Terence was a consulting partner at 2 leading international management consulting firms including Bain. He has worked on engagements in the USA, UK, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, France, Mexico, South Africa, Dubai and Canada. He rose rapidly through the ranks and made partner in a very short time frame. He has graciously agreed to write a limited series of posts about his journey from Pepsi into management consulting and his life as a consultant. This is his story and first post.
In his first post, he discussed his move from Pepsi to Bain & Company. His second post discussed his early years at Bain & Company. His third post discussed his first client-facing engagement as an analyst at an airline client. His fourth post examined his role in developing the business case on an IT strategy project for an airline company. His fifth post examined turning around a struggling Eastern European airline in preparation for an IPO. His sixth post reviewed a project to create a new low-cost airline. His seventh post looked at Bain benchmarking techniques. His subsequent posts, approximately 15 additional chapters have been converted into a 287-page book which completes the arc of his career started in these articles.
Money, or should I say, lack of money was one major reason to join a management consulting firm like Bain. It was not the only reason. At 21 years of age, I was an assistant brand manager for Pepsi. The pay was not great as I had only been in the position for 1 year and I had no advanced degree. The work at Pepsi was interesting but not dynamic.
Money, or should I say, lack of money was one major reason to join management consulting.
I joined Pepsi for three reasons. First, I wanted a premium Fortune 500 name on my résumé. Second, I wanted exposure to Pepsi’s famed management training program. I had heard about their model of throwing young hires into the deep-end and seeing how they responded. Third, I was hoping to get an opportunity to travel to some exotic outpost or maybe relocate as an expatriate. The culture was great and the people were friendly. The company also treated me a little differently from all the other management trainees. I had a degree in physics from a top school on the west coast. Pepsi did not seem to attract many candidates with my profile.
I quickly distinguished myself with my analytical abilities. I believe the term “excel-jockey” was used a few times to describe my ability to manipulate numbers and extract data. At the time Pepsi had hired Nielsen AC to measure its stock availability in store. Each week and month, Nielsen AC sent through these complex sheets describing the out-of-stocks (OOS) in each major shopping centre and region. OOS mean a lot to Pepsi. For one, too high OOS means there is no product on the shelf. This means lower revenue. On the other hand, too low OOS could mean lower inventory turnover and larger commissions to the sales team who were partly rewarded on the OOS figures. Getting the correct number was critical.
I remember poring through the OOS numbers and thinking to myself, “this cannot be right. The numbers do not balance.” I took my concerns one level up. Nothing, the brand manager did not really seem interested in fixing the Nielsen numbers. In his view Nielsen could never be wrong. I took it one more level up and was told to fix it if I thought something was wrong. So I collected all the Nielsen excel sheets for the last 6 months and recalculated them all with my new formula. I then took my sheets to Nielsen to explain my new approach. Despite some obvious resentment that a skinny 21 year-old kid was showing up the famed statistical minds at Nielsen, they did agree my numbers were correct. Recalculating the sales commissions showed that Pepsi was paying close to $80M in excess commissions. There were some strong words between Pepsi and Nielsen, and I think Nielsen lost a fair amount of business.
I realized that over 50% of my take-home salary would go to my new apartment. That was not even for a nice place. I was living in a dingy little basement apartment – albeit in a rather premium neighborhood. That same month I also received my increase. It was just 7%. I figured out fairly quickly that everyone else in my group of management recruits were receiving the same salary and had obtained the same increase.
That pretty much made my career at Pepsi. I was now the golden child. My gymnastics with numbers did not stop there. I also worked out a better system to track the performance of Pepsi’s external sales support staff. This technique led to OOS dropping to less than 5% in the pilot account. My future looked good. Less than 9 months after joining I was asked to move to Pepsi’s head office and help lead an initiative to bring some of my “analytical spark” to a new and important unit that was trying to help with in-store promotions.
As I was settling into my new position, I was also looking for a new apartment. I realized that over 50% of my take-home salary would go to my new apartment. That was not even for a nice place. I was living in a dingy little basement apartment – albeit in a rather premium neighborhood. That same month I also received my increase. It was just 7%. I figured out fairly quickly that everyone else in my group of management recruits were receiving the same salary and had obtained the same increase.
A brand manager I had befriended realized I was unhappy and offered to take me to lunch to explain how salaries are set and why it is not the only measure of success and progress. Despite all the nice and important things he said in that lunch, all I remember was an aside comment he made about his wife working at the management consulting firm, BCG, and the huge salary she was making. The next day I decided to come into the office later than planned and spent a good few hours on the internet finding out about the world of management consulting.
At the time, just like now, there was not much information about the interview and recruitment process. There is always lots of information written by juniors and associates, but nothing written by the partners themselves who make the major decisions. What’s the point of listening to juniors? So I called up a few head-hunting firms whom I read had success placing candidates at McKinsey and Bain. After a few calls and messages, I found a firm who had indeed been successful and currently had a mandate to find new associates for McKinsey. Bingo. I sent my resume across.
At this time, my resume did not have much on it. It was pretty bland. I studied at a UK boarding school and I was the Head Prefect. I had won several awards at High School. I was a debate champion. I was president of my university physics team and president of the science society. I was also a member of a few organizations for smart people. I had played baseball at university and was also involved in track and field at high school. What I did have on my side was that I was very confident, a very polished speaker and dressed like a professional. I looked the part.
The head hunter was nice enough but very direct. He made it clear that the best shot I had would be to join a consulting firm at the entry-level. I needed to shoot for the business analyst position. I was a little disappointed until I heard the salary range. It was easily twice what I was earning. He also thought my resume was poorly formatted and I need to particularly show four things:
• Exceptional academic results.
• A broad range of interests.
• Demonstrated success in my interests.
• Someone who showed they could succeed as a professional.
Most days at the office were spent reading the paper and just waiting to go home. It was a real drag. The people were great and my new assignment was going well, but all things considered I had to go soon. I was not enjoying my time.
He wanted a one page resume and told me to go for the Ivy League style. He sent me a sample from a Harvard graduate. By this time, my heart was just not into Pepsi. Despite my successes and obvious value to the business, I still could not get over my paltry increase which seemed to be the standard for all employees. The company car was obviously a bonus, but that novelty soon wore off as well.
Paying 50% of my salary towards my apartment was also heavily impacting my life. The remainder 50% needed to be split between food, paying off my study loans and the meagre remainder went towards my nascent social life. Dating is expensive. Most days at the office were spent reading the paper and just waiting to go home. It was a real drag. The people were great and my new assignment was going well, but all things considered I had to go soon. I was not enjoying my time. The head-hunter had managed to secure me interviews at 3 major firms and one investment bank. They were all fantastic companies:
• Bain & Company
• Monitor Company
The Monitor interview was a disaster. For one, despite all the advice about being prepared for case questions and brain teasers, I was not fully prepared. I also felt that the Monitor partners running the interview were just not happy to be there. They were slightly condescending, made banal remarks and seemed quite proud of their firm. They were more interested in explaining how superior Monitor was to Mckinsey then interviewing me. The case was a disaster. The rest of the interview was a disaster. I needed no further response from the firm to know I was not going to be called back for another round. The head-hunter called me. His feedback was that the partners felt I was good but “not wired to think like a management consultant.”
