Why Bain Now Ranks As The World’s Top Consulting Firm

Bain & Co.

MBA recruits at a Bain & Co. office

For the past three years, Bain & Co. has ranked as the #1 firm to work for in the Vault Consulting 50. Think of it as the state of the industry, where surveyed consultants rank their firms on measures that matter most to them: Compensation, Culture, Leadership, Work-Life Balance, and Job Satisfaction (among other measures). Not only did Bain top its peers among North American consultants in this year’s Vault list, but among their European and Asian counterparts, too.

Finishing first doesn’t happen by accident. That’s especially true when a ranking is based on employee grades. After all, employees are often their organization’s toughest critics.

And there are none more demanding than consultants. Fact is, they are trained to restore dysfunctional cultures, overhaul inadequate operations, and drive high-profile initiatives. They know the difference between excellence and optics. With consultants, follow-through precedes buy-in. That means vision, planning, care, and commitment are expected from their leaders.

These dimensions are exactly where Bain & Company shines.

BAIN’S RANKINGS REFLECT LONG-TERM EFFORTS

Why is Bain & Company setting the bar for the industry? Among Vault measures, Bain notched the highest scores among survey respondents for Informal Training, Internal Mobility, and Relationships with Supervisors. At the same time, Bain employees gave the firm the second-best marks for Firm Culture, Formal Training, Health & Wellness, Satisfaction, and Selectivity. In sum, Bain finished among the Top 4 firms in all but one of Vault’s 19 measures. In a separate Vault survey with competing consultants, Bain ranked as the best firm for Strategy Consulting too.

Needless to say, Keith Bevans was pleased with the results of the Vault Consulting 50. After starting at the firm in 1996, Bevans is a Bain partner and executive VP who is the global head of consultant recruiting. For him, Bain’s three-peat is indicative of something deeper – and even more satisfying.

“Rankings are the result of the effort and an indication of success,” Bevans told P&Q in a February 27th interview. “It’s not the goal. Our goal is to create an environment where all of our employees can thrive. If we’re doing that well, you get all the affirmation and recognition on the backend. When I see how well we consistently do, I’m reminded of [a saying from NFL Coach] Bill Parcells: “You’re as good as your record says you are.” When you’re recognized in all of these rankings, it says we are onto something. We’re doing something really great. And it feels good to be recognized for it.”

Bain consultants meeting in the London office. Photographer Roger Kenny.

BAIN IS AN “UNFINISHED BOOK”

Yes, you’ve probably heard of the Bain’s apprenticeship culture. Call it a pay-it-forward mentality where team members – at every level – devote intensive time to exhibiting and transmitting the firm’s values and practices to other ‘Bainies’. Not surprisingly, Bain carries the reputation for being the most relationship-driven and ‘fun’ group among MBB – or BMB considering Bain’s dominance over the past three years. In Bevans’ experience, Bain’s culture is the result of a virtuous cycle, an outgrowth of valuing their consultants and investing heavily in their growth.

“Everyone here understands that developing our people is probably the most important thing we can do next to delivering great client results to secure the future success and growth of the firm. It turns out, when you develop great people, they do great work and get great results. That attracts more great people. It’s not a complicated formula.”

To illustrate the Bain difference, Bevans uses the metaphor of library book. In the case of a Bain consultant, it is an unfinished book where the firm can add chapters  to make it more valuable to the next person who reads it. In contrast, Bevans notes, many firms treat a book as something where you tear out pages and leave the book worse off when they’re done.

“At Bain, we really do try to make everyone better for having worked with us,” Bevans observes. “That mindset is what we’re all about. That’s hard to copy. That’s not a training program. That’s a mindset and corporate culture that’s uniquely different. I think we’re special because of it.”

A LARGE INTERN CLASS FOR BAIN

Another difference is Bain’s holistic approach, Bevans explains. He calls it a four-part value proposition. It consists of Purpose and Inspiration, Thriving at Work, Opportunities to Grow, and Awards and Recognition. At Bain, Bevans notes, the firm seeks to flourish across every value proposition to produce the best possible results for their consultants and clients. Think of it as a never settling, relentlessly focused approach that demands across-the-board excellence. That runs counter to many firms, which Bevans says often “over-index” in a particular area.

“They sell people on that lofty ambition of how they’re going to change the world, but they don’t do it in a way where their employees can truly thrive or they don’t invest in their people from a leadership and development perspective that helps them grow their careers. You have other people who talk about the experiences we will give and the compensation we will provide – but the work is mundane and uninspiring. The day-to-day isn’t something they look forward to doing. What you’re seeing at Bain is that we are really firing on all four cylinders really well and consistently for a long time.”

The long-term is exactly where Bain is focused. In February, news broke that McKinsey & Company was planning to lay off 2,000 support staff. The story stirred quite a ripple in an industry long associated with stability. However, Bevans was confident about Bain’s prospects. He projects that Bain will recruit either its largest or second-largest MBA intern class in its history – with the biggest class being 350 MBA interns in 2022. Bevans adds that he has experienced several downturns during his 27 years at Bain. Over that time, he has seen the before-and-after. Every time, he says, Bain has come out of an economic downturn stronger than before.

“Our ability to meet the demand for our services on the back end requires us to have capacity to meet that demand. So we’ve always taken a multi-year view of our capacity needs and our business needs. We execute through the downturn in a way that prepares for what it will be like afterward. We’re going to continue building through the downturn.”

In the Vault Consulting 50, it is easy to see “why” Bain sets the bar. Question is, “how” do they do it? In an in-depth interview with Bevans, P&Q looked at the ways Bain produces such high consultant satisfaction rates in areas ranging from training to diversity. Here is an inside look at the Bain philosophy – and how it is executed across the organization.

