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

Bain consultants on the roof of the London office. Photographer: Roger Kenny.

P&Q: While Diversity isn’t factored into the Vault Consulting 50 ranking, Bain ranked 2nd in Overall Diversity, including earning the top marks for its support for LGBTQ+ employees. How has Bain been able to foster a more inclusive environment?

KB: “There are two parts to that. First is just continuing to focus on increasing the diversity of the people we hire. That is really important to us as a firm and it’s part of our aspirations. We know, as does anyone who has looked at the research, more diversity gets better answers. Period. There are a whole host of reasons why diversity is important. That’s one of them.

As part of that, we are doing things on the front end to introduce and market ourselves to communities who may not be as familiar with Bain or our industry. That is a very real challenge for some of the markets we are in: just exposing people to what consulting is. That’s not how I grew up. We didn’t grow up discussing whether to be in private equity or banking around the dinner table. That just wasn’t part of my upbringing.

The second thing is investing heavily in pipeline programs to introduce people to consulting in more intangible, hands-on way earlier in their educational journey. That’s not to say they will all be consultants, but it might be their sibling, mentee, or friend in their network where they can say, ‘I went to this workshop that Bain did. You should look at them. That feels like a great fit for you.’

So there is the front end education and marketing and the pipeline programs, and then there is a little bit of the internal heavy lifting around mitigating unconscious bias and making sure the people who are doing our screening processes understand their biases and have actions in place to help mitigate those biases, whether they’re screening resumes, conducting interviews, or just getting to know people during informational chats.

So that’s a little bit about what we’re doing on the front end. More diversity. More understanding. More exposure. That’s what starts the virtuous cycle. Another part of it is what do you do when people get here: how you are more inclusive when they’re here and what are you doing to showcase your diversity. Part of your question is around introducing or injecting more diversity into the firm. Part of that answer is acknowledging the diversity that is already here. There is, depending on the company, a long history of different companies where the culture is so strong that it almost dilutes all of the diversity that is there. It just overpowers everything. What we are working on is this: How do you keep Bain’s culture – in terms of the support we provide each other, the way we show up as one team, and how we never let each other fail – while also acknowledging the individuality and differences that people bring to the table? How are we celebrating some of those differences and creating forums, language, and opportunities to discuss those differences and learn and share with each other?

Over the years – and especially more recently – we’ve had different programming like a “My Story” series, where different leaders of the firm would just share their story. It can be as simple as that. It could be about immigrating to the US, coming out to their parents, or dealing with some challenging family situations – and just how that shaped who they are today. And then adding more cultural programming for people who want to take advantage of it.

We are a remarkably diverse firm. What we were lacking – when I joined so long ago – were forums to share that diversity with the group. Two weeks ago, I was in the office because we had an office meeting during Black History Month. Four folks in the office gave a presentation on Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary. It was a presentation on the origins of Hip-Hop, its elements, and how it has become such a cultural phenomenon. There wasn’t a next step coming out of that. It was an opportunity for us to share as a group. We’ll do similar things around all the different diversity we have in the firm throughout the year, which has been really amazing.”

Bain consultants heading to a meeting. Photographer: Roger Kenny.

P&Q: Bain is known for its strengths in areas like private equity, technology, and sustainability. What is one practice where the firm is going to be investing more heavily in the coming year? Why has that become such a lucrative space?

KB: “Part of what is unique about Bain is that we feel that early in your consulting career, it is important to build a broad foundation across a lot of different industries and types of work. In most cases, we are not hiring people to specialize in any one particular area. I do think that as technology, advanced analytics, and related fields become more prominent, working those into your curriculum in school is always a good thing – whether you end up in Bain or someplace else.

There was a time when you could not know how to use the internet and go into the workforce. There was a time when you didn’t need anything about social media. There was a time when you could choose not to know certain things and you could be OK. I think learning about some of the advanced analytics, machine learning, and AI tools that are out there is what I’ll refer to as a ‘no regrets move’ for the future. It’s not about preparing for a career at Bain, it’s about having a relevant skill set for the work force.

In terms of practices, when Bain is growing, all of Bain is growing. We’re not looking for new consultants who have a predisposition to a particular industry or type of work. That’s just not how we go looking at our MBA or Bachelor’s degree audience. I believe there are several areas around technology and analytics that people should invest in because it’s going to be the next big thing – it’s here today!”

P&Q: Any particular aspects of analytics that are going to be critical?

KB: “You know, the tools always change. The language you are using changes. When I was coming out, it was Excel and then it was Access. Then it became R Python or whatever the latest thing is. The language changes, but the underlying mindset and skillset is what doesn’t change. It is literally like being multi-lingual. The story doesn’t change: The language you express it in is different. So what I need people to do is understand how you structure a problem; what are the right questions to ask; what is the data you need to prove it; what is the analytics you have to run on top of the data to get the insight to answer the question? Those core skills. The context could be any number of tools and analytic languages, but the underlying framework is the same.  Same house, different color paint.”