The Morgan Stanley interview was something else altogether. Despite being all 22 years of age and holding an undergraduate degree, albeit with almost a full 100% average and from a great school, I was going to be interviewed by the Senior Managing Director running M&A and his two deputies. It did not get any better than this. The interview was on a really hot and muggy summer’s day. I drove out to Morgan Stanley’s head office. I was ushered into a massive boardroom and took a seat on the far end.
Shortly thereafter, the three gentlemen arrived. I was not intimidated in the least. They did not seem focused on testing my analytical skills. My resume seems to have provided sufficient comfort. It was a great discussion as they discussed their thoughts for the business, what they were looking for and why they needed someone super-smart and with burning ambition to serve as their own “brain” to support them in meetings, discussions and planning sessions. They seemed keen and pushed for me to see the HR director the next day.
The Morgan Stanley offer disappeared when the HT director vetoed the offer. In her words “he is not a person who will succeed or be happy in the background.” Damn.
Bain & Company’s office oozed opulence. It was intimidating and you could sense the mental energy in the place. At Bain, People were polite, well dressed and seemed to have bought their clothing from the same place. I remember sitting in the interview and trying to count the stitches on the sleeve of my interviewers white, French cuffed cotton shirt. My written exam went well and I was finished in about 30 minutes so I had a good 40 more minutes left over. My first case also went well since I spent more time preparing. My second more detailed case was also a success. It’s easy to read the outcome of the case by judging the interviewers demeanor and response to your answers. These guys were enjoying the interview.
On the drive back from the interview I received a call from the head-hunter saying that Bain was happy and wanted to move me to the next round of interviews. The next round was two 30 minute cases with separate partners. One was a medical market diagnostic case and the second was an insurance company growth case. I actually enjoyed the cases. The partners were engaging and we had a good conversation going.
I think the partners liked my open approach; they appreciated the fact that I communicated all my thinking with them. It is important to realize that cases do not always have the same answer. Therefore, in the event that you provide a different answer, the interviewers should understand how you arrived at your answer.
From my Monitor case experience, I had decided to sketch out my case response on the white board since I then had more space with which to work, it was easier for the partners to see my response and I could make edits easily. I used the following techniques in both cases:
• Step One – What is the Question I am Answering
• Step Two – What data do I have?
• Step Three – What constraints do I have?
• Step Four – What is my decision tree or hypotheses (this is the framework I would use)
• Step Five – Talk the partner through my thinking
This approach was very, very well received. I think the partners liked my open approach; they appreciated the fact that I communicated all my thinking with them. It is important to realize that cases do not always have the same answer. Therefore, in the event that you provide a different answer, the interviewers should understand how you arrived at your answer.
The thinking process to arrive at the answer is much more important than the real answer. Hence the need to ensure the interview understands how the answer was developed. The worst thing you can do is simply pop out an answer and are then unable to talk the interviewer through your approach.
I was called back for more interviews the next day and an offer was finally made on the fourth day. I was very surprised at the speed of things. Yet, based on the more than 200% increase in salary, how could I say no? I accepted. At the time, I did not realize that McKinsey was seen as the premium management consulting firm. If I had known, I may not have taken the Bain offer and waited for the McKinsey offer. However, the Bain experience was a truly polished affair. The place was humming with cerebral energy. Everything was professional and classy. They were thorough and prompt. No delays between interviews or after interviews. They seemed to know what they wanted. People remembered my name and while they were tough and very smart, I felt welcomed.
At the time, I did not realize that McKinsey was seen as the premium management consulting firm. If I had known, I may not have taken the Bain offer and waited for the McKinsey offer.
Today, I know better – the firms are on a par. This was a second reason for joining a management consulting firm. Everyone talks about them like only the best and brightest can get it. It’s almost as if you are stupid if you have not worked there. This elitist feeling does tug at ones ego. It was a badge that I was indeed smart.
Leaving Pepsi was not easy either. Despite my disinterest and laziness towards the job at hand, things were going very well and the powers that be were eyeing me for bigger things. Both of my senior managers were away on an African Safari. I therefore decided to fax my resignation letter. Bad idea. I think they were personally affronted that I would not try to call them. That said, they asked me to hold on and came back early to talk me out of my resignation. I was flown to Miami, where they were in transit, and taken down to a fantastic dinner on the marina. This was not too bad for my first trip to Miami.
They mentioned how much I had done for Pepsi and how impressed the company was with my performance. It was a long discussion about what my future could be. They showed me a huge home belonging to a Pepsi executive and said that in 15 to 20 years I could have something like that. Given their efforts to keep me, I felt pretty bad about my fax. I told them I would think about it but had already decided to go anyway. I think too much damage was done with the fax and my thoughts about leaving.
The first thing I did when I handed in my company sponsored car was to walk across the street to a BMW dealership and drive out with a convertible. I thought I had arrived.
Power at Bain lays in the staffing office. The all-powerful staffing office is responsible for looking at project needs and comparing this to the performance evaluation and development needs of consultants and staffing them. I am sure that having a close relationship to a powerful partner helps a little, but the staffing office is overwhelmingly influential.
The project manager and his team felt my arrival was somewhat “forced” on them. They never said it openly but I could feel they were not so excited to have me on the project and were more interested in working with some of the other consultants either on the beach (not billing) or in the unit.
My airline project was slightly different. The office was running low on consultants, a partner with whom I had worked closely at the research unit was leading the client interaction and the firm needed someone with a consumer products background on the project. That was going to be me.
The project manager and his team felt my arrival was somewhat “forced” on them. They never said it openly but I could feel they were not so excited to have me on the project and were more interested in working with some of the other consultants either on the beach (not billing) or in the unit. This was a very important project for a premium client and I got the feeling that the project team felt others were in line ahead of me and should have had the project.
In all reviews of management consulting firms, everyone downplays the human element. Consultants like to focus on tangible elements for review like working hours, benefits, salaries and so on. Go to any reviews on Glassdoor or Vault and this is clear. Relationship dynamics are a major issue at management consulting firms. Although, I also saw that later when I left Bain, this was my first experience of how it would play out. I also somehow got the feeling that some consultants, although not all, were somehow unhappy with the success I had in the unit. Many consultants saw time in the unit as a form of punishment for not being good enough to be in front of the client. My hand in the Nabisco work threw them for a loop because it helped my consulting career. Especially, when our presence at Nabisco continued to grow and grow.
Despite the clear tensions within the team, I decided to put my head down and focus on the task. I knew the project partner knew me well so I was not fighting to build a reputation. I only needed to keep up my reputation. The project was very interesting. A major airline had lurched from one disaster to another. A new CEO had appointed Bain to review the company and develop a plan to turnaround the business. The initial diagnostic generated a long list of issues to be addressed.
