Every organization has “unwritten rules” that new hires must heed to be considered part of the team and move up in their careers. Imagine you were counseling a newly-graduated MBA. In your experience, what are a few of the biggest unwritten rules that they must master to gain the confidence of their superiors, clients, and peers?
I think it is very, very helpful to join a culture that values what you value – or at least what you aspire to. If you’re able to do that, I think then it is enormously helpful to be what I call inner directed, something close to being what the French say, ‘comfortable in your own skin’ – while also being able to empathize with and listen to other people. If you have those qualities, I think you’re in a position, in the kind of firm culture that has you in a good place, to then drive hard to make good things happen for the team that you’re a part of. If you’re inner directed, but you’re not very good at listening or empathizing with other people, then it can become very difficult to pick up the unwritten rules of a culture that you jump into.
If the opposite is true, if you’re a Zelig-type [and] very attuned to the clues that are going around and what people care about but you don’t have a kind of rootedness that comes from being inner directed, then you can get lost and get used by others and get into trouble that way.
Finally, if you have both of things but you’re in a culture that doesn’t come close to valuing what you value or aspire to, then you can always have this kind of energy loss because at the end of the day you’re just not going with the grain because people are all passionate about things that you don’t really care about (or vice versa).
You had some amazing classmates when you attended Harvard. [i.e. Ann Sarnoff – COO of BBC Americas; Carla Harris – Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman; Michael Lynton – CEO of Sony, David Nelms – CEO of Discover Financial Services]. Basically, all of you have achieved the dream and reached the mountaintop, so to speak. When you look over your 30 year journey at Bain – and those of your peers – what do you see as the main reasons why you were able to be successful?
I might begin by offering the caveat that success in life is not equal to professional success – and professional success is not equal to the title or the formal role implied in your question.
I’d start by saying there’s no summit. This may sound a little philosophical, but there is only a journey that hopefully leads to higher places and views. But I think the reality is that there is always another rise or dip right over the next place. When you realize when you get to our age (I’m a little bit older than you are) is that whatever you think is the summit of the mountain, there is always a higher peak right behind it infinitum. In any journey, you have downs, even if the journey, over time, leads upward…Nobody has a straight march upwards.
Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to work for what I call a mission-driven organization. I’ve happened to have stayed in one organization for nearly 30 years now and have 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.
When MBAs start at a firm like Bain & Company, they really aren’t a decision-maker. While they work in teams and have ideas and expertise, they don’t make the final choices. In your experience as both the leader and a follower (during your early career), what works in influencing decisions where you don’t have the final say?
I think organizations and the world of business generally are dramatically less hierarchical today. And I think the reality of power and influence and getting things done is overwhelmingly about informal authority nowadays. 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. That’s just become dramatically more so over the last 30 years.
It’s quite an essential skill that people learn in a variety of roles. In the client services business, young MBAs learn that skill very, very rapidly. At a place like Bain & Company, we feel good about the way we collaborate with clients and how clients can feel that they’re in the lead and making the decisions and yet they have our people feel like they’re creating enormous amounts of value and impact for our clients. And it’s all done through informal authority.
What should MBA students know about consulting that you think they may misunderstand about the profession now?
I think people do generally appreciate that there’s a great deal and a very rapid pace of learning. Nevertheless, people cannot – and I was not able to early in my career –appreciate just how much there is to be learned…In particular, our people learn how to make significant change happen…In a competitive industry, [how to] develop insight and then build consensus across a management team about a hopefully transformative course of action – and how to carry that through to results.
Learning how to make significant change happen is an extraordinarily valuable skill. While people develop a knowledge of particular functional topics and industries, that’s more easily appreciated than just the underlying value of learning how to make significant change happen.
I talked earlier about what I had hoped to get out of my time in consulting. I had a very formal three year set of goals. I had intended to spend three years in consulting. I surprised myself by then signing up for, in my own mind, another three years with a different set of goals. There were a whole different set of things to learn as a manager at Bain & Company that I just didn’t appreciate when I was coming in. And then I surprised myself again with a third three year plan, and very different set of goals in turn. It became different because I felt like I was building a significant business. There is more to learn – and different dimensions – of that than people might appreciate coming into a company like Bain & Company.
What pieces of advice would you give to first or second year MBA students to help them make the most of their experience?
There are two qualities that I believe are essential in getting the most out of the experience and then using the experience to have a very successful career. They are empathy and perseverance. My three kids would probably say I probably sound like a preacher on this. The first is empathy for others, the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes is the rootstock of good character. And I think the reality is perseverance makes me sound like a Midwesterner (which I am) from an earlier era. But nothing worthwhile comes to you in life as easily as we want them to. It just takes tremendous perseverance [to make things happen].
So those two qualities [empathy and perseverance] – and the way they work together – are critical to long-term success. People can’t change whether they have a good head on their shoulders. If you have those two qualities – and a good head on your shoulders – I think good things will happen more often than not in whatever company or field that they choose to jump into. Hopefully it is jumping into some fertile soil where the culture and the objectives of the organization are things that you are passionate about and you feel like you’re part of the tribe and provides a very rich learning environment.
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