Once again, the top consulting firm according to the employees in the industry: Bain & Company. Bain photo

P&Q: Bain has a reputation for being the most “results-driven” consulting firm. That’s a claim a lot of firms might make. How does Bain’s approach differentiate itself with clients? How does that work in practice?

KB: “The easiest way to think about it is that most people who have done some homework on Bain know is we talk about “Answer First” a lot. Very early in the project, we come up with what we think the hypothesis is. People know that because it will probably be part of their case interview process: how quickly can they put a hypothesis out there and THEN we’re going to spend the rest of the discussion proving or disproving that hypothesis. I would say Answer First’s little talked-about sibling – but it’s real inside Bain – is called Results First. We don’t talk about that as much because there’s really not a change management component to a case interview. Truth is, when we’re at our best at Bain when the cases kick-off, we’re talking about Answer First and Results First.

What does that mean? That means, from day one, we’re thinking about what we think the answer is. But from day one, we’re also thinking about what it’ll take to achieve it. Most firms don’t do that. They figure out the answer and then say, ‘And then we’ll implement…’ At Bain, we’re thinking about implementation from day one. We’re thinking about, ‘What are the people, processes, and tools that could get in the way of that answer coming to fruition?’ And what are we doing from day one to mitigate those risks so that when the project and the answer is spread, it’s clear that there is a road: the trail has been laid, if not paved, so we can achieve those results.

That mindset is entirely different than the way a lot of people think about it. I’m thinking, from day one, ‘What we’re going to have to do to execute this product launch is have a really world-class social media campaign – but our capabilities aren’t there yet. So what are we doing, right now, as we figure out what the product actually is to build that capability so that when the product launches we have the campaign ready to go. That’s an example of how results-first actually comes into play.

There might be a position in the organization that doesn’t exist that would be the clear owner of the outcome of this project. What are we doing to scope and fill that position so that we can hand it off to the right organization or the right leader to drive it through implementation into fruition? Those are the types of things Results First gets. That’s as big a part of what we do as Answer First.

Results First directly tie back to the first part of our value proposition, the inspiration and purpose you get from your work. Those two things tie together because Results First is about how are you doing work that makes a difference – not just how are you spending your hours. At the end of the day, what did those hours get and why is the world a better place because you invested that time? That starts to speak to purpose and inspiration. If we hire the kind of people who actually want to do work that makes a difference, if you watch them analyze the heck out of something or study and publish papers, there are places you can go and be successful doing that. If you want to read about the difference that you made, there’s one place to come and do that. That’s here.”

Bain consultants in the New York City home office. Courtesy photo

P&Q: What is one area that Bain is looking to improve upon in the coming year? How do you plan to realize it? Realistically, what would success look like over that time period?

KB: “I’m looking forward to continuing to leverage all of the capabilities that we’ve been building, acquiring, and partnering with in the coming year. We’ve done, at this point, over 20 acquisitions in the last 3-4 years, which brings a lot of capabilities both in terms of the scope of the firm – the products and services we can provide – and the scale of the firm, adding in capacity and markets since the demand for Bain has been really high. Once you have all of those great tools, the band has shown up with all their instruments and it’s time to make some great music is how I would think about it. That part is really exciting because we’re acquiring capabilities that either didn’t exist in the market before or we’ve never had at the scale that we have now.

The other thing is, as we’ve become a bigger firm, we’re able to create processes and have a scale. When I joined the Chicago office, we had 60 people. We’re over 800 now. You can just do some things as a much larger firm that you couldn’t have done 15-20 years ago. Obviously, we’ve been a large firm for a while. But there is an amount of scale and the benefits [that come with that we are really excited about. Part of it is with the acquisitions and the partnerships that we have and leveraging those tools. But how you inject those in to really upgrade the way we do the work is pretty exciting.”

P&Q: Any additional thoughts?

KB: “I would go back to the value proposition because I think people tend to over-index on one part of the value proposition and forget the whole picture. It turns out that if you are primarily focused on financials, you will wake up at some point and realize you have been spending a lot of time and energy on something that really isn’t motivating. If you focus on career growth without focusing on sustainability, you might get that promotion and realize you don’t have anyone to share that news with. There are a lot of those interplays.

The best candidates for us understand the full value proposition and how it fits with their goals. And those goals change over time. The thing I needed most when I was coming out of business school with a new house, a new car, and a new baby might have been compensation more than career growth. When you fast forward it 20 years down the line, now I’m a lot more focused on what is the purpose of what we’re doing. I think other people go through that same journey. I would encourage people who are in different parts of the business school journey to think holistically about what they want and not focus on a title or a comp number or a particular mission but think about how they all fit together. At least on the front end of investing several hundred thousand dollars in yourself, understand what it is that you want to get on the back end. Keep it at a very high bar for what an acceptable answer to those questions are.”



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