The marketing of the airline was one of them. The team I was working on had started earlier than the other teams and was working on a plan to fix the marketing arm. We had 6 weeks to complete a strategy to fix marketing. My role was to map out the key processes at the client and then complete the business case for the marketing part of the project. It’s been a very long time so I cannot remember all the details. However, I do recall the rest of the team working on branding analyses, organizational design analyses and communications analyses. The communications team was part of the marketing unit at the client.
We were based at the clients head office which was a good 1 hour commute from my home. Given the travelling we were likely to do, I chose to take my car along and ditch the subway. A ride in a convertible on a warm spring day was definitely inspiring. Our team was assigned a bare white room with one large square table. It was pretty basic but in the same corridor as the marketing executives. There were heavily tinted windows which made every sunny day look like an overcast one. Coming in at 7am and leaving when the sun sets is very demoralizing when you mind is tricked into thinking it is winter due to the tinted windows.
I felt the project manager treated most of the team like they were unimportant and did not need to be involved in important discussions. He started key discussions without everyone in the room, made people feel as if they were not contributing to the engagement and divided information. He had picked another consultant as his designated number 2 and pretty much only discussed important items with him. We were all excluded in discussing feedback, providing direction and even conducting reviews.
The cafeteria at the client was less inspiring. It looked like a high school cafeteria plonked down in the middle of relatively fancy looking offices. It was as if the rest of the building was built to higher standards and when only the cafeteria was left, the project budget ran out. The food was bland and overcooked. The choice was not the best. Again, basic cafeteria selection.
Right off the bat I was not enjoying the project. I had a good few reasons for this:
• I felt the project manager treated most of the team like they were unimportant and did not need to be involved in important discussions. He started key discussions without everyone in the room, made people feel as if they were not contributing to the engagement and divided information. He had picked another consultant as his designated number 2 and pretty much only discussed important items with him. We were all excluded in discussing feedback, providing direction and even conducting reviews.
• Later I learned that project managers play the greatest role in determining the energy levels on a project. A good manager raises the energy levels of the team, makes everyone feel important and involved, and keeps the team united. They are still tough on performance, but they play the ball and not the man. This team manager kept the team divided and kept energy levels painfully low.
• This manager had decided earlier that he would try to win the implementation work by painting an apocalyptic picture of the client’s future. If the data took us there, that’s fine, but what if it did not? In this case, the data clearly was showing that marketing was not bad and not really failing, yet it was amusing how he would find any gaps as the reason for a major collapse in the marketing department. Every problem was the end of the world and needed to be addressed immediately or the “fate of the airline would be dire.” He brought this somber mood to everything which was, in my opinion, overdone and blatantly theatrical. In time I would learn that this was his personality. Though, that certainly did not help matters and did not help the client.
• I suppose it’s only fair to say that I did not like him and I am sure he did not like me very much. This may have obviously affected our relationship.
• After working with the partners, I realized the enormous effort Bain makes to develop and train people. There is a Bain way and the only possible way to learn this is via close coaching and direct feedback. Senior leaders of the firm are willing to take time out of their busy schedules to explain the Bain way. I am not sure if it was just me, but I found this manager weak at training people.
Every problem was the end of the world and needed to be addressed immediately or the “fate of the airline would be dire.” He brought this somber mood to everything which was, in my opinion, overdone and blatantly theatrical. In time I would learn that this was his personality. Though, that certainly did not help matters and did not help the client.
At the same time as the project, my social life was gathering pace and I had developed a routine of leaving at around 8pm, meeting friends at 10pm and returning home around 1am or 2am. I would then sleep for 4 hours and be in the office between 7am and 7:30am. I would not recommend this to anyone. While I managed this fairly well for the first week, it really started to take a toll by the second week. I was so tired by the next Wednesday that I just went home at 8pm and crashed in front of my big screen TV. I usually fell asleep with a half-eaten pizza and beer. This is easy to do when I was younger. Much later in life, when I tried this as a partner I ballooned and put on lots of weight. My fitted suits were no longer fitting as well.
Developing my project plan, timelines and hypotheses away from the safe planning confines of the unit was a bit perplexing. I did not know what I was even meant to do. In the research unit, the partners always helped us understand the questions we were trying to answer. Out with the client, pinpointing the questions was much tougher. The questions I was meant to answer were vague at best and I was getting no guidance from the project manager. I remember being very, very worried that I would come in, not have anything to do and stress about how to look busy. Every time I asked for help my manager gave me some vague description and told me to prepare a draft to check. A draft of what!?
At Bain, you need to first perfectly understand the Bain way of doing things, prove you have mastered it and then you can be creative. Bain wants you to be creative yet by only using their heavily analytical MECE driven process. At my level, there was little room to be creative. I was still learning the techniques.
Eventually after much delays and frustration, I managed to get stuck into the process analyses. I thought I was doing a fine job and the manager seemed pleased until I was alone in the project room one day and the project partner arrived. A very sociable person, we got to speaking about the project. Although I thought I was doing well, his simple but obvious questions sent me scrambling back to the drawing board. Although I cannot remember his exact questions, it went something like this:
• How many processes are there?
• How did you pick these processes?
• What hypotheses are you testing?
• What do you hope to get out of mapping the processes?
• How does this link back to the overall project?
• Where is the storyboard?
• Have you tested this with the client?
There were more issues. He also pointed out that some of the more creative things I thought I was doing did not make a lot of sense. Bain has a set way of doing things for a reason and I was expected to toe the line. This is one thing many people fail to understand. At Bain, you need to first perfectly understand the Bain way of doing things, prove you have mastered it and then you can be creative. Bain wants you to be creative yet by only using their heavily analytical MECE driven process. At my level, there was little room to be creative. I was still learning the techniques.
If you come in thinking you will teach Bain something new, you are sadly mistaken. There is a Bain way and you need to earn your right to be creative only after mastering the Bain way. Those who struggle to master these techniques are quickly managed out. The firm does not tolerate renegades. Therefore when someone thinks they are creative, they need to be able to display this creativity while always deploying the Bain approach to engaging clients and solving problems.
Since I was getting mixed signals from the partner and project manager, I went to the project manager and asked for his opinion on my thoughts to reconcile the two approaches. His view was that he would manage the partner and I should simply follow his instructions. So I continued. Over many, many painfully slow and boring workshops, I mapped the key processes, looked for gaps and bottlenecks, worked to reduce inefficiencies and improved the processes. I thought I did a pretty swell job. The client was impressed and so was the project manager.
The partner was not impressed. He felt nothing I did had addressed the key client issues around improving the performance of the marketing department as measured by the ability to target the right events and manage the portfolio of multiple campaigns. The project manager and partner had wildly divergent views about what needed to be done. The partner was also not impressed that I had ignored his previous advice.
The knowledge manager was interested but not influential. The impossible business case they wanted me to build was to prove the investment in knowledge management could improve ideas in marketing and eventually improve the return on marketing spend.
The business case was an equal disaster. The difference from the process mapping being that I knew this would be a disaster from the get go and my prediction came true. The project manager was trying to find any business case to show the value of his work. He was also trying to find allies within the marketing division at the client. Unfortunately we were not doing too well. The analyses were poorly planned and the project manager’s style was not winning any converts; with one exception.