Meeting in Bain & Company’s London office. Photographer: Roger Kenny

P&Q: Training – both formal and informal – are areas where Bain stands above its peers. What is Bain doing different – and better – in training that has enabled it to earn rave reviews from its employees?

KB: “Our training team is world-class with what they do. I’ve known them for a long time. They are as passionate about what they do as anyone you’ll ever meet – in anything that they do. There’s no other way to say that.

We have several different components to how we think about learning and development. When you join Bain, there is local learning and development that happens in your office. From day one, you’re getting an indoctrination in how Bain thinks about strategy, how the firm works, and what we do for our clients. In addition to the local learning and development programs you get when you start, there are several milestone programs along the way that bring together global or regional cohorts with the same tenure to learn the skills that are appropriate for the next part of their journey. When you first start that training, it focuses a lot on what it’s like to be an associate consultant or a consultant. 18-24 months in, you’ll get what it’s like to be a manager. Just last week, I was a trainer at our Leadership Development Training (LDT), where the consulting staff included the managers. We spent the week with a global cohort of people working through case examples and how to do the job. That’s an example of a milestone program. They’re at a point in their career where they are about to start taking on significant leadership roles on the case teams.

So there’s local leadership development, and there’s the milestone programs. Everyone can have training. You can go online and get training. What’s different about Bain is that we’re truly embodying an apprenticeship culture. You can learn what you want to learn by sitting in training sessions or reading content online. But it’s more appropriate to learn the job from the people you’re working with and the people you’re working for. Bain consultants have a tremendous knack for paying it forward. We’re all beneficiaries. If you’ve been here for any length of time, you are the beneficiary of someone who apprenticed you and you feel the need – and the obligation – to pay that forward to the people who work for you.

One of the things we’ve talked about at Bain is that you can treat the resources on your team like library books – except they’re not finished yet. You take the book off the shelf and your goal is to add more chapters to that book and make it a better read for the person who is going to read it after you. There are a lot companies and a lot of cultures out there who take the book off the shelf, tear out some pages, write in the margins, and then throw it back on the shelf for the next person. It’s a worse book after having that. At Bain, we really do try to make everyone better for having worked with us. That mindset is what we’re all about. That’s hard to copy. That’s not a training program. That’s a mindset and corporate culture that’s uniquely different. I think we’re special because of it.”

P&Q: Looking over Bain’s scores across the past five years, the firm has made significant progress in Work-Life Balance and Hours Worked. Being that Bain is known for being the most “employee-centric” firm, what have been some initiatives you’ve put in place to enhance employee satisfaction in these areas?

Keith Bevans, Bain Partner and Global Head of Consulting Recruiting

KB: “We have a four-part value proposition at Bain that we’re focused on as a leadership team. The first is Purpose and Inspiration. Are you inspired to come to work and do your best every day? The second is Thriving at Work. Are you able to thrive in life? Are you doing your job in a way – and continue to do your job in a way – where you’re not just treading water but actually thriving? The third is Opportunities to Grow. People join a job to be on a career path. They want to be sure that the work they’re doing and the experiences they’re having are building them towards whatever their long-term career objective is. The fourth thing is Awards and Recognition.

When we think about what it means for people to work at Bain, we think of all four parts of that value proposition. What you’re really asking is, How well do the four parts of our value proposition align with what the people we’re hiring are looking for? Some people may be entirely focused on thing or the other, but we actually try to excel and succeed on all of those parts for our employees. Relative to other companies – and what I think you see in the market – you have companies that over-index on one of those parts. They sell people on that lofty ambition of how they’re going to change the world, but they don’t do it in a way where their employees can truly thrive or they don’t invest in their people from a leadership and development perspective that helps them grow their careers. You have other people who talk about the experiences we will give and the compensation we will provide – but the work is mundane and uninspiring. The day-to-day isn’t something they look forward to doing. What you’re seeing at Bain is that we are really firing on all four cylinders really well and consistently for a long time.

Whenever we do internal surveys – we do an annual worldwide employee survey – we do an eNPS [Employee Net Promoter Score] of ourselves: How we feel about our firm, office, function and department. Regardless of how good those results look year-after-year, we spend a disproportionate amount of time as a leadership team focused on how we can get better. We look at the rankings and our success in the rankings and we spend 15 minutes celebrating and toasting to ourselves. Then we spend the bottom 45 minutes of the proverbial hour talking about why we didn’t do as well as we could have in different dimensions here-and-there. Culturally, we’re always looking to do better. Our employees expect that from us. That’s part of why they want to work here: We don’t settle. Acceptable mediocrity is not a thing for us.”

P&Q: Bain excels in what you could call the two C’s: consistency and clarity. By that, Bain is known to have similar cultures across its home offices with consultants buying into the expectations of the firm. These are difficult feats to achieve. How is Bain able to achieve relative consistency and clarity?

KB: “For us, the value proposition is more than just an aspiration on paper. It is a promise we make to every employee that we hire. Our goal, when we are at our best, is to deliver on all four elements of our value proposition for everyone that we hire That matters because people are our primary asset. We have several other businesses and a lot of great IP that have been developed over the years. At the end of the day, our most important asset goes home every night and chooses whether or not they want to come back the next day. It’s important to us that they continue to choose to come back.

That mindset drives a lot of what you’re seeing when you see that consistency. Everyone here understands that developing our people is probably the most important thing we can do next to delivering great client results to secure the future success and growth of the firm. It turns out, when you develop great people, they do great work and get great results. That attracts more great people. It’s not a complicated formula.”

Next Page: Diversity, Practice Areas, and the Meaning of “Results-Driven”.

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