Using Difference to Spark Change

Wolters Kluwer CEO Nancy McKinstry talks about how she turns being an American woman to her advantage at the helm the Dutch media giant

When Nancy McKinstry moved to Amsterdam last year to head up Dutch media giant Wolters Kluwer (WOKNF ), she knew she was in for a challenge. The $4.1 billion company, whose products include CCH Wall Street for the legal profession and the Medi-Span Master drug database, was delivering poor results, with sagging revenues and indigestion from years of acquisitions. The Connecticut-born McKinstry, 45, who had headed Wolters Kluwer's North American operations before taking the top job, is now trying to turn what was essentially a loose confederation of professional publishing and information-service businesses into a streamlined information leader.

McKinstry recently met with BusinessWeek Associate Editor Diane Brady in New York to discuss the business challenges she faces, as well as the experience of being an American woman CEO of a European company. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Europe and the U.S. seem to be becoming more similar: In the U.S., there's more talk about work-life balance, while in Europe the workweek seems to be getting longer. What's going on?


The EU is expanding, and there's more competition. Most of the large companies compete in a global marketplace. You see more outsourcing, more globalization. We're certainly moving more offshore, especially those types of projects that people don't want to do anyway. Companies have to deal with the overall employment rules -- not just work hours -- over the next decade in order to stay ahead. It's a very hot issue. When we talk with our employees, they completely understand what's needed. In Europe, there are workers' councils, which are not like unions in the U.S. Everyone is in it together.

Q: The company wasn't doing well when you were tapped for the top job. Did you have mixed feelings about the promotion?


I was very excited. I clearly believed that things had to change at Wolters Kluwer. Having come more from the revenue-producing side of the business, I had a different perspective. The prior chairmen were mostly from the finance side. We ran ourselves as a holding company so the major role of chairmen in the past has been to balance our businesses -- not to run them, not to optimize them, not to figure out how to integrate them. We knew the direction we had to go [in] long before the outside world knew. We announced a new strategy in October to invest around the key market positions we had, restructure, integrate our businesses, and get a lot closer to our customers.

Q: Has it been hard to get employees to accept that kind of shakeup?


It's a work in progress. The top people knew that we had to change, and we worked closely with them to develop the strategy. The people at the very bottom don't really notice a change. If you're a production editor, you're a production editor. The real change has to occur within middle management. The big challenge there is to have them perceive the advantages of integration. Getting people to work together will take time.

Q: You're attracting a lot of attention as an American woman CEO who's the mother of two children. Do you think that has made your job more difficult, or is it an asset?


Clearly it matters because it matters to other people. I try to use [being American and a woman] as a catalyst to change. I don't have an expectation that I will ever be truly accepted. That just doesn't happen. I'm never going to be a European or viewed as European.

Q: What about being accepted as a woman CEO?


I was speaking to another senior woman in a different industry, and we were laughing about this. I truly can't cite an example where being a woman impeded my progress. People expect you to have this litany of stories, and neither she nor I had any. I try to just be blind to it and, when possible, use the fact that I'm different as a platform for pushing change. Hopefully, the fact that I'm different helps me advance the cause of Wolters Kluwer. And that's all I care about -- making the company successful. If people want to talk about me being a woman, that's fine, as long as we get on to the subject of Wolters Kluwer.

Q: Does it affect how you do business?


Every country in Europe is really different. In some countries, the concept of being a woman in business and having a family is well accepted. If you go to Sweden, I think more than half of our people are women. But in other countries, it's very different. What has been reinforced is that you really have to listen to people. There's nuance to what people are saying. And there isn't one approach. What solves a problem in Italy might not work in Belgium. I say where we're going and what I want people to accomplish, but I have to give them some latitude in how they get it done.

Q: In Europe, you can go for days without being asked what you do for a living. In the U.S., it's often the first thing that comes up. Do you find that even as head of a company, you're less defined by your job in Europe than by who you are?


There's much more interest in what I do outside of work. In Europe, they clearly want to know more about the whole person. Here [in the U.S.], you don't really talk about religion, sex, and politics. There, it always comes up -- and you're expected to have opinions on everything.... There isn't as much celebrity [in Europe], which I think is positive. You're there to represent your company in a work setting. I think that's healthy.

Q: What do you see as our major business challenges at this point?


Certainly, our biggest challenge is organic growth. We have been transforming from a print publisher to an electronic information provider. We need to provide our customers with product in all different forms. The general advertising climate affects a small piece of our business. Competition for content is increasing, and it's a structural increase.

Q: Are you pleased with where you are now?


We're making very good progress. Things are really tracking. I'm a runner, and I recognize you can do really well for the first mile, but you have to get to the finish line. This is a three-year process, and we're eight months into it. It's early, but we're pleased.

Edited by Thane Peterson

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