The head of knowledge management within marketing loved the fact that these expensive, Ivy League educated consultants where willing to listen to her and gave us her undivided attention. The project manager confused interest with influence. The knowledge manager was interested but not influential. The impossible business case they wanted me to build was to prove the investment in knowledge management could improve ideas in marketing and eventually improve the return on marketing spend.
Bain has a sacred rule that anyone can challenge a decision if it is not in the best interests of a client. The firm will listen and, irrespective of the person’s seniority, age or experience; if they are correct, the firm will change its direction. This is called the right to dissent. Some call it the obligation to dissent when clients’ interests are compromised. Therefore I voiced my concerns and said this was a really weak business case which would be very hard to calculate and defend. For my views, I was taken off the project by the project manager and sent back to the office.
A credit to Bain and a credit to their value system was the way they handled the performance reviews. Despite the fact I had only been there for a year, it was my first project and I was an unknown quantity, the review committee looked at the facts and decided that I had done all the right things and it was my project manager who had erred, just not on the side of caution.
I pretty much thought my career was over. I contemplated the thought of having to go back into the job market and start all over again. Fourteen months at Bain would not look so bad on my résumé. I hoped. A quick and unofficial poll in the office indicated that no one personally knew a single person who had been removed from a project. Everyone had heard of some consultant who had been removed. However, the idea of being dispatched from one’s first project was like an urban legend. Like all urban legends, this one was interesting and played to their fears. Yet, there was no proof to it. I was not happy to be the one bursting their bubble.
The performance reviews at Bain are tough. The firm spends more time writing pages and pages about improvement areas than writing pages of strong points. You need a tough stomach to swallow this and keep it down. A credit to Bain and a credit to their value system was the way they handled the performance reviews. Despite the fact I had only been there for a year, it was my first project and I was an unknown quantity, the review committee looked at the facts and decided that I had done all the right things and it was my project manager who had erred, just not on the side of caution.
My career did not suffer but he left 2 months later. The firm never said why, but it was clear they did not feel he had the correct value system. It was humbling that a new hire could stand up to a well-educated and long-time manager, challenge him and win if the client’s interests were placed first. Bain is proud of its value system and it should be. It lives by them. Not many companies in the world can make the same claim. My performance feedback was not great. It was honest. I could deal with that and decided to stay at Bain.
Bain & Company is an interesting company. “Bainies”, as they refer to themselves, take enormous pride in their culture and the “true north” value system which lies at the core of their cultural values. On my first day at the office, sitting through an induction led by a team of partners, the following three points were driven home:
• Bain believes in developing solutions which work. The Monday-morning-principle was the belief that any Bain recommendation must lead to an action that could be implemented by the client on Monday morning.
• Bain also believes in 80/20 rule. But the rule is different from the famous Pareto principle. Bain’s 80/20 rule refers to the fact that it is better to have 80% of the best answer, provided this could be implemented by the client to get success. Chasing the best theoretical answer with limited room for operational success was not an option.
• Clients come first. Period. Bain ties this to their “true north” value system of only doing what lies true to their value system, and by default, the client.
We went through a long induction period lasting one complete week. A whole host of topics were covered in this intense mini Bain MBA week:
• History of Bain
• Bain Approach to Management Consulting
• Bain Value System
• Bain Path to Partnership
• Bain Knowledge Systems
• Research Skills
• Presentation Skills
• Writing Skills
• Speaking Skills
• Dressing Skills
• Engagement Etiquette
• Office Etiquette
• Etiquette for Engaging Clients
• Maintaining Client Confidentiality
The thing that immediately hits you at Bain is the intellect and wide-ranging skills of the people in the room. In my group of 12 new hires there were a NASA rocket scientist, a Rhodes-Scholar economist who served on the Clinton campaign, several Harvard, Wharton and Stanford MBAs, a former musician and now MBA from the University of Chicago (now the Booth School of Business), a poet and Fulbright scholar…and then me, a physicist. Therefore, it is an intimidating place. That kind of pedigree exists throughout the rest of the organization.
It is better to have 80% of the best answer, provided this could be implemented by the client to get success. Chasing the best theoretical answer with limited room for operational success was not an option.
Bain is unique among management consulting firms for several reasons:
• Bain is the only one of the truly prestigious firms to be run by a woman, Oriet Gadiesh. Orit is a chairman of the firm. You should read her interesting Harvard Business School Case Study for her complete story, but basically her tough survival attitude is part of the Bain culture.
• Bain almost went bankrupt. This embarrassed the firm immensely but also made them more conservative and forced them to put in place measures to make sure this never happens again. Therefore, Bain seems to be very analytical when examining its own actions.
• Bill Bain walked out of the Boston Consulting Group along with a handful of key people to set up Bain & Company across the town from his rival. The firm tends to avoid discussing this part of its history. However, it does shape who they are. It’s almost as if they try so much harder to bury their past.
With so many big egos around the room, everyone is trying to outdo the other and be seen as serious competition. The positioning and verbal spars do come across clearly. The Bain partners and existing employees try to create a more collegial atmosphere. However, with such high salaries and reputations on the line, everyone is trying to one-up the other person even if this is done subtly.
Bain almost went bankrupt. This embarrassed the firm immensely but also made them more conservative and forced them to put in place measures to make sure this never happens again. Therefore, Bain seems to be very analytical when examining its own actions.
The business analysts/consultants (different firms use different names for the entry-level position) were separated from the more senior associate level recruits. The six of us went through a more detailed orientation about the Bain approach to research.
Typically, even the consultants are staffed onto engagements. However, Bain was going through a period of rapid growth and the research support systems worldwide were struggling to keep up. A decision had been made that three of the consultants would be assigned to an internal role primarily to support the partners on client-development studies.
I was one of the three. We would be a type of internal research unit supporting partners in this office only. Another Bain partner and three managers would be assigned to the unit full-time to ensure it could operate to the highest Bain standards.
I remember looking forlornly at the other consultants as they went out onto client-site. It was seen as a badge of honor to be on a live engagement working with clients. Despite what the firm told us, we felt being kept back in the internal unit was a decision taken as we were not ready and needed to be trained in this safe environment. Of course, it was not true, but that’s the way we felt.
On our first day in the unit, we (three consultants from the unit) went out for lunch. One of the consultants was quite upset because she felt her career would be held back and she was not developing by working in the office. Over steak and grilled vegetables we decided that if we were going to be the internal team, then we would be the best internal team ever. We would make the Bain partners see the enormous value we were generating.
It went without saying that we all three were wishing we would be the first to be assigned out of the unit and onto a project.
A couple of massive client engagements put a crimp in our plans. Rather than having a generous leadership group with a full-time partner and three managers, we were soon down to a part-time partner and one full-time manager. In hind-sight that turned out to be an amazing blessing. The senior partners in the office started spending more time with us, we were given more senior roles to carry out and since we needed more support, we were sent on much more formal training to exotic destinations like London.
