The ex-chairman of McKinsey’s Asia offices on life, love, business – and why he wants to be “a whole person”
By Elizabeth Han (INSEAD MBA 22D)
2 September 2022
“You’re becoming boring.”
Those were the words of McKinsey senior partner Oliver Tonby’s wife – to him. It happened in 1999, he tells me, two years after he joined McKinsey – after getting an MBA with distinction from INSEAD.
He decided he had to be “a whole person”.
Oliver, 52, and I are having afternoon tea at McKinsey’s Singapore office, where he is based.
We are in a cosy corner room called Changi with warm lighting and luxurious-looking curtains – his assistant told me it is his favourite room – where the view of Marina Bay distracts me a little. Our photographer – my friend and schoolmate Leon Guo – joins us.
Oliver walks with a bit of a limp. Ski accident in Norway last December, he tells me. I am learning to walk again, he says.
I have a long list of questions for the man who was once one of us on the INSEAD campus and who has for over two decades helped transform company after company. Who is Oliver?
Global yet local
He left Norway seven days after he was born.
For years Oliver and his family moved around the world – Scotland, France, the United States, Brazil – before returning to Norway, where he attended high school and university.
But he never had any doubt where home was. Home was his grandparents’ farm in the south of Oslo, where he would spend summer and winter holidays.
His adult life would mirror his globetrotting childhood. Still he remains loyally Norwegian and at the same time adapted to local life wherever he is (I have moved from salt and pepper to sambal, he tells me).
He speaks five languages: Norwegian, English, French, Portuguese, and German. (He says he is “not so good” at the last three.) A bit of Singlish too, I notice.
Science, guns, then science again
I always wanted to be a scientist, Oliver tells me. Science is about learning, discovering, experimenting, he says. Now he does it in a business context.
He has a master’s degree in biochemical engineering from the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology. His thesis was on bioplastics.
After university, he served in the Norwegian army. His stint in the infantry was not without drama – he was once investigated for firing a gun (accidentally, he tells me) in peacetime.
He started his career at Norsk Hydro, a Norwegian aluminium and renewable energy company, where he worked as a scientist in a fertiliser plant in the north of the Arctic Circle.
Then he joined Shell as an engineer – first in the Netherlands then back in Scotland. Life at Shell was also not without drama. He was a member of Greenpeace when Brent Spar happened. He also came to be associated with blackouts – I step off the helicopter onto the building, he tells me, and the platform somehow loses power. So no one wanted me onboard, he says.
“My raison d'être is my family”
The love of his life
He talks about his wife Trine, 51, with warmth and affection.
I met her, he tells me, on 28 August 1989 at university. (Yes, he remembers details. More to come.)
I first saw her in a cafeteria on campus, he says, and I told myself I needed to meet her. He found out where she was going to be that evening – a bar – and he “happened to be there coincidentally”.
We were at a big table with a sofa, Oliver recalls, and she was seated at the most inaccessible part of it. I had to work my way through all night to get to her, he tells me.
They spent the first five years of their relationship apart. After that we felt life was too short, he says. They have been together since.
Trine has degrees in industrial economics, fashion design, and recently, technopreneurship. Her work experience includes process optimisation offshore in the North Sea and business development for an oil and gas company. (She once negotiated a multi-billion dollar deal with one of Oliver’s fellow INSEADers.) Trine is now a fashion designer and a part-time investor in startups and venture capital funds.
On weekends Oliver and Trine like to cycle around Singapore for half a day (his favourite route is a mix of nature, housing estates, and the modern skyline), meet friends for a late lunch, and then “Netflix and chill” (he tells me about Peaky Blinders, so I think he really means Netflix).
He and Trine have two children: a son, Ferdinand, who was born in the United States in 2000; and a daughter, Alexandra, born in Norway in 2003. Both are studying abroad – Ferdinand, engineering in Canada, and Alexandra, biological sciences in Scotland.
My raison d'être is my family, Oliver says.
My mother, he tells me, was a tiger mum long before people created the notion of tiger mums. An entrepreneur, she owned shops selling kitchen equipment. His father, also an engineer, was a business leader. He has a younger brother, a doctor, who lives in Norway.
He was close to all four grandparents. My grandmother told me, he recalls, that if you are not frustrated then you are probably not learning.
The business school for the world
Beautiful French town. International environment. Massive dose of socialising. It should have been multiple years, he says about the INSEAD MBA. (The programme lasts one year.)
I was having a blast as an engineer, Oliver tells me. Then he wanted to see more of the world and do a broader form of business.
INSEAD is a good choice, he says. He graduated in 1996.
What does he say to those of us who are where he was almost three decades ago? Follow your passion, he says. It is easier to do things earlier than later in life and remember that the choices you make are not necessarily for life, he tells me. (Unlike marrying your wife, he adds.) Try it on for size, he suggests.
Life at The Firm
He chose to start at McKinsey’s Oslo office so he could be close to his grandparents.
I planned to stay for two years, he tells me. This year marks his 25th year at the firm.
He has been based in four countries: Norway, the United States, Malaysia (his first time in Asia – in 2003), and currently Singapore.
He had always wanted to work abroad. I wanted to be a globally relevant leader, he says.
Oliver was previously the chairman of McKinsey’s offices in Asia, including in Australia, India, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia.
“That after 25 years it’s still cool”
– on what he did not expect from McKinsey
What is a McKinsey myth that is not true, I ask. Well, he says, it is not true that we do only strategy. Implementation makes up more than half of what they do.
