Executive Q&A: Boston Consulting Group CEO Rich Lesser

BCG Houston – Community Service Day

BCG Houston – Community Service Day

P&Q: Over your career, you evolved from consultant to partner, to executive committee member to eventually being President and CEO the same path many MBAs are looking to take. What types of transitions did you have to make, in terms of how you looked at issues, spent your time, or managed people, as your career progressed?

Lesser: Let me share a couple points. First is, I think over time you recognize that however good you are in what you do, the main value add is the degree that you can build teams that can take on more than any one person, including what you can do. The focus shifts a great deal over time from your role as an individual contributor. When you’re a brand new consultant, you naturally think about your own work, your module, your output. Over time, you shift, in bigger and bigger scale, to address issues like, how do you build great teams? How do you make sure they really work together as teams so you resolve issues within them and not create them? How do you build a sense of purpose, mission and trust within the team as well as with clients (and others) to be able to move forward in very ambitious ways?

Rich Lesser, BCG President and CEO, today

Rich Lesser, BCG President and CEO, today

Second, I think the older and more seasoned you get, you become more aware that what’s most important is not what you know but what you don’t know. It’s not the skills you have, but your self-awareness of the skills that you don’t have. I think if you look at a lot of successful leaders, they put an enormous amount of effort into being constant life-long learners, to seeking out the things that they don’t know and not shying away from them. They try to find ways to continue to grow, acquire knowledge and build new skills even later in their careers. Also, they are constantly on the lookout for really top people who are aligned on values but are actually very complementary on skills, backgrounds and mindsets. I’ve become much more aware of this as I’ve taken on bigger and bigger roles.

Third, it has been a willingness to look back with a critical eye. Not only at what’s gone well, but also what hasn’t and what you can do differently the next time around. It’s not just life-long learning about new topics or skills, but a constantly challenging of where could we have performed better and what could I have done differently myself to help us get to a better outcome.

Those were all things that weren’t really on my mind when I first arrived. Over multiple roles and many years, they are much more top of mind for me now.

P&Q: What should MBA students know about consulting that you think they may misunderstand about the profession now?

Lesser: When I speak of consulting, it’s obviously with a reference to BCG in particular because this is the world that I know best, but I’m sure parts of it are representative of the industry in general.

I think there was a view of consulting that was pretty accurate when I first joined, which is that consultants were there to tackle a really difficult problem, do the right analysis, and come up with recommendations — and that their value was in their recommendations. I think we’ve gone through two evolutions since then that have really expanded the role that we do as a firm and what we expect our people to do.

There are three things we now do. The first is to take the hardest and highest-stakes problems and help our clients in a very collaborative way get to the answer. The second is to actually be a partner with them on how to make the change happen and to be able to do that in ways that cut across functions, geographies, and business units. So to be able to take very hard change that requires both operational change skills and very human change skills around leadership, talent and culture, and really bring those together. The third, and the most recent part, is the expectation from clients that you’re not just going to make the change happen once. Now, you have to build the organizational capacity to deal with a rapidly changing world and be able to adapt and evolve. So it’s not just enough for a consultant to come in and make the change happen with the client. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to build the capabilities, which means building human capacity and in today’s world integrating that with digital tools and other ways to sustain change.

A principal in BCG's Kuala Lumpur office

A principal in BCG’s Kuala Lumpur office

How do you describe this new world to recruits and why they should want to be a part of it?

When I talk to recruits, I talk about four things. First, the ability to have impact and make a difference. Second, the ability to learn really fast and grow your own skills, particularly in a world where we all have to be life-long learners and build skills that will position you for leadership and to take on much larger responsibilities. Third, the importance of an environment where you like to work, where you enjoy the people you work with, and you like the culture. It’s not a chore to show up in the morning. Finally, the ability to make the rest of your life work in that context. It’s not just being about work, but your life beyond it and what works for you, which at different stages in life means very different things.

I think we’re in a unique position right now to achieve those four elements because it’s not just about the problem-solving, but a whole set of leadership skills to go from the problem to the change to enabling organizations because of the culture of the organization. That’s what I try to get across. It’s what I believe. It’s what I hear when I walk around the BCG world.

Next: Lesser’s advice to MBA students — and business school deans themselves.

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