Spending time with the senior partners was especially important. For our colleagues on engagements, their performance was fed through several lines of communication before it reached the partners. We were working directly with the partners. Our success or failure was squarely in our hands.
One month into our time in the unit, a major opportunity arrived to demonstrate the unit’s value. Bain had been trying for some time to break into a major biscuit (not the real category) company. For the sake of writing, we shall call this company Nabisco (although it was not Nabisco). Bain had tried a few times but nothing ever really happened. McKinsey had somehow always managed to arrive at the right time to snatch away the work.
Nabisco was going through a CEO transition and the new CEO wanted to relook at the portfolio of brands in the business. Since the new CEO did not have a preferred consulting partner nor did he know the industry, he invited a Bain partner to discuss ideas for improvement. With the change of the guard, change in the client’s board and due to conflicting diaries, the first of these meetings was set for 10 weeks into the future. That gave us plenty of time to put together something formidable to support the partner.
Working with the partner we mapped out a strategy for the discussions. We did not know enough about the sector and client. Therefore, we developed a two-pronged approach.
• First, we could not do the research to tell them what was not working and needed to be improved. We did not have access to the data and that would need to be the engagement itself. Therefore, we decided to do a study to show him how he should go through analyzing his company.
• Second, we decided to show him the consumer perspective in-store.
Working with the partner was a fantastic experience. He drummed into me and showed me the value of an approach that I still use to this day and have carried with me even when I left Bain for another consulting firm:
• Be clear about the question you are answering.
• Ask yourself if answering this question would allow you to reach your objectives. The wrong question is more damaging than the wrong answer.
• Break down this core question into smaller sub-questions.
• The questions must be mutually-exclusive and collectively-exhaustive. Getting the handle of this was painful. However, being MECE is the single most important skill in management consulting.
• Design the analyses to answer the sub-questions.
• Collect the data for the analyses.
• Run the analyses.
• Go back to the start and test for logic, test for completeness and test for common-sense.
This is the management consulting way. In every single engagement and across thousands of issues, I have successfully used this approach. It is the root of consulting success. Of course, learning how to do this was a painful and difficult process.
It is very difficult to understand what a storyboard is when it is explained to you. I do not know about other people, but I personally have always struggled to generate a perfect storyboard. It took me many iterations to get it just right. The same goes with preparing perfect slides. So many people do not know how to prepare slides and are comfortable with this. At Bain, you need to learn their templates and learn how to deploy it well.
We split the work up. Given the partners experience, he would work on the storyboard and slides for the framework to analyse the company and I would handle the in store experience analyses. Completing the in store study posed a big problem. What was the central question I was answering? How would I do this? Eventually, after much iterations I settled on showing the disconnect between what Nabisco was trying to achieve in store, as explained on their website, annual report and in numerous analyst calls, and the actual customer experience.
So off I went and designed my storyboard and decision tree. Once that was signed off, after 5 iterations, I then designed the tests and started the data collection. Management consulting is a lot like the show CSI:
• Typically, people are trying to hide something from you. No one comes out and says, “Hey Mr Consultant, thanks for coming over. At the moment I am the problem since I have weak self-confidence and need to see constant recognition for my ego. Therefore, I structure all decisions to come through me. I know this creates many bottlenecks, is causing delays and losing us money, but it makes me feel so good. So please fix this problem and everything will work well.” We have to investigate and find the truth when nothing is what it seems.
• It is a little messy to find the information and document everything. Lots and lots of new consultants get hooked into the glamour image of management consulting. Glamour is the outcome of doing all the messy work. It is tough and sometimes painful to find the data you seek. Nothing is given to you and there are no nice looking case study appendices with perfectly formatted data. We need to sift through an organization to find the information and create the pretty slides which we hand to clients.
• The burden of proof is on us. That’s right. We need to prove our recommendation and findings are correct. If we fail, the client does not trust our recommendation and we lose credibility. Clients never care that their data sources may be incorrect. If we choose to use the data, we own the problem.
The theme I choose is a Day-in-the-life of a Nabisco Brand. Using a set of photos and time series analyses we tracked the packages all the way from the distribution warehouse, supermarkets and stores, their warehouses, onto the shelf, shelf replenishment and to the consumer.
Doing this was tough since many stores do not like shutterbug consultants snapping away near their loading docks and display units. Customers also do not like this. This was also way before the iPhone and digital cameras. I am sure it would be much easier to do this now. We also solicited some consultants to send us photos of the biscuits when it was opened up at home. Was the box easy to open? Were the biscuits broken? Could the box be stored without damaging the remaining biscuits? What did children do with the toys inside?
We timed deliveries, timed the OOS (my Pepsi experience came in useful here) and were able to show the client how damaged the boxes were, how peak shopping time traffic was missed since the stock was not replenished and many other useful insights.
The biggest benefit was spending one complete year working and learning from the firm’s most talented partners. That was priceless. I had built relationships with them. By the end of the year I knew how each partner operated and could tailor my communication and work to meet their expectations.
The pack we put together went far. Further than I thought it would. The client loved it and eventually awarded Bain the portfolio analyses work. The deck itself became something of a best-in-class internal study guideline on how to combine field work with desk-top research to produce powerful and insightful presentations.
My time in the unit was interesting and very beneficial. I actually liked knowing where I would be the next day unlike my colleagues who were sometimes given one day notice for their travels. I also liked to have one office which I could call my own, where I could develop a routine. The office had a great cafeteria and the food was excellent. While I travelled out to collect data, I could predict with a high degree of accuracy when I would finish my work. I now had more money and the time to develop a social life. Late nights were very rare since we had ample time to plan.
The biggest benefit was spending one complete year working and learning from the firm’s most talented partners. That was priceless. I had built relationships with them. By the end of the year I knew how each partner operated and could tailor my communication and work to meet their expectations. It was especially gratifying when partners tried to get me onto their projects after the Nabisco study. Spending all this time with the guardians of the firm also allowed me to see how they operated in front of clients, nurtured the firm’s values, managed client expectations and developed multi-million dollar engagements from the kernel of an idea.
Once things settled for Bain worldwide, the need to keep the internal unit disappeared. However, given its success the global firm decided to set up a dedicated research team in that office. I think that was a great feather in my cap and it was good for the rest of the team. I was willing to take any credit I could.
Many aspiring consultants feel they have to get out to clients to move ahead. That’s partly true. Yet there are many, many benefits to first joining the internal research units. That worked very well for me and I would say gave me a major advantage over other consultants.
I did one other similar study for a retail bank before I was hauled off onto my first engagement, analyzing an airline. I was the first person out of the research unit. Things seemed to be looking up for me. I should have known better.
Through a Bain business case, Terance discusses how to distinguish between analyzing a problem and assembling the answers to arrive at a strategy.
I felt lucky and relieved to have survived the scare of my last Bain business case. The relief did not last very long. I had to very quickly show that I deserved to be at Bain. With the engagement manager having left, I felt there was greater attention on my performance.
