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Executive Q&A: Boston Consulting Group CEO Rich Lesser

Lesser speaking at the Fudan University School of Management

Lesser speaking at the Fudan University School of Management

Picture this: You earn stellar grades in college and land a great job at a legendary firm. After a few years, you grow restless. Seeking more, you decide to pursue an MBA from Harvard Business School. You score well on your GMAT — and even enlist your mother to help you with those admission essays. Despite your strong credentials, you get stuck in limbo on the deferred list.

Sound familiar? It is a journey that many MBAs have shared. That includes Rich Lesser, the President and CEO of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Thirty years ago, he left a successful stint at Procter & Gamble to satisfy an insatiable curiosity at HBS. “I was known as one of those guys there who was constantly wandering the halls,” he tells Poets&Quants, “popping into people’s offices to talk to them about whatever they were working on — sometimes when I should’ve been working on my own projects, to be honest.”

LESSER DRAWN TO BCG’S PIONEERING APPROACH AND NON-HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE

In fact, Lesser bears a striking resemblance to any of the incoming students in the Class of 2018, who have returned to campus this fall in pursuit of know-how, purpose, and kinship. Like many MBAs, he tutored section mates and volunteered around campus. A chemical engineer by trade — but not spirit — Lesser devoted much of his energy to academics in business school. It was here, through intense preparation and self-reflection, that he forged his eventual path. More important, it was here where he met his eventual spouse, a section mate who sat across the room from him. “I was very fortunate,” he says with a smile.

Despite a 28-year tenure at BCG that started with his graduation from HBS, the firm wasn’t necessarily Lesser’s top choice during the first year recruiting rush. During his interviews, however, he was struck by how pioneering and non-hierarchical the firm was. Notably, he was drawn to the firm’s work in that era on time-based competition, a concept he understood intuitively from hurdles he observed at P&G. “As I was exposed to that, it was so relevant to what I’d seen first-hand. It really struck me that BCG was on the leading edge of the most challenging issues.”

BCG New York office – 430 Park Avenue

BCG New York office

In his first year at BCG, Lesser received a baptism by fire. A more senior consultant left an enviable assignment with a leading American firm to work on a political campaign. Thanks to his aptitude with technology (and openness to overseas travel), Lesser took his place. This lucky break, along with his knack for solving problems and building trusting relationships, enabled him to make a big impact early on. These responsibilities also taught him why he entered consulting in the first place. “It was the opportunity to just have enormous impact, drive change, and know you are leaving things different than how you found them,” he says. “That ended up being the touchstone, literally, for the rest of my career as a consultant.”

“I COULDN’T HAVE ENDED UP IN A BETTER SPOT”

Since then, Lesser has made the climb that many MBAs aspire to, leading the New York office beginning in 2000 before being named chairman of North and South America in 2009 and to the top spot in 2013. For Lesser, the firm’s strengths lie in its openness to ambiguity and focus on being a truly collaborative partner. “I think what made BCG special for me then —and it’s even more relevant to me today —was this focus on being really customized,” he explains. “It was recognizing that competitive advantage was really derivative not of having generalized answers, but understanding each company from its unique starting point.”

As Lesser nears the end of his fourth year at the helm, he takes pride in continuing the firm’s tradition of successfully reinventing itself to meet the changing needs of clients —a quality that has allowed the firm to grow by a double-digit clip for five consecutive decades (16%, on average, for the past three years). Looking back, Lesser is grateful for the blessing he has reaped. “I couldn’t have ended up in a better spot. Now, I can make a difference in this role I have at such a terrific firm. I have an opportunity to help shape BCG for the next generation and really it is a privilege.”

Recently, Lesser sat down for an exclusive interview with P&Q to discuss his experiences in business school and beyond. What were his favorite classes at Harvard? What would be his number one priority as a business school dean? How have his mindset and priorities changed as he has risen in the ranks of the firm? Find out in this far-reaching interview.

P&Q: Let’s step back to 1985-1986. Back then, you were working in product development at Procter & Gamble. What motivated you to head back to campus for your MBA?

Harvard Business School across the Charles River

Harvard Business School across the Charles River

Lesser: I was a Michigan undergrad who majored in chemical engineering. I chose the major because I loved math and science, though at heart I really wasn’t an engineer (and am still not). I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 70s, which was almost a depression city because of all the steel mills closing. So my main goal in college was to be able to get a job. The fact that chemical engineers always seemed to have a job market led me in that direction.

After graduation, I went to P&G. I loved the company. What I was doing was interesting in a problem-solving sense, but the engineering part wasn’t as interesting. I realized that what I loved doing the most was talking to people about the various problems in building the business. Sometimes, those were engineering issues, but often times they were about consumer or competitive issues. After I was there for a couple of years, I was doing really well. But I felt my heart wasn’t in it and this was the right time to do something else.

P&Q: Tell us a little more about how you applied to Harvard Business School, as far as taking the GMAT, completing the essays and application, and doing the interview?

Lesser: What attracted me to Harvard was primarily the case method. I liked getting exposed to different kinds of issues and being expected to solve problems on a regular basis. I thought I would really enjoy that. I’d already done a lot of textbook learning as a chemical engineer. I was really looking for a different style of learning as much as learning different things.

I did exactly the same application process as everyone else. I took the GMAT and did well and then I worked very hard on the essay questions. My mom and a friend helped me read the answers and refine them. Then I sent in my application. Because I was really attracted to the case method, Harvard was the only place that I had applied. I thought that if I didn’t get in, there were other schools that I was interested in. But Harvard deferred me. I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work.’ Then, four to six weeks later, they sent me an acceptance. Someone called me from the school and told me that it (my deferral) wasn’t because I was a bad candidate, but they really wanted someone to interview me. They couldn’t find anyone to do it, so they decided to go ahead anyway. To this day, I don’t know if I was a marginal candidate or if what they told me was in fact the reality. You never know.

Next: Lesser’s favorite MBA classes and what led him to choose a consulting career.