Interview – Aberkyn

Aberkyn began in 2012 as a joint venture with the management consultancy McKinsey & Company. Its 100 facilitators work globally to help organisations accelerate transformation, using leadership and team development, change management and wilderness trails. Mike Carson, an Aberkyn founder, met us to talk about growing a new organisation out of one with a rich history.

Interviews | 3 minutes read | Michael Gough

Interview – Aberkyn
Interview – Aberkyn

How did you start Aberkyn?

Three major strands in my life led to it. The first was my time in the Royal Navy, where I spent 12 years as an operations officer, studying human leadership closely. After a year at INSEAD gaining an MBA, I joined McKinsey & Company in 2000: a second major strand. I couldn’t have done Aberkyn without McKinsey, a global firm like no other. Its reach thrilled me, and so did the multicultural element. The third strand is about the importance I attach to purpose. We devote big chunks of our lives to work, so we need to find meaning in it.

Was Aberkyn born out of McKinsey, or did it develop separately?

In 2006, I felt the need to focus on transformational leadership, which then wasn’t common currency. I left McKinsey on great terms and became a solo player, setting up my own consultancy. As more people in McKinsey saw the need for this type of work, a cloud of facilitators formed globally. Work was taking off in Holland, and when they brought in a big English–speaking client, I became involved in the conversation. Aberkyn began in 2012 as a joint venture between McKinsey and a group of partners.

How and why did you start working with Sparks?

In 2012, we were looking to brand what’s now Aberkyn. Sparks was recommended, we met with the directors, and there was a resonance. I appreciated their empathy and creativity, and the care they took over getting to know us and deeply understanding who we are. Sparks ‘got’ us. It also had a good funneling process. From a wide spread of ideas for our name, they reduced our ideas – very slowly and gently but firmly – until we got to one. The idea of links was strong: we talked about the Olympic rings, Audi, Coco Chanel, and Sparks came up with a beautiful logo.

What does Aberkyn do – and do differently? For example, why do leaders need to be transformed?

We do leadership and team development, change management, wilderness trails and other things; but one focus for our work is about releasing the hearts of leaders. In the world of business, people don’t often talk about heart (a word linked to ‘courage’) and love. Often, leaders operate from a chained–up, restrictive place. That might be self–absorption, fear of what the world thinks, anxiety over expectations. For CEOs, the number one fear is imposter syndrome: ‘I’m not the real deal’. Imagine what happens when leaders feel truly free to express themselves. It’s like watching a football team that’s in flow, or a ballet. It’s joy. That’s what we do, through coaching and facilitation.

Can an organisation transform without a transformed leadership?

There are two components of transformation. Both need attending to. The first is what we call ‘outside–in’: what you put in place to make a shift internally within an organisation. The second, ‘inside–out’, is often missing. This is about the mindset of the leader, which cascades to the organisation. It can take a profound shift to be able to work with your fears and needs to shift beliefs and priorities. When that happens, it can shift thoughts and feelings. In turn, this shifts behaviour, which can shift outcomes. At Aberkyn we create a space that is safe and challenging enough for leaders to make that shift. Research shows 70% of organisational transformations fail. We want transformation to last. The change we facilitate is positive and lasting, yielding strong results for businesses – it’s change that prevails.  

Where does the name Aberkyn originate?

We did a lot of work with Sparks to come up with it. There’s a ‘left–brain/right–brain’ connotation, and it brings Celtic ‘aber’  (a confluence of rivers, an important metaphor for what we do) together with Old Norse ‘kyn’ (representing our aim to nurture community and kinship). Where many different streams join together, a river becomes a powerful force and communities come to life. These ideas represent our partnership with McKinsey, our local/global approach, the balance between performance and health in organisations, and the nature of our relationship with clients.

What were the branding challenges?

We were sure of what we stood for; the challenge was how well we could articulate it. Sparks took us on a journey to review our purpose. We needed to be seen as serious and heavyweight, not fluffy – but not associated with a hard–nosed efficiency drive, either. We don’t want to step over into that very corporate world, but we are thoughtful; this is not a random brand. Our clients see the work that’s gone into it. This work continues, because although we are now part of McKinsey, our brand remains valuable and distinct.

Aberkyn started as a joint venture. Now it’s part of McKinsey, but you still have a separate and distinct identity. Could you tell us about drawing on McKinsey history but with a new approach?

By helping people become aware of their strengths, and what limits them, we give them power to make choices. When we help individuals to develop skills to connect to the bigger picture, they can create more successful organisations. We’re talking about organisations that are more attuned to their markets, more aligned to their customers. Between 2010 (when we started exploring ideas for Aberkyn) and 2015 (when McKinsey decided to acquire Aberkyn), the world’s need for the sort of work we do became evident. There were lots of disruptive technologies, the speed of dissemination of ideas was increasing, and everything was moving faster. There was a sense that ‘if you’re only doing this in a year’s time, it’s going to be too late’. McKinsey is not necessarily the first to take a step, but when it does, you can guarantee it will succeed. It’s a thought leader; it makes adventurous but very considered progress. By 2015, McKinsey realised it needed to do this work properly on a global scale. Early on, there was a challenge in being too close to McKinsey. We needed not to scare the horses, but in 2017, we became part of it. But the Aberkyn brand remains distinct, and very much in use.

Tell us why Aberkyn’s work matters.

Clients like the humanity of our work, and the way we accentuate the humanity of the workplace. When employees work under stress and fear, they withdraw to silos in an effort to control their own fields. Micro–management can choke creativity, and you get a climate of cynicism, negativity and blame. In contrast, when you have trust–based working relationships and empathy, empathy, interactions become real and meaningful. Innovation flows from open dialogue and leaders serve by asking powerful questions. Individuals challenge themselves and colleagues, and recognise skills and abilities. When we come into an organisation, the people we work with often feel a massive wave of release and curiosity. They can take their armour off. That’s incredibly releasing but it can be slightly scary. There’s fear: of losing out to competitors, losing business, being found out. But love shifts everything.