P&Q: If you were the dean of a business school, what would be your number one priority?
Lesser: Digital is re-shaping the landscape of everything. We’re on the steep part of the curve, meaning we’re not at the part where it has been played out, but we’re probably going to see massive change in the years to come. I think it is incumbent on the dean of a major business school to be both pushing the faculty and then creating curriculum, exposures, and experiences for students that help them understand how technology will influence industry sectors, the different parts of the value chain (whether it’s operations or marketing or the finance function), and how to prepare themselves. I think that students entering the business world today are going to be in a period where it’s not one wave of technology and then by 2020 we plateau. It’s going to be wave after wave of the next level of automation, virtual reality, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cognitive computing, and 3D printing. You go through the various technologies and I think that there is no way a business school can provide what those technologies will all be doing in five or ten years out. But getting students in a mindset that technology is constantly changing and to challenge themselves not to get stuck in what was available two years ago or is in the market today, but what will be available two years out is really essential across most disciplines and virtually all of the industry sectors.
P&Q: What advice would you give to first- or second-year MBA students to help them make the most of their experience?
Lesser: I would say, first, you should recognize this as a unique opportunity. For most MBA students, business school is the last time that they’ll ever be in an educational institution. They may go to a class for a day or two or through a short program — but this is it. I would encourage them not to miss the opportunity to challenge themselves in new areas and build skills that may be outside the core skills that they may want to eventually develop. They may know the area they want to go into, but they won’t get everything out of school that they could if they only take classes in that area. It’s too good of an opportunity to be exposed to things that both challenge you and build your broader perspective and skills.
Second, they’ll find other achievement-oriented, really high-potential people who are often very different from them. In the communities that they participate in, whether it’s their section or extracurriculars, make sure to take advantage of the learning experience that comes from getting exposed to people from different backgrounds, whether they’re international or bring different life experiences. When you’re in college, you often gravitate to people you feel comfortable with. In business school, you’re in your twenties mostly and you have a chance to have exposure to very different kinds of experiences.
Third, use your time in business school as an opportunity to pursue self-reflection. I find that people often miss how valuable it is to have moments in time when you don’t just learn new things, but you have a chance to reflect upon yourself. What gets you motivated? What do you think will make you happy? What is your long-term plan? You have resources at your disposal — professors and friends and school resources — to be very self-reflective if you want to take advantage of it. It’s easy to come in and focus on the classwork and extracurriculars and lose that chance, but I think it’s a missed opportunity.
In my case, some of the things I thought about in business school actually ended up playing out in my career in ways that I didn’t realize until I looked back on it years later. Because New York was a small office, I got involved in recruiting very early on. Recruits would sometimes ask me how I saw my long-term career plan. My answer was, ‘I don’t know for sure, but I think ideally it would be 10-15 years in consulting, 10-15 years running a business, and 10-15 years giving back, like in teaching or non-profits. My ideal business to run would be $2-5 billion, big enough to really have an impact in the world, but not so big that you don’t actually get close to what is really going on.’ I probably said that to recruits dozens of times in my first five years but then really forgot about it for 10-15 years after that.
Then six or seven years ago — before I became CEO, actually — when I was just taking on the Americas for BCG, I remembered telling recruits this and realized that my career didn’t exactly follow the plan, but it was pretty close. Early in my career I had missed that I would have the opportunity to combine both consulting and building a business as BCG was growing. The potential of a career that balanced consulting and leading a business of a substantial size — we’re outgrowing that $2-5 billion range now and will blow past $5 billion this year — wasn’t a game plan that I followed every day, but I think the general shape of a career was in the back of my mind. It just turned out that staying at BCG met both goals.
P&Q: What’s the one single thing a business school could do to significantly improve its relationship with student employers?
Lesser: I would suggest two things. One is business schools should really be spending a lot of time with their students to help them be self-reflective and to be able to be thoughtful about how they’re going to build a career, not just what they’re going to do the day they graduate. Students are always at a risk — because they’re in a very contained environment — of getting caught in whatever the flavor of the month is. There have been different waves. There was a dot com wave, an investment banking wave, a private equity wave, and now a digital wave. There’s always something in fashion and I think business schools are in a position to have students really think about and recognize that when they graduate from business school, they’re not a finished product. Business schools can help students take a longer-term mindset to their careers and be guided by their own passions, not just following the crowd of what others are doing.
The second thing is that in our industry, there is a tendency sometimes for the business schools to talk about consulting in a way that is really looking back to what the industry was years ago, not what we are today.
I’m in no way looking for business schools to market on our behalf. However, I think letting students have a balanced view of this profession, just like any other, of what you can do to build skills, have impact in the short term, and set people up for really powerful careers in the longer term. It’s not perfect; it doesn’t mean that consulting is right for everyone. But I think a balanced view of that versus some of the stereotypes that I see some of the business schools fall into sometimes would be good for students and not just for BCG or other consulting firms.
Next: What keeps Lesser motivated and what’s next in his career.