“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
That maxim has become the go-to warning for MBAs. It is a reminder that decks and diagrams are no match for values and practices. Of course, this bit frames culture and strategy as separate menu items, disconnected rivals vying for reverence and resources. In reality, they are an inseparable pairing, reinforcing and rejuvenating the other. No organization better harnesses these forces than Bain & Company.
BEING AROUND THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Bain places a premium on people, ones who are solutions-oriented and service-driven – passionate, perceptive, and prepared. Committed to growing from within, Bain invests heavily in developing talent, always parsing out new challenges to stir their creativity and push them to get better. It is a place that demands being yourself as much producing results, an equal mix of empowerment and accountability where MBAs are always supported and never alone.
That starts with the DNA of the firm, says Keith Bevans, a Bain partner and global head of consulting recruiting. “It is a deep, deep, deep belief that we get the better answers as a team rather than as individuals,” he tells P&Q in a March interview. “What that means is that they would rather be on the winning team than get the individual award.”
That’s always easier when the team buys into the vision. That vision is exactly what drew Rachel Yorke, a 2018 Harvard Business School grad, to Bain’s Los Angeles home office. “I knew I wanted a job that would bring my MBA to life,” she writes. “Because of Bain’s general management approach and emphasis on working collaboratively within teams and alongside client leadership, I knew I’d have the opportunity to solve tough problems and think like the CEOs I encountered in school. While this is undoubtedly hard work, Bain’s people and culture make solving the problems fun. My teammates are genuine, supportive, and invested in my success both personally and professionally.”
FROM BOUNCERS TO BALLERINAS
Yorke is one of the hundreds of MBAs hired by Bain from the Class of 2018. Hailing from over 60 full-time MBA programs, it is a highly diverse group. As an undergrad, Annie Robertson Hockey majored in Psychology and English Literature at Stanford, where she also earned her MBA. Of course, she nearly didn’t make it that far. “I was one phone call away from turning down Stanford to pursue a career in classical ballet,” she jokes.
She isn’t the only artist in the latest hiring class. Annie Furr, a Northwestern Kellogg MBA working out of the Chicago home office, competed in the same a cappella competition on which Pitch Perfect is based. Now, she plays in Bain’s office band! You can feel pretty secure in Bain’s Madrid home office. Isabel Gil-Casares Lacambra, a Columbia MBA, holds a bouncer’s license. For Fredy Afif, PowerPoint is an adventure. “I am color blind, which explains why my slides sometimes have funny colors on them,” jokes the UAE-based consultant.
How is this for a hobby? “I was a ski jumper,” writes Atsushi Shimada, who earned his MBA from Oxford before joining the Tokyo home office. “Taking off from a 100-meter jumping hill requires some courage. Compared with that experience, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
HITTING THE GROUND RUNNING
Shimada isn’t the only 2018 grad to show grace in harrowing circumstances. Bright Botchway, a Cornell Johnson MBA, devoted a year to Year Up, a nonprofit that has helped over 20,000 underrepresented minorities find employment in 21 cities. Botchway wasn’t alone in giving back. In Germany, Luiz Paulo Fabre expressed himself through entrepreneurship by designing a custom medical drill that reduced damage caused during hip replacement surgeries – an innovation that reaped several awards.
“Working on a device to help alleviate other people’s pain was very fulfilling for me, and the awards were the cherry on top,” he notes.
Less than a year in, the MBA Class of 2018 are already managing game-changing cases. Annie Furr, for one, is part of a sustainability case, working to reduce carbon emissions for one of the largest industrial firms in the world. Lara Bekhazi, an INSEAD MBA working out of the Abu Dhabi home office, is exploring market drivers that are re-shaping the oil and gas industry. For Annie Robertson Hockey, her first year cases have been like “striking gold,” as she has worked in what she calls the “intersection between our private equity and retail practices.” This includes skin care and fashion assignments, traditional brick-and-mortar industries being disrupted by eCommerce. As a result, Robertson Hockey is working on omnichannel strategies to foster better communications between legacy systems, as well as building influencer and social media campaigns.
“Because retail is moving so quickly with the online startups disrupting the old models, retail companies are having to look forward,” she tells P&Q in a March interview. “What that means, as consultants, we’re really working hand-in-hand with those companies.”
DIGITAL AND ANALYTICS PEOPLE WORK IN CASE TEAMS
They’re also working closely with internal support services as well. Both Robertson Hockey and Keith Bevans tout ADAPT, a digital and products team that can quickly turn around prototypes. The firm also maintains a digital marketing arm called FRWD (pronounced Forward), along with an advanced analytics group. The difference, says Bevans, is that these groups don’t just take data sets or app specs and tinker with them in an office away from everyone. Instead, they are part of the case teams.
