P&Q: What was your favorite class at Harvard Business School and what were the biggest lessons you gained from it that you still apply today?
Lesser: In all honesty, there were a few classes that I really liked because I was learning whole new ways of thinking. I really liked managerial economics —the natural thing for an engineer to like. There was a course at Harvard back then called Business, Government and the International Economy. In this class, you looked at how business and government interacted in different countries around the world and what made some things work better than others. I really liked Finance because I’d always looked at operational elements as an engineer, but not the financial part of the company. At one point, I called my parents and said I feel like a kid in a candy store because what I really loved about business school was the constant exposure to different kinds of issues and business situations and the constant challenge of learning new things.
Thinking about the skills that have been most valuable to me 28 years later, it was less about the particular class knowledge — I can’t tell you what exactly I learned in one class and what I used. I can tell you what was truly valuable. It was the skill to be able to quickly understand a situation; try to figure out what’s most important; be part of a discussion where you’re expected to make a meaningful contribution (which is as much about listening to others as it is about sharing your own ideas); and getting to the heart of the issue and the opportunity in an effective way. I think two years of doing that was really, really valuable — more valuable, frankly, than the particulars of the classes.
P&Q: Tell us about the process (or that defining moment) that led you to realize, ‘I want to work in consulting.’
Lesser: I went to business school actually knowing remarkably little about consulting. Despite that, I thought it might be a good fit for me simply because of the first line of the job descriptor, which is ‘solve clients’ hardest problems with other really sharp people.’ That had an inherent appeal to me. Of course, I had explored companies that recruited on campus. In those days, particularly in my first year before the crash of ’87, the investment banks were all over HBS; I think 30% of the class the year before me went into investment banking. As a first year that was obviously something you couldn’t help but be aware of.
As I went to some of these various sessions that companies held, it reinforced for me that the nature of the work that consulting firms were taking on was closer to what I loved doing at P&G. There, I was known as one of those guys there who was constantly wandering the halls, 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. These were the things that I really liked at HBS, seeing different situations and trying to learn. I did do some other interviewing, but by the time the recruiting process rolled around, which was early winter, I was pretty locked into wanting to do a summer in consulting.
P&Q: What were some of the best moments or big achievements you had when you were a student at Harvard Business School?
Lesser: I did well there, but the joy of it was less in the grades and more in the ability to feel like you could really make a difference in a conversation. I didn’t view the classroom work as trying to check a box off for participation for the professor. My main goal was to learn about a whole range of topics that interested me and that I really knew nothing about as a chemical engineer. I liked feeling like you could be in a discussion and get really good feedback from your classmates afterwards. In the managerial economics course, I started a tutoring session because a lot of the less quantitative folks in my section, who were very bright, found it to be a real struggle for them. It was very analytically intensive so I ended up hosting for almost half a semester a weekly session where we would go through the material. By the end of it, I had 10 or 20 of my section mates coming to these sessions. They really appreciated that and I valued doing it.
In my second year, I wasn’t elected to be the ed rep in our section. In fact, one of my partners now, Joe Davis, was the chair of the ed committee. He was from another section. I volunteered to be on it, even though if you weren’t the elected person, you normally had nothing to do with the ed committee. I really thought that the schedule was so messed up and didn’t account for the fact that companies were recruiting, so we worked together with the school to change the schedule for future years to put the class schedule more in balance with what students were doing recruiting-wise. To be able to contribute and help people along the way were the things that gave me the greatest satisfaction there.
My greatest achievement at HBS had nothing to do with academics. I have a wife of 25 years who was my section mate. She sat on the other side of the room. Even after being in the same section with me for an entire year, she was still willing to hang out with me. I was very fortunate. That’s number one on my list.
P&Q: You started at The Boston Consulting Group right after you graduated from Harvard Business School. Talk to us about your recruitment. What attracted you to BCG? What did you do during your two years in business school that gave you an edge over other candidates looking to get into BCG?
Lesser: I was an intern at The Boston Consulting Group in the summer of ’87 and joined them in ‘88. 1985 and 1986 were tough years for BCG. It was not at that point in time where it is today. It was probably ranked fourth on my list of firms before the whole interview process started. I didn’t know it would turn out as it did. I had offers from the four leading firms by the end of the process. It was a hard decision and an unexpected one if you’d asked me three weeks earlier where I’d end up.
I was having interview after interview with a lot of the discussions centered around cases that the various recruiters were giving. What attracted me to BCG was the degree to which their cases were so substantive and sometimes counterintuitive on the nature of the problems and what the right or potential answers were for the clients. Look, all consultants take on important problems. But there was something about the nature of what BCG was doing that struck me as more at the edge of solving the most difficult problems that businesses were facing.
The second thing is, I’d worked at Procter & Gamble. Great company, but so slow in those days (they have tried to work on it since then). We lost real opportunities in the market because we were too slow going from new products to launch. I wrote about that issue in one of my application essays for HBS. That was just when BCG was working in the early days on time-based competition. Their research had uncovered how important time was as a measure that was frequently undervalued by businesses and how it re-shaped many other elements of outcomes in terms of cost and quality. 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.
When I got the offer, I started visiting offices. It was totally a non-hierarchical environment —almost to the extreme. The offices you visited, whether you were in a partner’s office or a first year’s office, looked the same. The way people talked to each other and treated each other was very non-hierarchical, which I loved. That was totally my own style. Finally, I had an offer from BCG in New York. It was 13 people during my summer there. It was tiny. I liked the people and the environment and I was at a small-share player with a grand brand name and a huge market. What better opportunity could there be than that?
Next: Lesser’s baptism of fire as a first year consultant.
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