What we do, he tells me, has evolved tremendously. He recalls the first project he did in 1997: produce a valuation for a new wooden flooring patent. It took three months to complete. Today it would take two days, he says, and no client would pay for it.
The job of a consultant has become more sophisticated, he tells me, and technology is infused in everything we do. The bar for expertise too is rising – clients want not the best experts in the country but the best experts globally, he says.
What did he not expect from the firm? That after 25 years it’s still cool, he says. Also, the firm’s ability to adapt, such as how it established its sustainability practice.
When did he decide he needed to be “a whole person”? Two years into the job his wife told him: “Oliver, you’re becoming boring. You might want to do something about it.”
And he realised he was spending too much time at work – because the topics are cool, the people are interesting, and I am curious, he says. But he wanted a balanced life. There is no silver bullet, he tells me, you have to find that balance.
He also stays physically active. In Singapore this includes running, cycling, and doing Pilates. Sometimes he rollerblades to work. How long does it take, I ask. 1 hour, 2 minutes, and 54 seconds, he says.
We talk about the firm’s All-In initiative – for which he was previously global coleader – which promotes gender inclusivity and women’s leadership. The starting point is simple, he tells me. Half of the world’s talent are women, and the firm needs to get all the talent we can get, he says. We have gotten to a good spot, he says of the initiative, but the journey has just started.
What is his leadership style? He tells me he is known to be energetic, direct, and positive. Communication style? Direct, he says.
People development is important, he tells me. He believes in sponsorship – creating opportunities for people, giving them the stage, and enabling them to take on new roles.
To those just starting out at the firm – you have chosen the right place, he says.
The fourth industrial revolution
Eight years ago, he says, I realised there was a revolution in the making. Industry 4.0 had arrived.
Industry 4.0 went from being a CTO topic to a CEO topic, Oliver tells me. From being talked about on the side to being embedded and infused in the business. It pervades everything now, he says.
Still there is more to be done. Many companies look inside the fence (optimising processes within a plant, for example), he says, but the best ones also look outside the fence (such as by optimising processes across a network of plants in real time).
This applies to supply chains. Supply chains have changed completely, he says, and it is now about availability. Supply Chain 4.0 is a must-have, he tells me, and companies must diversify to build resilience. Even then, he says, we are going to have to live with a higher level of uncertainty.
He is a core leader of McKinsey’s Digital Capability Centre in Singapore – a model factory that drives digital transformation of companies in Southeast Asia – where the firm trains its consultants and clients in digital technologies.
What is next, I ask. The AI revolution has just started, he says, and AI predictions are something to watch.
Hope for the planet
I’m a die-hard believer in a greener world, he tells me. Sustainability, he says, is existential for the world and existential for companies.
There was a material shift three years ago, Oliver recalls, and sustainability is now top of mind for CEOs. Consumers want it, investors want it, governments want it, so CEOs are under pressure, he says.
Companies can no longer sit and observe, he says. They need to be part of the solution and they must play defence and offence.
He tells me he is optimistic and frustrated. Optimistic because many solutions exist; frustrated because some things ought to be in place but are not. He gives an example:
given that wind and solar technologies are fully cost-competitive with coal, we ought to transition as quickly as we can. I am impatient, he says.
Energy is his pet topic. Put together three things that excite him – science, sustainability, and business – and you get energy. If a country wants to develop, he says, you need energy. The world needs all forms of energy, he tells me, because if we don’t have enough, development slows down.
Through his lens
As a child he viewed the world of business with fascination and curiosity. I used to grab my father’s briefcase after work and pore over his materials, trying to make sense of business, he tells me.
“Someone who can use a telescope and a microscope”
– on what makes a great leader
What makes a great company, I ask. One that is not happy with the status quo, he says. One that is nimble. (At first he says “agile” then he tells me he is “not a buzzword person” and offers “nimble” instead.) One that is able to stay ahead of the game – by running faster and in the right direction.
And a great leader? Someone who stands on the balcony and sees the big picture and then gets on the dance floor and goes micro, he tells me. Someone who can use a telescope and a microscope. Someone who is able to see what is coming around the corner before it arrives. Someone who can build a team and inspire not only the team but the firm.
What makes a great consultant? The ability to put yourself deep in your client’s shoes, he tells me. The ability to solve problems, the ability to integrate between functions and topics, the ability to work with and influence people. Also, drive and energy, he says.
He quotes the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Be a whole person – don’t be boring
We have been chatting for almost three hours. (More than the amount of time I asked for and he was kind enough to let me continue.)
I see Oliver as someone who takes what he does seriously but doesn’t take himself too seriously. A veteran in consulting; an advocate for doing good; a scientist at heart. Above all – a man whose purpose in life is his family.
What are his other loves? Nature, history, archaeology, reading, spicy food.
He has read every edition of the National Geographic magazine since 1978 – and still keeps every physical copy. He also collects old books, old maps, coins, seashells, and rocks.
He looks up to Martin Luther King. I look up to people who do something special for humankind, stand up for equality, and put their whole lives behind it, he tells me.
We wrap up with rapid-fire questions. (Love Actually – I did not see that one coming.)
Oliver gives me a quote as we part.
“Be interested; be interesting. Be a whole person. Don’t be boring.”
The Afternoon Tea Series is a column where an INSEAD MBA chats with another INSEAD MBA over tea and writes about them.