knew the business very well — I was an insider who came from the business, understood it, and knew what we had to do strategically. But I was also an outsider, because I was American and female, and I was very different from my predecessor. That combination of being an insider and an outsider allowed me to drive change — being different was a positive.
Did you also feel like an outsider as the first woman to lead the company?
I’d say my gender made less of a difference than coming from a different culture. One thing I’ve tried hard to do is understand that there are a lot of cultural differences in our company — we sell our products in 150 countries, we have substantial operations in more than 40 countries, and most of our employees who work in a country are of that country’s nationality. We recognize that people are going to have different approaches to decision making and problem solving: we don’t try to force everybody into the same mold. We’ve found that giving people some freedom in terms of how they run the business, letting them reflect their own market, has been a positive for us.
Could you discuss your effort to increase diversity at Wolters Kluwer?
I believe the responsibility to create more diversity starts at the top. If you look at our company, about 28 percent of our top executives and 43 percent of our senior managers are female. When I started as CEO, women accounted for only 20 percent of those top leadership roles. So we’ve made substantial progress.
We focus not only on gender diversity but also on nationality diversity. Based on my own experience, I’ve found that the greater the diversity, the better the decision making. When you have diverse teams driving businesses, there’s more discussion about alternatives and the debates are more challenging. As a result, you get better decisions. I’ve made it part of my agenda to make sure that we continue to drive diversity.
What do you make of the recent debates surrounding work-life balance?
I think this is a topic that all employees face; I don’t think it’s specific to women. Most employees grapple with two key challenges in this arena. Those with young children will face a time when there are many demands in their private lives. And that usually comes at the same time that they’re trying to build their careers, so it’s difficult to find a balance. And many employees will face a similar situation later in life, when their parents are aging.
My own philosophy is that if companies can work with employees during these crunch times, and do it in a positive and constructive way, firms can have very productive and loyal employees. So we’ve created programs to help people. We have part-time schedules and work-from-anywhere programs that allow people to work three days a week in the office and two days from home. We’ve tried to create a certain amount of flexibility in our work environment, recognizing that whether you’re male or female, there are probably going to be some points in your career when there are demands on both the work and home fronts.
The other thing I’ve observed is that every employee — and I’d say this is true of myself, too — has to make their own choices. At the end of the day, each individual has to decide how to create that work-life balance. The responsibility of the employer is to try to create alternatives.
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out today?
One piece of advice, based on my own experience, is to be willing to take risks to get to the next level. I would take on difficult projects, and I was always willing to go beyond whatever I was being asked to do — to work on task forces, go the extra mile. That combination of delivering good results in my current role, while also taking on new things and taking risks, helped me to advance relatively quickly.
The most important thing for anyone in the business world is to continuously develop skills and strengths so you can demonstrate results. Often people come out of an MBA program already thinking about what they want to be doing in five or ten years. I think you’ve got to go into whatever organization you join and demonstrate results. And you need to be able to communicate those results so the organization sees that you’re adding value. If you do those two things successfully, your career should progress on its own.
This article originally appeared in the November 12, 2013 edition of COLUMBIA BUSINESS.