Bevans cites a recent example of a retailer building an app for in-store sales. In this case, an ADAPT team representative was able to look at the interface with the supply chain, along with addressing issues relating to appearance and functionality early in the process. “Whereas you had associate consultants and consultants doing the same work that we did when I joined Bain 20 years ago – doing the research and spec’ing out what the app should look like – they actually got to sit with [the ADAPT member] and build it. Then, they went out and tested it in the stores the next week. It was a rapid prototype. At the end of the week, they took the feedback, tweaked it, and went to a different set of stores the following week.”
Sophistication and speed aren’t the only advantages to this structure, Bevans adds. “There is a level of understanding that you get from working alongside those people than just watching them and reading about them. The way we integrate our advanced analytics and our digital team into our core case team operation is something that [MBAs] find really valuable.”
BOIL IT DOWN, KEEP IT SIMPLE
That’s not the only value that the Class of 2018 has gained over their first year. At Bain, the learning simply accelerates for MBAs after graduation…and never stops. In a service-driven model where the client is front-and-center, Annie Robertson Hockey has learned that theory is only as useful as implementation. “Bain has taught me that the ability to unlock a complex problem is necessary but not sufficient,” she explains. “Answers go nowhere without buy-in and the energy to implement.”
To do that, she adds, Bain consultants must possess the ability to “communicate, influence, and inspire” – preferably in a manner that’s succinct, and substantive. Indeed, if there is a central tenet in the Bain lexicon, it would be “simplify.” That’s particularly true in a general management approach where consultants are regularly shifting industries and tackling niche issues, says Luiz Paulo Fabre.
“Clients don’t hire Bain to solve simple problems; the problems we tackle will always be big and complex. One of the most important skills I have learned is to distill the problem down to smaller, more manageable, elements.”
OPPORTUNITY…IN THE FORM OF A QUESTION
One way to do that, observes Atsushi Shimada, is to drill down to the central question being asked by the client. “No matter how complicated the business problem is, there is always a key question which can be simply understood by everyone. Our job as consultants is to digest and interpret a complicated problem into these simple key questions, and guide the clients to solve these key questions for the best results.”
Those questions, adds MIT Sloan’s Faye Cheng, rarely have answers that consultants can pull from textbooks or even cases. “Real-world data is messy and ambiguous, and a lot of what we work on is so cutting-edge that the best data set or analysis that exists is the one we are actively helping to create,” she writes. This is simultaneously daunting and empowering…At the end of the day, the best answer is not necessarily the one that’s textbook-perfect, but rather one that is feasible and best tailored to the client’s particular needs.”
Cheng describes Bain as a “results over reports” culture, one where – as the popular saying goes – “A Bainie never lets another Bainie fail.” The flip side, of course, is Bainie should never be afraid to ask a question. Here, says Annie Furr, a question isn’t a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a means to add value to clients. As a result, no question is too far out and every voice carries equal weight.
“I learned quickly that the strength of your thoughts and your analysis is far more important than any title,” adds Matt Martel.
PUTTING THE “HOME” IN “HOME OFFICE”
Such core philosophies, says Annie Robertson Hockey, made the transition from being an MBA student to a consultant relatively seamless. “What makes business school so interesting is that you are working with people from all different walks of life – from different careers – and you’re coming together to learn new things, working in teams to come to good answers,” she tells P&Q. “That’s what Bain is too. We’re a collection of incredibly bright people who view the world in various different ways who come together to solve really tough problems as part of a team. The fluidity I’ve found with the types of people, problems, and energy around the office is, in many ways, a reflection of the people and energy I found on the GSB campus.”
That isn’t Bain’s only similarity to the business school aesthete. The organization operates off of a home office model, where cases are staffed in the same location. Here, a dedicated staffing manager places consultants into cases to tap into their aspirations and talents and spur their professional development. This structure also removes the ‘lobbying’ sometimes prevalent in the service sector. In addition, the model enables consultants to get to know their peers and managers well, fostering an esprit de corps that pays dividends in terms of trust and cohesion.
“What it does is that it ensures the people you work with are from your office,” Robertson Hockey tells P&Q. “Even if you’re flying up to Seattle, for example, you’re flying up with people you work with in San Francisco. If you build a great relationship with a manager, they’re from the San Francisco office, so you’re going to work with them. You can maintain that mentorship and sponsorship relationship going forward. There is that consistency of people.”
Go to Page 3 for In-Depth Profiles of 12 Bain & Company MBA Hires