Would I be able to rise to the occasion and prove that this was a personal issue or was there something really wrong with my performance? I also felt a personal obligation to not disappoint the partners who had stood up for me. I did not have long to wait for the opportunity to prove myself.
Leading the business case
Just one week after my performance review, I was assigned to another aviation project. As you will see over time, the aviation sector and strategy became my area of specialization. Bain had been appointed to develop an IT strategy for one of the largest air carriers in the continental USA.
I was assigned to lead an important piece of work. The firm wanted to test me and asked me to be the analyst leading the business case under the support of a more senior consultant. It was going to be tough for me. I had no real finance or accounting background other than my 3 weeks MBA training at the Bain University.
Although I was assigned to work with an experienced consultant, the partner made it clear that I would need to drive the business case. The other consultant would oversee my work and provide input as needed. They would not be responsible for delivery. I would need to own this piece of work.
To be honest I was scared. While I appreciated the opportunity to lead something this big, I was not sure I could do it, and frankly surprised the engagement manager would place such trust in me.
My peers on the engagement did not help matters. The team assigned to this project was a stellar team. All were high-flyers within the ranks of Bain and were regularly cited for their outstanding team work, delivery excellence and exceptional client relationship.
Bain awards outstanding consultants with vacations away to some exotic locale with all expenses paid and they are allowed to take their families. Each of the guys on the team had won a vacation during the last 3 years running. The team consisted of 5 consultants including the partner leading the study.
I really appreciated the way the engagement manager approached this study. That is the reason I decided to bite the bullet and plunge into this project. We sat down and had a long discussion about what he wanted from this Bain business case. He was very hands-off, which I found surprising. He spoke a lot about the principles of the Bain philosophy.
I could see this guy led teams by bringing in smart people, inspiring them and allowing them to work. He mentioned he asked for me to be on the project because he heard I had spoken up for the client’s benefit on my last project. He admired that and wanted a similar style on this study. I clearly remember the 6 principles he had for the engagement:
- Take charge and dazzle the client, project team and Bain.
- Titles mean nothing. As far as he is concerned, I am the point man on the business case.
- A policy of no surprises.
- He would provide air-cover as needed and I just needed to ask for help.
- Follow the Bain approach but be creative.
- Have fun and work as a team.
Having this conversation really helped me. Not only did he inspire me to give my best, but he kept his word. At no point on the project was I treated like a junior member of the team. I was treated like a really senior and established Bain consultant. I remember sitting in the planning meetings and the engagement manager would deflect all finance questions to me.
He made a point of ensuring that no one, not even the engagement partner, would approach the Finance Director unless I was involved and it was part of my plan for the study. This gave me a tremendous boost in confidence. Now I just needed to deliver behind that.
Business case can mean so many things
What the hell do I do? Business cases can mean so many things. I spoke to the Bain business case experts and everyone had different ideas. In one project a business case meant working out the return-on-equity and in another it meant finding the increase in profitability. In yet in another it meant calculating the reduction in labor.
So for the first week, I worked with the engagement manager, partner and the rest of the team to see where they were taking the study. I decided that if each business case is unique, then the business case must serve the needs of the project. Therefore, I could only plan the business case once the needs of the project were clear. That sounded logical to me.
As I worked with the other team members to develop their plans, I developed a framework for my analyses. In hindsight, the framework is so obvious and logical, but at the time, I was pulling my hair out.
It helps to arrive at the framework by yourself since you can then understand why it was developed in the format chosen. The engagement manager would calmly listen to me and make polite suggestions and it was up to me to make the final decision. With power comes great responsibility – or so they say.
My analyses approach
So my analyses approach was simple:
Step 1 – Conduct a 2 weeks review of the IT department’s finances. Basically I was creating their income statement, which they did not have. I was also creating an easy to understand capital investment overview, something which they again did not have.
Step 2 – Determine if their total expenditure was appropriate.
Step 3 – Determine if investments were made in the appropriate parts of the business.
Step 4 – Determine what they could do to improve.
Step 5 – Determine the business case for the recommended strategy.
I ran this by the engagement manager and partner and both of them were happy with my analyses approach. They thought it was easy to follow, exactly what was needed and just a question of finding the information and drawing the insights.
Developing a storyboard
I already knew that the engagement partner would be on my case to prepare my storyboard. So I spent the first week doing the following:
- Summarizing the key questions and hypotheses I needed to answer.
- Building a decision tree to ensure I was not excluding anything important.
- Developing my analyses and data collection templates.
Once this was done, I started working on my storyboard. I must say that developing my first storyboard was a painful experience. It is such a foreign concept when done by yourself for the first time.
Although I had practiced this in the office when I worked in the research team, I had taken for granted the important prompts and pointers provided by the consulting partners. Their comments were really useful to nudge me in the right direction.
I would just have to work without them. I reworked my storyboard every single night and discussed it with the manager the next morning. Each morning he sent it back with the following kinds of comments:
- Do we need to tell clients we did this?
- What is this data telling us? Are you sure?
- What does it mean if they do not adhere to global best practice?
- What is the most important finding you expect? Why is it not in the story?
- Why is your story so long?
- Did you know Winston Churchill demanded his war cabinet provide feedback using one single-sided typed page with double spacing? Why is your storyboard 80 pages? Is the news eighty times as catastrophic as World War II?
He was never flippant or arrogant. He just asked interesting questions in a nice way. It forced me to think this through over and over. I used to literally spend hours talking to employees and helping the other consultants all the while stressing that I had not started my data collection and analyses. The engagement manager did not seem worried. He wanted me to first develop my storyboard.
Presenting a storyboard
By the end of week two I was still not sure how my final storyboard would look like. This was after 7 iterations. Unfortunately for me, the next day the entire project team was having a meeting and we each needed to present back our storyboard. We were scheduled to have the meeting from 9am to 11am.
My tactic was to stall and hope to buy time to gather my thoughts over the weekend and hopefully present on Monday. The project partner rarely came in between Monday and Wednesday, so if I could survive Friday I would have about 5 days to spare.
I did quite well on Friday. Stalling that is. When the partner came in Friday morning, I strongly suggested he have some pastry from the new Dean & Deluca boutique on the ground floor. That killed about 25 minutes since I was extremely polite to allow every woman to pay before me. We spent another 10 minutes on pleasantries upstairs before getting into the detail.
Once we got to work, it was an intellectually tough session. The storyboards were dissected and analyzed. The partner checked for logic in thinking, robustness of the analyses and so on. It was interesting to watch. I also kept asking questions to stall.
At 10:55am, the partner checked his watch and mentioned he was running out of time. The rest of the team got up to leave since they had 11am meetings. The partner motioned for me to stay and quickly brief him. He wanted me to give him the basic message from my storyboard.
Damn! I thought I had escaped.
I basically sucked in a deep breath and told him what I thought the analyses would show. I just went with what I think the data was telling me and its implications:
- About 75% of the IT budget is locked into legacy contracts decided at corporate level and over which the IT department has no control.
- The legacy contracts are never reviewed and likely not meeting performance criteria.
