“Towering Leader” and Stanford Stalwart Bill Meehan Dies at Age 70

Longtime lecturer at Stanford GSB and revered mentor at McKinsey & Company

January 31, 2023

| by Kevin Cool
Portrait of Bill Meehan. Credit: Nancy Rothstein

Bill Meehan | Nancy Rothstein

Bill Meehan, an esteemed management consultant, longtime lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a prolific volunteer for a host of Stanford organizations, died January 26 in Palo Alto. He was 70.

Meehan, MBA ’78, was the Raccoon Partners Lecturer in Strategic Management at the GSB and senior partner emeritus of McKinsey & Company, where he worked for more than 30 years. “Bill’s incisive and direct style, his passion for excellence, and his generosity of spirit made him an exceptional teacher and mentor, and an immensely valuable member of the GSB community for more than four decades,” says Stanford GSB Dean Jonathan Levin.

Meehan taught or co-taught several courses at the GSB for over two decades, including Strategic Leadership of Nonprofit Organizations and Social Ventures, Managing Difficult Conversations, and Private Equity and Frontier Markets, developed with finance professor Paul Pfleiderer.

His collaborator was deeply devoted to students, says Pfleiderer. “His door was always open,” and office hours extended beyond a typical day. “During the pandemic, he met with students one-on-one on Zoom to mentor them.”

Meehan was a frequent visitor to General Atlantic Professor Jennifer Aaker’s Power of Story course, in which he enchanted students with tales from his life and career. He invited students to choose what story they wanted to hear, from a menu of 17 titles. He ended every lecture with this quote: “Life is only your remembered stories.”

“This insight had enormous impact on the students — as it did on me,” says Aaker. “It influences my research on what actually creates meaning (vs. happiness) in life.”

Meehan was instrumental in establishing the Center for Social Innovation at the GSB and was a codirector of Stanford Seed when it launched in 2012. “Bill passionately believed in the power of organizations to solve the world’s greatest challenges. For that reason, he never tolerated wishful thinking; he pushed you to recognize what needed to be true for your strategy to work,” says Jesper Sørensen, professor of organizational behavior and senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford GSB and former faculty director of Stanford Seed. “Bill’s commitment to the GSB and its power to change the world for the better will be sorely missed.”

Steve Denning, MBA ’78, was a classmate of Meehan’s and remained a close friend for the rest of his life. He admired Meehan’s frank, unvarnished style, and his willingness to challenge conventional thinking. “As a normal routine, I used to shadowbox in the mirror to get ready for the onslaught of his acerbic wit, which preceded, and often initially masked, the uniqueness of his insight and the depth of his input,” Denning says. “Bill was like a brother to me, and our relationship reflected this love, admiration, and respect. He was uniquely caring, compassionate, and impactful.”

Alan Rappaport, MBA ’78, says he is grateful for his 47-year friendship with Meehan, and to Stanford for bringing them together. “Bill was a force, committed to his ideas, his family and his friends.”

Roberta Denning, MBA ’78, another longtime friend, recalls being asked by Meehan what he should be teaching his MBA students. They don’t need another economics class, she said, somewhat facetiously, “they need someone to read poetry to them.” To her amazement, says Denning, Meehan came back later and took her up on the offer. And for 15 years, Denning periodically visited his class on the last day of the quarter and read poems. “I think it was Bill’s way of noting the importance of the arts and humanities.”

Meehan loved classical music and channeled that ardor into his civic and educational involvement. He was a Life Governor of the San Francisco Symphony and a founding member of the Stanford Arts Advisory Council. Pfleiderer had an ongoing conversation with Meehan about music. “We would email each other about what to listen to that day. One day would be Mahler, the next it would be Rachmaninoff, and so on. That continued all the years that we taught together.”

A Leader with a Long Reach

William F. Meehan III was born in New York in 1952, the youngest of four siblings. He grew up in Eastchester, New York, and went to Fordham Prep, a Jesuit high school. He earned his undergraduate degree in comparative literature at Columbia and enrolled at Stanford GSB in 1976.

