A Life of Learning

A true believer in the power of education, Nick van Dam makes an indelible mark on McKinsey and the L&D profession at large.

By Agatha Bordonaro

photos by Saskia Aukema

Chances are, if you were to reflect on the times in your life that felt most fulfilling, you would recall that you were in the middle of learning.

“If you look at all the studies on happiness, there are three things that make people happy,” Nick van Dam said. “One relates to people continuing to grow in their lives. Another relates to people having social relationships: spending time with friends, family, colleagues. The third is about having meaning and purpose in one’s life.

“If you think about it, learning plays a role in all of that,” he continued. “I think that’s very exciting.”

Van Dam would know. With a master’s degree in sociology and psychology, a doctorate in human capital development, an adjunct professorship and advisory board membership at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program, and a professorship of corporate learning and development at the Netherlands’ Nyenrode Business Universiteit — not to mention nearly 20 books and countless articles and workshops to his name — the 30-year industry veteran is a true believer in the transcendental power of learning.

“Nick is the true depiction of what a ‘lifelong learner’ should be.”

— Ursula Fear, associate,
Catalyst Consulting South Africa

“He really lives learning,” said Kayvan Kian, a junior partner at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., Amsterdam. “I wouldn’t know whether there’s a difference between Nick at work and Nick outside of work. This is his passion.”

Kian has participated in a number of McKinsey leadership programs and co-facilitated one of the company’s flagship programs, the Young Leaders Forum, with van Dam, who joined McKinsey in 2013 as global chief learning officer.

“Nick is the true depiction of what a ‘lifelong learner’ should be,” said Ursula Fear, an associate with talent consulting firm Catalyst Consulting South Africa and van Dam’s former colleague at Deloitte, where he was global CLO and director of human capital. “Nick is always bettering himself and his work in the L&D space. His thirst and hunger to know more, to do more and, ultimately, to help the world at large is what makes all of us awe-inspired by this incredibly professional man.”

The Learning Revolution

A native of Soest, a town about 40 minutes outside Amsterdam, van Dam got his start in L&D as a consultant working for Siemens, where he put his undergraduate degree in digital education to use helping clients implement learning systems, primarily in IT.

In the next 10 to 15 years, van Dam said, business as we know it will be transformed by entirely new suites of technologies, such as the “internet of things,” artificial intelligence and 3-D printing, and “that will have massive implications for the skills that people need to have. Therefore, organizations need to step up and do more in terms of developing the workforce for existing and future roles.”

In addition to its impact on our personal fulfillment, learning is — now more than ever — a business imperative: With higher life expectancies leading experts to predict that the average person will spend more than 50 years in the workforce, and with the pace of technological advancement accelerating at warp speed, workers will need to constantly learn and adapt to stay relevant.

“We’re in the fourth Industrial Revolution,” van Dam said.

A Holistic Approach

Revolutionary times call for a dynamic role for learning, one which van Dam sees as all-inclusive, contextual and experimental.

“He has a very holistic approach to learning and development. It’s interdisciplinary,” said Ludmilla Kruske, a corporate training and development manager for a subsidiary of the Freudenberg Group in Germany. Kruske met van Dam in March 2017 when she took his International Masterclass Learning & Development Leadership at Nyenrode. “He takes a lot of ideas from psychology to the latest research on neuroscience, and he combines all of that together with theories of adult development.”

For example, van Dam incorporated elements of health and wellness into the Learning & Development Masterclass, leading attendees in yoga and meditation segments, Kruske says. In his work for McKinsey, van Dam is collaborating on a new program with Kian called Leadership by Wisdom, which will leverage insights from philosophy.

“His idea was, how about we collaborate with real philosophers?” Kian said. “It’s timeless: It would be applicable and relevant to senior executives, board members, anyone in a leadership position who would like to look at the problems they’re facing from very different angles. Like, what would the ancient Romans and Greeks think about this? Or how would someone with more of a Buddhist lens look at this issue? Being able to switch between these lenses is a skill that only helps you become a better leader and solve very complex problems.”

“My personal mission is to advance the L&D profession and, as a consequence, to have an impact on people development globally.”

— Nick van Dam, global chief learning officer, McKinsey & Co.

Kian said that van Dam also is open to trying things, testing to see what works and what doesn’t. “There are some people who might say, ‘We haven’t tried this before in learning; maybe we should wait and see.’ Nick is someone who says, ‘Well, there’s a good way to find out — and that’s by actually doing it.”

Driving Growth at McKinsey

At McKinsey, one of van Dam’s missions is to make learning an integrated, seamless part of the work experience. “Nick’s approach to L&D is all about job effectiveness, continuous employment and finding ways and means to making the people within organizations successfully evolve over time,” Fear said.

To that end, van Dam and his team have redesigned the firm’s learning program to move from a single two- or three-day course to ongoing “learning journeys” for different cohorts. “So you build capabilities over your tenure at the firm,” van Dam said.