- The planned budget cuts could only be taken on the capital projects side, where passenger and ticketing IT upgrades would be made, since the rest of the budget was controlled by corporate. This would directly impact sales and customer satisfaction.
- Despite popular opinion, Pacific Air is not spending more than peers, although its pattern of spending does not make sense. It is spending too little on core systems (ticketing) and wants to cut them even more.
- It is the only airline in its peer group having such a large percentage of its IT budget tied to internal systems versus customer supporting systems.
- The IT department could invest in the customer systems without requiring a budget increase. They would be able to tighten internal IT costs and shift the savings to the customer facing systems.
I waited for the expected criticism. It never came. The partner said that was a “brilliant” storyline and he looked forward to seeing the analyses.
The insight which indicates you understand management consulting
That taught me a very, very important lesson. Sure, management consulting firms have many phenomenal tools to construct decision trees, hypotheses and hundreds of guides to work out costing and rates of return. However, those tools only breakdown the problem. They do not put the pieces together to present the answer.
That takes intuition, creativity, experience and guts. That was a fundamental lesson in this project which I believe set me up for great success as a management consultant. I realized all the tools exist to break down problems into neat parts for comparison.
The truly outstanding consultants understand this and develop a knack for looking at the pieces and trying to fit them together to present a new picture. That’s a very important lesson that I hope to convey in this piece. Great associates and engagement managers can use formidable analyses to break down problems. Those who can reassemble them into the solution become partners. It’s that simple.
Much later I realized that Henry Mintzberg and Kenichi Ohmae (McKinsey) both outlined this understanding as a critical skill for management consultants. Mintzberg said that not everyone can be a management consultant. Bringing the right combination of intuition, creativity, experience and guts to a problem is something that cannot be taught and not everyone has it. Therefore, not everyone can be a management consultant.
Ohmae arrived at the same conclusion in his book “The Mind of the Strategist” but explained it differently. He said that engineers are linear problem solvers and are excellent at breaking down problems. However, this skill at breaking down problems is a major disadvantage when combining the pieces to develop the solution. Linear thinking does not work. In other words, all management consultants must have the skills of engineering thinking, but having these skills is by itself not enough.
In hindsight I cannot think why anyone would ever solve problems by scurrying off to analyze every piece of data. It is such a waste of time. The deductive approach of solving problem with decision trees and hypotheses is so powerful, it really boggles the mind. Once you make that shift to understanding and using the process, you become a powerful and efficient thinker.
You can imagine your career consisting of 3 parts:
Part 1 – Learning to correctly break down problems and analyze them.
Part 2 – Assembling the pieces to develop the solution and recommendation.
Part 3 – Implementing the solutions and becoming an operator.
Analysts, interns, consultants, senior consultants, managers, case leaders, engagement managers (different terms for different firms) all are in phase 1. It’s that simple. They are still learning to break down problems. An analyst is helping to break down a problem, an associate is breaking down a problem and an engagement manager is overseeing many people as they break down problems.
Phase 2 is much tougher and very few consultants make the transition. Until consultants get to the associate principal, partner, senior partner, director or managing director level, they are not crafting solutions. They are just preparing the pieces which the more skilled thinkers will use to craft the final solution.
Many consultants managed out of Bain, McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group never understand this point. They leave as associates or engagement managers and think they know how to develop solutions. Unfortunately they have not learnt the skills needed. They only have half of the skill set required. Do not get me wrong, the skills they have are still important, but not enough.
Phase 3 will be discussed much later. The bottom line is that you cannot be an operator in a management consulting firm. You need to transition to a corporate role, run a P&L with resources and fight the daily battle to succeed in the market.
Using the storyboard to structure my analyses
It would be nice to say that I worked brutal hours every day. That fits into the stereotype for management consultants. I did not. Using the storyboard to structure my analyses and data collection made the project ridiculously easy. I should not say that, but it is true.
If you follow the Bain approach to break down problems and follow the guidelines to develop the analyses, you cannot go wrong. You need to constantly think about what you are doing, communicate and incorporate information. If you do this, you will succeed.
Always learn the process for solving problems. Really understand it and use it. Then sit with the data and think about what it is saying. Think long and deep about it.
The business case did dazzle the client
Despite being the junior consultant on this team, I can safely say that the business case did dazzle the client. Most of the hypotheses were proven. The client did manage to make huge investments in the customer facing side of the business, with only a 5% increase to the IT budget.
Rather surprisingly, the client retained us for much more work. I was also surprised when people at the office started referring to me as an aviation and business case specialist. Yet that is the power of the management consulting approach. It works. My star was rising.
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Fifteen months after joining Bain I was promoted to senior associate consultant. Most people take about 24 months to make the jump from associate to senior associate consultant so I was doing well. I was by no means breaking the speed barrier with regards to my promotion speed but I was definitely on the radar as a consultant to watch. At this time I was really looking forward to do something a little different, an airline turnaround study. I had been on two large aviation projects and some smaller studies. The first large study was a disaster but the second was a huge success. I desperately wanted to be in another sector and closer to home.
Remember this was the era before the Smartphone.
A couple of reasons were driving my hopes for an assignment at home office. For one, baseball season was in full swing and this time I wanted to be there for as many home games as possible. I was tired of missing the games and catching the updates at the airport. Remember this was the era before the Smartphone. Second, my personal life was taking off. I met someone who worked very close to my office, within walking distance, but my excessive travelling was damaging that convenience. So hopefully I could secure something where I could spend more time at home. I was always excited about the work the media and banking teams were doing. There was lots happening in the technology space and while the San Francisco office commanded most of the technology work, my office and region had a lot going for it. I spoke to my mentor and the various partners. Given my recent project success, I had a good and growing reputation which I was hoping to leverage. There was certainly interest to use me on some of the technology work.
Ah. Fate had a different plan for me. Bain had been invited to do an airline turnaround project; this time in Europe. Unfortunately my name came up and I was off. With that went my love life and baseball. However, I did learn about the European love for football (we call it soccer). The project was definitely one of the most exciting I had ever been staffed upon. An Eastern European country was trying to pay down its debts and raise much needed foreign currency. A new president and team of advisors had hit on the idea of selling-off large chunks of the state run economy.
The thinking was that the sale would bring in immediate hard-currency, fix the balance of payments, inject western ideas and management into the economy, raise productivity and hopefully this would all lead to an increase in the standard of living. The state run airline sector, banks, chemicals companies, food companies, textiles, auto companies and so on were all slated to go. However, there was hesitancy that a rushed process could lead to a Russian-style fire-sale where all the prime assets where picked up on the cheap with no real short-term or long-term benefits to the country. Therefore, it was decided that the airline company would be the pilot. It would first be readied for sale and then taken into an initial-public-offering led by a consortium of US investment banks.
This turnaround project was again a great opportunity for me. The engagement was overseen by the same partner with whom I had worked with previously so he was aware of my skills and capability. That helped immensely since I was being given important roles which were above my level. They were clear stretch-roles which allowed me to grow significantly during my formative years. I really relished this role. It was exciting and I was happy the firm seriously looked at my interest in seeking a banking or technology project and gave me something as close as they could possibly find.