Stanford GSB classmate Tom Tinsley, MBA ’78, recalls that Meehan’s penchant for pushback was evident even as a student, and his reputation preceded him. In Math for Liberal Arts taught by GSB professor Chuck Holloway, Tinsley and Meehan sat in the top row of the classroom and regularly lobbed questions, sometimes bordering on the impertinent. “At one point, as Dr. Holloway was explaining the Pythagorean theorem, Bill questioned whether we should question that theorem. Dr. Holloway thought that would not be time-worthy and he continued with the class. As he turned to the chalkboard, I blurted out a challenge to the theorem and he stopped, turned, and said, ‘That’s enough, Meehan.’”

Bill passionately believed in the power of organizations to solve the world’s greatest challenges.
Jesper Sørensen

Meehan joined the San Francisco office of McKinsey & Company shortly after earning his MBA and remained at the firm until his retirement in 2008. He worked closely with CEOs on strategy, organization, and leadership, and held several leadership roles. As a member of the Shareholders Council, McKinsey’s board, he was chair of the Client Committee and chair of the McKinsey Investment Office, which oversees more than $8 billion in investments. He was also vice-chair of the Senior Partners Review Committee, founder and leader of the Private Equity Practice, chair of the West Coast Practice, and managing director of the San Francisco office.

“Bill was a towering leader of people and counselor to clients — one who believed trust, inquisitiveness, and commitment were at the heart of every great client relationship,” says Alexis Krivkovich, MBA ’05, a senior partner at McKinsey. “He also believed every leader had an obligation to teach the next generation the craft. Everyone who was fortunate enough to have worked with him at McKinsey has a ‘Bill story’ of his interventions — big and small — that changed the course of their career for the better.”

McKinsey senior partner Gary Pinkus says Meehan’s “smash-mouth” coaching style mimicked that of NFL legend John Madden. Meehan believed that approach, “combined with a soft heart, was the best way to help people realize their true potential as consultants and as human beings,” says Pinkus, who earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford. “Like many, I found myself not wanting to disappoint him. But more importantly, he reinforced the importance of setting high standards for your own work and conduct — and not to disappoint yourself.”

Throughout his career, Meehan remained closely involved with Stanford. He advised the Stanford Board of Trustees and president on strategy and governance; was a founding member and vice-chair of the Natural Capital Advisory Council; a special advisor to the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence; and a special advisor to the Knight-Hennessy Scholars. He also was a founding member of the advisory council to the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford School of Medicine, calls Meehan “a true visionary, consummate leader, and passionate champion of philanthropic endeavors.” He will be remembered, Minor adds, “for his wisdom and for the warmth he displayed every day. His lasting impact will be seen through the people he mentored and the good his work brought to the world.”

In 2014, Meehan received the Excellence in Leadership Award from Stanford GSB.

In addition to his many volunteer activities for Stanford, Meehan chaired the boards of the United Way of the Bay Area and GuideStar, and served on boards of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the National Academy of Sciences, the California Roundtable, the North American Council of Ashoka, and his high school alma mater, Fordham Prep.

His 2017 book, co-authored with Kim Starkey Jonker, Engine of Impact: Essentials of Strategic Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector, is a bestseller in its field. He also served as a columnist for Forbes.com to, as he put it, “Encourage leaders to embrace facts, humane values, principled pragmatism, and noir realism as we face unprecedented global transformations.”

Meehan’s distinguished legacy, says Steve Denning, will be felt for many years. “He was a mentor to many and a leader for all.”

Meehan is survived by his wife, Randi; his daughters Courtney, Kelly, and Katie and their spouses Clay and Shane; his grandchildren Griffin, Henry, Ryan, Tommy, Andrew, and Bee; and his sisters Missy and Ann. A memorial service at Stanford is being planned.

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