It’s easy to forget that leaders were once like everyone else. Bob Bechek is a case in point. Today, he is the worldwide managing director of Bain & Company. Back to 1985, he was another first-year at Harvard Business School. An engineer by trade, the 25-year-old Bechek came to Boston after holding the job that many of his classmates coveted – the general manager of an up-and-coming robotics firm. As well as things were going, Bechek could see the need for a change emerging – and he wanted to round out his skill set with an MBA. Well, that along with an equally important motive.
“My dad was on my back because I’d put it off for two years in a row,” Bechek tells Poets&Quants. “So, I applied.”
DRAWN TO BAIN’S RESULTS-DRIVEN AND PEOPLE-ORIENTED CULTURE
Like many MBAs, Bechek intended to return to his pre-MBA industry. However, his path was altered from being exposed to different classmates and disciplines. At HBS, he immersed himself in economics and entrepreneurship. He was always looking for ways to enhance his communication skills. When it came time for his internship, Bechek – who’d spent his youth doing a host of different jobs – was looking to experience “business with a suit on.”
Sure enough, Bechek started his internship at Bain & Company 30 years ago this summer. Back then, Bain was considered an upstart that challenged the stuffy and zero sum conventions of consulting. For “Bainies,” the mission was to unlock potential and maximize value. Here, every client was a collaborative partner and every solution was custom-tailored. Internally, the firm was celebrated for prizing authenticity, bedrock values, and meritocracy. More than that, Bain was known for its camaraderie among partners and associates.
Not surprising, the firm’s focus on outcomes and fun appealed to Bechek during his internship. “What attracted me to Bain,” he explains, “was that I felt like I found a hot firm that was focused entirely and passionately on results or impact rather than reports (in the language of the time) and did so within an extraordinarily people-oriented culture that I thought would be very good for me, given my particular nature.”
A 30 YEAR COMPANY VETERAN WHO LEADS BY EXAMPLE
Bechek has certainly made a difference during his long tenure at Bain. After serving as the co-head of Bain’s Global Telecom, Media and Technology practice, he led the firm’s northeast region before taking the company reins in 2012. Known for his modesty and self-deprecating wit, he endured the same learning curve as any young consultant, particularly in recognizing just how much there is to master. Despite his title and tenure, Bechek understands that his ability to lead rests more on the example he sets – a key lesson for any MBA to absorb.
“I think the reality of power and influence and getting things done is overwhelmingly about informal authority nowadays,” he argues. “New MBAs should be focused on how to develop the skills associated with that. But the reality is, even in my current role, the vast majority of what I do is exerted through informal and not formal authority. If you’re involved in trying to get people galvanized around a particular course of action – or to feel inspired about what we’re trying to do or feel appreciated, motivated and valued – that has almost nothing to do with formal authority.”
As he nears his 30-year anniversary with Bain, it is immediately evident that Bechek has played an essential part in helping to build Bain into the premier institution it is today.
“[I’ve] had a chance to help build a strong and very distinctive firm from relatively early in its life. And I’ve played some role in that – and I’m proud of that. That’s very out of step with what many [do]. My son is a first-year student in an MBA program, for example, and we joke about this because it’s not common nowadays. So my advice is don’t be afraid necessarily to stay in one place and build something significant.”
Recently, Poets&Quants sat down with Bechek to learn the lessons he gained as an MBA at Harvard Business School and the advice he would give today’s students. Here are his thoughts.
What was your favorite class at Harvard Business School and what was the big lesson(s) you gained from it that you still apply today?
The first one that occurs to me is a class that was called Law and the Corporate Manager, which (in theory) was meant to expose us to all of the 1L law school curriculum that was relevant to an executive. And it was taught by a guy named Joe Auerbach, who made a difference in my life. He had a very distinguished career securities lawyer and one of the original guys at the SEC [who was] invited late in his career to become a professor at HBS.
The reason this is relevant is that he indulged me in a debate about the role of the corporation and how to measure success. Be mindful, I graduated from business school in 1987 and this was early in the wave of corporate control battles and new thinking about the importance of maximizing shareholder value, which of course the legal system is anchored in the rights of property owners and shareholders. I was very passionate as a young man about the importance of creating value for customers and employees and in communities in order to create long-term value for shareholders. That debate has always stuck with me in my client work all of these years and what management teams are actually trying to do to build long-term value.
There are others. There was a second year class on real estate taught by a legendary developer named Bill Poorvu. This guy wrote a book on real estate that subsequently became very popular. Here was real world experience mixed with street smarts and stories about real characters in the industry. That made it fun in a gritty, real world way. It had so much of the richness of life and the business world and it all came out in this course about making money in the real estate industry.
The third one was a course called Business, Government and the International Economy. It was not taught by an experienced business executive, but by a cerebral academic by the name of Joe Badaracco, who is a senior guy at HBS still. This was basically a broad survey of macroeconomic issues and the role of national governments, corporations and other actors in the global economy. You have to remember, I was an engineer who’d been in business – but never had any macro. I absolutely loved it! I admired the professor very highly. And it stuck with me. These topics are highly relevant in my current role, deepened obviously by a lot of experience in these types of issues.
Here’s what I mean. The years of my client work [included] doing a lot of manufacturing turnaround work in the 80s. This is when U.S. manufacturers were battling the rise of Japanese manufacturing excellence and the kind of high impact, results-oriented work that included, for example at the time, working with a U.S. consumer durable manufacturer. The loss of engineering manufacturing expertise relative to Japanese led to a variety of currency hedging issues, sourcing internationally, joint ventures with Japanese companies, reinvesting in innovation – the overall context of what was going on between Japan and the U.S. in that era was highly relevant to what I was trying to do in just the microcosm of my particular client work.