Even in just a few years, this restructuring of the learning program has been noticeable. “If I compare my last year, 2017, with when I first joined McKinsey [in 2014], it feels much more that learning is a continuous part of the day-to-day work,” Kian said.

This integrated approach is in line with the learning profession’s movement toward becoming a personalized and comprehensive experience.

The explosion of digital education tools is both a catalyst and a driver of the learner-driven model, and van Dam is leveraging those tools at McKinsey. For example, one new module that his team has launched is called “industry quick starts,” which offer traveling consultants helpful client-industry overviews that they can access on the fly.

“Let’s assume you’re a consultant and you get assigned to work for the financial services industry tomorrow,” van Dam said. “You can go into this industry quick start and learn everything about the financial industry that’s relevant for you and also understand what we, as a firm, are doing in the financial industry. So if you are spending time tomorrow with your client, you are well prepared to do so.”

In addition to these performance support tools, van Dam has rolled out a series of personal development courses, including a game designed to teach project managers leadership skills and a program that helps workers prioritize and organize themselves better. Van Dam and his team have also used technology to facilitate in-person learning. They launched an application called Coach Now, which connects employees looking for guidance with potential mentors.

That hard work is paying off: On average, the entire suite of learning programs that van Dam and his team delivered at McKinsey globally in 2017 received a score of 6.4 out of 7 in terms of value for time spent. That’s based on participant survey feedback.

“It’s always extremely exciting and rewarding if you spend time with people who are pleased with the kind of programs they have been attending and feel the programs have helped them — not just as colleagues at McKinsey, but also personally, in their lives, to make decisions,” van Dam said.

Nick van Dam believes workers need to constantly learn and adapt to new technologies to stay relevant. “We’re in the fourth Industrial Revolution,” he says.

Teaching the Teachers

Van Dam’s penchant for education doesn’t stop with McKinsey business executives — he is equally invested in developing learning professionals on his team and around the world. “My personal mission is to advance the L&D profession and, as a consequence, to have an impact on people development globally,” he said.

In addition to helping develop the next generation of CLOs through his work with the PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program, van Dam’s International Masterclass Learning & Development Leadership brought together 24 senior L&D professionals from 11 countries for a six-day immersive “learning journey.” The class, developed by practitioners and academics, boasted a blended approach that focused on building expertise, skills and lifelong learning mindsets and included the opportunity to be mentored by experienced peers.

“Nick cares about individuals and about everyone reaching their full potential as a member of an organization,” Kruske said. “He spent quite some time mentoring me through some challenges in my career this year.”

Van Dam’s passion for the field is further demonstrated by the fact that he is donating 100 percent of the royalties from his latest book, “Do What Matters Most in Life: Positive Psychology in Practice,” as well as the royalties from his books “You! The Positive Force in Change, Next Learning Unwrapped,” and “The E-Learning Fieldbook,” to E-learning for Kids, the nonprofit he founded in 2005 to provide free online learning courses in math, science, computer skills, language and the arts for children between the ages of 5 and 12.

“If you look at statistics, there are about 70 million children who don’t go to elementary school,” van Dam said. “There are a couple hundred million children who unfortunately don’t benefit from a high-quality or personalized education experience. That time [in one’s life] is crucial. [This nonprofit] is something I can do to help a little bit.”

According to van Dam, E-learning for Kids is now the No. 1 massive open online course, or MOOC, for children ages 5 through 12 based on an elementary school curriculum. Since its launch, more than 34 million courses have been taken in 109 countries globally. Van Dam visits schools, meets with principals and gathers feedback to continuously improve the platform.

“It is very rare these days to find a person with so much knowledge and wisdom and yet, at the same time, an equal amount of humility,” Fear said. “Ego does not exist with Nick, and he always comes across with an open mind and heart, eager to learn from others.”

Challenges and the Road Ahead

One of the challenges van Dam sees both for himself and for the L&D profession is that many people don’t realize how important continued growth and learning is for success.

Van Dam demonstrates the importance of learning by investing in it himself. “I always tell clients, ‘We are taking our own medicine,’ ” he said. “We are making significant investments in learning [at McKinsey]. Human capital is incredibly important, and in order to retain its value, you need to continue to invest in people and leadership development.”

That work has come with recognition. Van Dam received the 2012 Lifetime Learning Leadership Award from the Masie Center, a workforce education think tank, and the 2013 Leonardo European Corporate Learning Award from the European Parliament Federal Ministry of Education & Research.

Nick van Dam’s goal is to make learning an integrated, seamless part of the work experience.

Despite these accolades, it’s the feedback from colleagues that brings van Dam the greatest gratification.
“I got an email last week … sharing a message from one of the professionals on our team, who said, ‘I’ve been in this profession for 20 years. If I reflect on what I’ve been learning over the last three years, it’s off the charts. This is the most exciting time in my career in L&D,’ ” van Dam said.

“Feedback like that makes me smile and proud that we are really helping to develop a next generation of professionals in L&D.”

Agatha Bordonaro is a writer based in New York. She can be reached at