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Nancy McKinstry

Nancy McKinstry

CEO, Wolters Kluwer

Nancy McKinstry Delivers Transformative Results

The first female and the first non-Dutch CEO of Wolters Kluwer discusses what it took for a publishing giant to succeed in the digital age.

by Jen Swetzoff

As a college student at the University of Rhode Island (URI), Nancy McKinstry dreamed of becoming a foreign service officer. But languages didn’t come as naturally to her as numbers did — and so she began focusing on business. That move turned out to be good news for Wolters Kluwer, the global information services company that McKinstry now leads.

Named CEO in 2003, when she was just 45, McKinstry has spent the past 12 years transforming what was predominantly a European publishing house into a global IT solutions company. Today, Wolters Kluwer operates in more than 180 countries, providing information, software tools, and workflow solutions for professional customers in healthcare, legal, tax, and financial services.

McKinstry has worked at the intersection of communications and technology for most of her career. After graduating from URI with her BA in economics and political science, she took a job with the New England Telephone Company in Boston — at a time when the telecommunications industry was still regulated but starting to break up. After two years of working primarily on pricing for new services, she went to Columbia University for her MBA. During her first summer of graduate school, Booz Allen Hamilton hired McKinstry for an internship given her experience in telecommunications, an industry that was going through major changes at the time. After school, McKinstry continued working as a consultant in the media and telecommunications practices at Booz Allen Hamilton. After she had spent seven successful years there, CCH, then one of the largest U.S. legal and tax publishers, hired McKinstry to develop its digital publishing strategy. In 1996, Wolters Kluwer acquired CCH, and McKinstry’s professional experiences and acumen were deemed particularly valuable to the company’s growth strategy; she was repeatedly promoted until she left in 1999 to work as the CEO of SCP Communications, a medical information company. A year later, she returned to Wolters Kluwer to head its North American operations.

Along with her husband, McKinstry now lives in Amsterdam. Their two children, 25 and 20, after spending most of their childhood in the Netherlands, have returned to the United States for college and work. During a recent visit to New York, McKinstry talked with Strategy& about working abroad, life without a car, and what consulting taught her about running a company.

How has being based in the Netherlands for the past 12 years changed your perspective?
I’ve learned to be a better listener — different cultures each have their own nuances, and it’s important to understand what they are. I’ve also learned that there’s lots of different ways to solve problems. As long as you communicate where you want somebody to end up, there’s a lot of latitude for how they get there. .

I believe that all young people who have the ambition to ultimately run a global business should take an expat assignment because the learning is so significant. Until you live outside your home country, you don’t experience what it’s like to have to really adapt on the global stage.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Being the CEO of a growing, profitable business while having raised two children with my husband is something I certainly look back on with pride. My husband’s been extremely supportive, and I could not have had this level of success without him.

When I took over as CEO, the company, like most other media firms, was going through a difficult period. So we underwent a complete transformation that has touched almost every aspect of the company: the people, the capabilities, how we’re structured, how we resource things, how we work together. I think one of the most important decisions we made was to invest between 8 and 10 percent of our revenues back into new products and services. Since 2003, we’ve stuck to that commitment. Even at the height of the recession or the financial crisis, we cut costs in other areas, but we continued to invest. That was critical for the large innovative software solutions we’re building today. It takes a while [from] the time you think of a product to build it, to market it, and to get penetration in the market.

During a transformation like yours, what’s the leader’s role?
First, you have to be sure of your vision, commit to it, and have a team around you that also believes it and is executing against it. Second, you have to have the elevator pitch. You have to be able to succinctly say, here are the three priorities and why we’re doing this. Let’s go. It can’t be a complicated message. And finally, you have to be able to change and pivot when things aren’t going well. No plan is 100 percent executed the way you envision in the beginning .

What are some of your biggest challenges?
I think that for all CEOs in this day and age, economic volatility is a significant challenge, and it forces you to be nimble. Scenario planning has become an everyday discussion point for us, which wasn’t the case 15 years ago. And now we don’t do five-year plans. We do three-year plans, which we’re constantly updating because of how quickly things change.

More specifically to our business, one of the core challenges is how to best manage our legacy businesses while migrating into new technologies. Our customers use a broad range of solutions: They still use some print resources and digital information, but they also use newer workflow solutions. Our goal is to give them everything they need.

As you moved up in Wolters Kluwer, what stuck with you from your consulting days?
Consulting taught me three things that have proved absolutely invaluable in my career — problem solving, teamwork, and communication — all of which help you get to the most important goal: delivering results.

There was a real rigor at Booz Allen Hamilton around how do you work together to peel back a problem, dissect it to find the solution, and then clearly present it to the client. I still consider myself a strong speaker and writer today because of my training as a consultant. And I still remember something a partner said to me about communication skills: You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression. At that time, a long-term consulting project was maybe 12 weeks, so you had a limited amount of time to make an impression on your team and the client. It had better be a good one.

What’s a typical day like for you now?
The majority of my job is decision making. At Wolters Kluwer, one of the things that we pride ourselves on is the fact that we make decisions relatively quickly based on facts.

I travel roughly 50 percent of the time, interacting with shareholders, employees, media, and customers. When I’m in the office, I focus on meetings with other colleagues to discuss what’s going on with various business initiatives that we have under way.

Can you share an example?
One of the things we’re excited about is the expansion of software solutions in our health division, like UpToDate, a product that physicians rely on for clinical decision support. It’s used in almost every patient encounter to figure out how to treat and diagnose a particular condition. Right now, we’re developing and launching a Chinese-language version of UpToDate. We’re taking what’s worked successfully in other places and adapting it for the Chinese market.

How would people closest to you describe you?
Smart, pragmatic, and humble. I hope they would also say I’m generous.

What do you consider your most marked characteristics?
I’m persistent and resilient.

Which talent would you most like to have?
The ability to speak foreign languages. Every Dutch person seems to speak at least three languages and I admire that.

What is your greatest extravagance and what is something you could live without?
I’m a big reader. In our fast-paced world, sitting down with a good book and reading just for pleasure is a definite extravagance for me. As far as something I could live without, I’d have to say my car. Now that our children are grown, my husband and I just moved from a suburb of the Hague into Amsterdam. We gave up our car and ride bikes instead.

Who or what do you most admire?
Individuals who have had major setbacks and come back from the experience stronger. In interviews, I often ask candidates to tell me about a setback they had, what they learned, and how they dealt with it. What I’m looking for is whether they can dust themselves off and get back at it. If they still have a positive attitude, and can still be productive, I admire that

What do you think is the most overrated virtue?
Patience. In this day and age where there’s so much change, whether it’s technological or global forces, a little impatience can be healthy.

What advice would you give to people starting out in business?
Above all else, deliver results. Know how to solve problems, build a team, and communicate well. But also be flexible and take risks, particularly ones that give you global exposure. When you listen to CEOs’ stories, you learn that few of them have taken a linear path. It’s almost always a little bit of a zigzag.

Jen Swetzoff is a freelance writer and editor. Previously, she worked with Strategy& as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

Disclaimer: Please note that historical references to Booz & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton are found in this article/section since the alumni featured here left the firm prior to Strategy& joining the PwC global network of firms.

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