P&Q: You graduated Summa Cum Laude in engineering at the University of Michigan. At Harvard Business School, you were a Baker Scholar and graduated with distinction. There is a school of thought that says academics don’t matter in business school as much as networking or extracurriculars. Based on your experience, how important is academic excellence in the MBA experience?
Lesser: To do what I do, even now as CEO, you have to love learning and want to embrace new ideas, push yourself in new directions, and get outside your comfort zone. That’s the whole premise of BCG; it’s the nature of the world in which we operate. If all we’re trying to do is share what is already known with clients, there’s a market for that but it’s not BCG’s positioning in it. For me, personally, it’s not that I went to Harvard Business School because I was obsessed with academics. I went there because there were subjects that I was really interested to learn about. I enjoyed it and I found it challenging in a different way than my other experiences had been. Some parts of it were drudgery, but most of the time I really felt I was getting quite a lot out of it.
I think business school is one of these opportunities in life where it is what you make of it. I respect — depending on what people’s orientations are or what they’re aspiring to do — that they may feel more like devoting time to a community of other people, networking, or doing activities where they can show leadership. I was there because I felt like this was the one time in my life where I could get exposure to such a broad set of topics in areas across the business world and that wasn’t going to come again. I was genuinely interested; I liked the challenge of what we were doing; and I wanted to make the most of it. That was the spirit that I brought to it. I wasn’t there to just learn one thing.
My second year was almost identical to my first year. Your first year in business school, you take one of every class more or less—one operations class, one marketing class, and so forth. I almost did the same thing my second year because I was much more looking for a broad base of knowledge about business, knowing that when I went out in the world, whether it was as a consultant or anything else, I would go deep into specific things. To go back to your question, I realize that people go for other reasons, and I’m not saying that those are wrong, but that wasn’t my motivator. I was there to learn.
Also, what I loved about business school was the depth of friendships that you could build in your section. It was so different than college, where you’d sit on your own and take notes. As an engineer, the classroom experience wasn’t getting to know other people, it was about learning the material. In business school, certainly in the case method, when it comes to those 90 other people in my section, we knew each other inside-out by the end of that year. We knew what motivated us. We knew our values. We’d formed really deep friendships. Even now, there are some people that I don’t talk to for five years in between reunions. It takes us about 10 minutes to get caught up on kids and jobs and factual things —but as human beings we still have really deep connections. To me, that was unique and something that I still really value about my years at HBS.
P&Q: You joined The Boston Consulting Group in 1988. Talk to us about your first year there. What are some things you did early on, big or small, that made impact and added value to your clients and BCG as a whole?
Lesser: Well, I got a little lucky first. My first case was supposed to be done by a second-year consultant. We were to benchmark Japanese and Korean companies for a leading American company that was struggling against them. The other consultant decided to go work in the ’88 Presidential campaign, so he took an unexpected leave. They needed someone who understood technology and could go to Korea and Japan to do all this benchmarking work, and I just happened to be the right guy at the right time. So I got a really unique opportunity to learn a lot and play a role that maybe I wouldn’t normally have had the opportunity to play.
I think the biggest choice that I made was something that was completely counter to what I had expected to do. When I joined BCG, I thought because I loved the problem-solving part, I’d work every three to four months for a couple different clients and then I’d change all the time. It would almost be a replica of business school where you constantly have new clients, new industries, and new situations. That was mostly the model of consulting back then. It was a very generalist sort of era. What I found early on through some good fortune was that, though I loved the problem-solving aspect, I actually far more liked the ability to have impact and drive change in clients. The way to do that was to build real depth, to understand the client and build real trust and relationships in the client.
Counter to my expectations, I ended up doing my first couple of years mostly with a single client, where I worked for multiple divisions and on different kinds of topics. I really got to know them well and I developed a lot of trust relative to people with my tenure and with a number of the leaders there. That allowed me to take on more responsibility earlier and it taught me why I was in this profession, which I hadn’t realized until I was immersed in it. It was the opportunity to just have enormous impact, drive change, and know you are leaving things different than how you found them. That ended up being the touchstone, literally, for the rest of my career as a consultant.
It was crucial for me to invest in building relationships with key clients who were leading the work I was doing. I was obviously very young at the time as a consultant. There were always more senior people on the client team. In my first 18 months, I had three or four different settings where I was able to build a relationship with the person who was leading the effort in that particular part of the business. They could see that I was good at what I was doing, but also that I was more concerned about the work I was doing having a meaningful impact than even they were; they could see that I wasn’t there to just produce nice charts. I was there to really help them. They saw I was genuinely committed to them and the success of the company and didn’t have other agendas beyond that.
I think this combination — trust plus relationships, good skills, and the ability to really add value — meant that we were actually taking on hard issues, such as how to reset the cost structure of one business; how to re-shape the international strategy in the other parts of that business; and how to accelerate time-to-market on the product development side. There were different kinds of issues, but understanding the company and its situation and its competitive environment helped me find ways to have impact in different areas.
Next: What MBAs should expect in consulting and what a b-school dean should make their #1 priority.
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