Executive Q&A: Boston Consulting Group CEO Rich Lesser

Lesser in his New York BCG office

Lesser in his New York BCG office

P&Q: In recent years, BCG has invested heavily in quality-of-life initiatives. According to this year’s Vault survey, it has really paid dividends with your employees, as you were ranked higher in 18 of 21 categories, particularly in the areas of culture, mobility, compensation, training, work-life balance. Tell me about this effort and how you see it giving you a competitive advantage?

Lesser: Our goal is to hire and retain really top talent — and to do it in ways that deliver ever-higher levels of impact and return on the time that our teams invest with our clients. We started almost a decade ago trying to understand deeply the obstacles to a career in consulting because our profession, along with BCG, was viewed as a hard place to work. Our conclusion out of all of that work was that lack of predictability was a huge driver of stress in our world. It was not just the hours. Sometimes this lack of predictability was because teams weren’t communicating. You were working very hard, but the work wasn’t as valuable as it could be.

So we set out to bring more predictability to the work. We wanted people to manage their lives in ways that would add predictability, and do it in ways that would enhance client impact, not detract from it. So we started an initiative in Boston and rolled it out to the rest of the U.S. and globally. It’s called PTO, which stands for predictability, teaming, and open communication.

BCG New York office – 315 Park Avenue South

BCG New York office

It was all about improving the experience for the team members and the effectiveness for the clients. It takes a long time because we’re all ingrained in a way of working. In a culture like BCG, most of the partners have grown up in the culture and are used to a certain way. So changing the behaviors, starting at the top, takes time to do. You have to invest in facilitators, measures, recognition, and feedback loops from people who aren’t living that. We’ve been doing this globally for five years. I think, at this point, it has really become a core element of our culture — even geographies or places where they were very resistant to it at first are now seeing the value and putting enormous effort into it.

Second, we recognized more recently that if we’re going to be able to attract and retain great talent, they have to see lots of different ways to tailor their own careers over time. The Millennial generation, in particular, is very much looking for different kinds of experiences and the ability to achieve balance in different ways over their careers. So we’ve put in a number of specific programs related to flexibility, whether it is around mobility efforts (the ability to work in different parts of the world); working part-time; taking time off from work (flex leave we call it); or doing other things and having an open path back to BCG. That has been extremely well received by our teams. We’ve rolled it out globally; we’re a couple years earlier in that journey than PTO, but we’re going to make it work even better in the next few years. For many of our staff, BCG is able to make a career work for them even more than they were seeing three or five years ago.

Remember, the ways that recruits get information is not from anything I say or what presenters say. It comes from hearing from people who are a few years ahead of them that they know or connect to. I think when you have your staff feeling differently about the firm, that translates through to the recruiting pool as well.

I do want to attract great talent and recruiting is extremely competitive. But I am as concerned to make sure that people of all backgrounds that we’ve hired (diversity on all dimensions: different kinds of skills, ethnic minorities, women, LGBT) see ways to make BCG work so that when they look at their future at BCG, they see the possibilities to make a career here. If we can do that, it will have a flowback to recruiting that will be great, but the more important benefit will be in the talent that we have and allowing them to shape their careers here.

P&Q: Like Bain’s Bob Bechek, you’ve been with your firm for nearly 30 years now. What keeps you curious and passionate about both The Boston Consulting Group and the consulting industry as a whole?  

BCG Washington (DC) – Community Service Day

BCG Washington (DC) – Community Service Day

Lesser: I find this the most energizing job that I could’ve possibly hoped to have if I project myself back a quarter century. And honestly, I don’t feel this way just because I am the CEO. This is a great job; I love what we do. I’m energized because we work on the most interesting problems. It is a culture where I genuinely like the people I work with. I like their values. I feel that when you’re going into a room with BCGers that you’ve never met before, you feel a connection. It’s amazing how fast people align around the situation and how they work together.

The world is changing fast and I can’t imagine a better place to be in a changing world than BCG. It’s very comfortable with ambiguity. It is constantly challenging itself to get better. Over and over, it has successfully reinvented itself to deal with the world. Frankly, it has the vibrancy of a firm which has grown by double digits for five decades in a row. We’re growing in the mid-teens now. That growth creates a vibrancy that conveys opportunity, energy, and an accountability not just to be good today, but to create opportunity for the next generation coming along.

I feel very fortunate. It was a tough call for me to join 30 years ago. I went back and forth with the decision. Having made this call, I couldn’t have ended up in a better spot. Now, I can make a difference in this role I have at such a terrific firm. I have an opportunity to help shape BCG for the next generation and really it is a privilege.

P&Q: What’s next for you? What does success look like to you in the coming years?

Lesser: When I look at the world beyond being CEO, whenever that day comes, I feel that I am in such a position to make a difference in the world with BCG as a platform.

You are always in consulting, in part, because it’s a helping profession. If you want all the focus on you, you’d do other things. I feel there is a platform at BCG for me to use my abilities to help the next generation of BCGers make a difference in the world in a social impact sense and to be a counselor to leaders in different walks of life, in business and beyond. After being CEO at BCG, you become Chairman; it’s a role with a great deal of freedom to shape how you try to contribute. I’m really looking forward to that.


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