This was in the days before Chris Zook wrote his hugely successful book “Profit from the Core” but his ideas and thinking were already being tested and developed with clients.
I was working with a consultant to look at hundreds of different businesses within the state-run airline and determine if they should be retained. This was in the days before Chris Zook wrote his hugely successful book “Profit from the Core” but his ideas and thinking were already being tested and developed with clients. So our role was simple. Determine if the 70 or so businesses which belonged to the airline should be kept, and if not, make the case to divest them. Like all state-run businesses without a clear profit mandate, this company had really poor financial controls, reporting, asset registers and so one. It was really painful to construct all these items.
And this was normal since profits were never the target. It was all for the greater good. The government was also very, very paranoid about security and wanted the airline to backward and forward integrate to lock-in both raw materials and routes.
Moreover, strategy did not seem to dictate decisions. The main-office for the airline was in a suburb on the outskirts of the capital city. In the late 1980’s the national government had decided to build a prestigious, and expensive, new technical university very close to the head office. So what did they do; they asked the airline if they would “oversee” the university. “Oversee’ could have meant many things, but it eventually led to the airline funding the university, managing the university and even keeping the university on its own books. And this was normal since profits were never the target. It was all for the greater good. The government was also very, very paranoid about security and wanted the airline to backward and forward integrate to lock-in both raw materials and routes. So the airline owned, funded and managed the following:
• Pilot training school
• 4 different aircraft manufacturing companies
• 2 engine manufacturers
• 2 engineering training academies
• Several maintenance facilities
• Several aviation liquid fuel depots, refineries and distribution companies
• 2 Oilfields
• Several basic catering companies
• Road maintenance companies
• Facilities management companies
• Airport management companies
• 6 Travel agencies
• A leasing company
These are just the big-ticket items and the ones I can name without giving away the clients identity. There was one particularly large investment totally outside their main business which I cannot mention. If you add in the smaller investments and their actual airline-critical investments, this list easily grows fourfold.
My team worked really closely with the strategy group. They were working out what should be the new business and its retained assets, and our job was to then build the business case and determine the value created from disposing the non-core assets.
The country was going through so much financial and political risks that the risk premium, and discount rate was constantly changing. This dramatically affected the valuation.
Building the valuations for this turnaround project was incredibly hard. The basics of a valuation call for forecasting the future cash-flows, adding in a terminal value and discounting back to get the possible sales price. However, so many things drove the value of these businesses:
• The country was going through so much financial and political risks that the risk premium, and discount rate was constantly changing. This dramatically affected the valuation.
• Many of these non-core businesses were only valuable if they had the airline as a client. If they were cut loose, their value would plummet. So we needed to feed this back to the strategy team since it was their call to determine if the airline should continue using them. Choosing the incorrect or inefficient suppliers would dramatically affect the airline’s cost structure.
• Other Eastern European countries were about to embark on similar exercises. Therefore these assets needed to hit the market very quickly or the explosion of supply in similar assets would dampen prices and lower the asking price. Eastern Europe is highly fragmented. So all the assets were not necessary. Picking assets in a central location would allow the entire region to be served on the European side. Russia and the Asian nations of the Former Soviet Union were however different. We needed to get these assets out cleanly and quickly before the market became saturated.
Collecting all the necessary data to this was tough. Luckily we were already working with the investment bankers who were helping us with the analyses.
So we had to work with the strategy and operations teams as they crafted their solutions. Things changed wildly over this 4 month engagement. As new and critical data was discovered, entire recommendations changed.
I did feel cut out of many typical Bain events and cultural happenings. Bain did not have an office in this country and we were just starting off. I felt isolated.
Up until this stage I was still very, very excited about working in an exotic location. That enthusiasm was heavily dampened on this trip. While I really, really enjoyed the engagement, working with new people in an exotic country, it also forced me to rethink some things I took for granted:
• My freedom was heavily crimped. At the time kidnappings where a popular pastime and we were confined to our offices and hotel most of the day and night. We could only go out in groups which affected this night-owl for the entire 4 months.
• Being in a foreign country on vacation versus work is such a bizarre experience. On several gorgeous days we would see people strolling through the streets, sitting at cafes or going to the lake. We would be in the office and watching all of this behind tinted bullet-proof glass. That was depressing.
• Not speaking the local problem is a huge problem. Every interaction requires a translator and there is a lot that is lost in translation.
• Your social life and interaction takes a huge hit. My early days at Bain were also in the early days of the internet. Mobile phones were still taking off. Skype was a dream. Facebook and social networking were not even ideas at this point. AltaVista still ruled the search universe.
• Eastern Europe was struggling at this time. While we saw people having fun we also saw much more signs of poverty. Now it is much better, but then it was tough to watch.
• I did feel cut out of many typical Bain events and cultural happenings. Bain did not have an office in this country and we were just starting off. I felt isolated.
• I hated, hated, and hated being away from an office for so long. I felt I was drifting into some weird world where I was cast out with no link back to the real world. I realized how much I missed being part of something bigger.
To Bain and the client, the turnaround project was classified as a success. Over the years that followed as the client implemented the recommendations, they did do well. They won awards for their service and they have a healthy balance sheet. Many of the businesses linked to them were never going to be viable and simply folded. That could not have helped the exploding unemployment situation.
This airline turnaround project showed me the importance of operations and implementation. Like everyone else I was obsessed with being a “strategy consultant”. Over time as I saw the challenges of running a business and implementing ideas, I realized that I needed to understand how to take ideas and make them work. I resolved to get onto a juicy operations project, out of the aviation sector, as soon as possible.
Hallelujah! I managed to get myself onto an Bain operations engagement, but as you probably guessed, I am still stuck in the airline sector. At this point I have resigned myself to accepting that this sector is so important and growing so fast that Bain would recognize my efforts here. I would not be punished for not having more diverse experience. My end of project performance review for the Eastern European airline project went very, very well. I needed to continue maintaining that momentum. Yet, that was proving to be difficult largely due to my own poor planning.
The fatigue was starting to creep up on me and I was getting a bit more tired more often. Heck, I thought I was too young to worry about this. So far my career was going well despite a very wobbly first project.
Some of my Bain colleagues had a rule of taking about 5 days’ vacation after every 2 month or 3 month project. It helped them relax after the project stresses. I had been at the firm for 18 months and I was still not taking any time away. Between projects I was working on knowledge capture work and internal assignments for partners. The fatigue was starting to creep up on me and I was getting a bit more tired more often. Heck, I thought I was too young to worry about this. So far my career was going well despite a very wobbly first project. I needed to push through and build my career while I had the momentum to do so.
My next project was going to be different. We were going to Asia to help a leading air carrier split out part of their fleet to create a new low-cost carrier to compete in this lucrative space. Low cost airlines were starting to post consistently large profits and eating into incumbents’ territories. The larger, established carriers needed to respond and one believed creating a separate low-cost carrier could do the trick. Bain had been awarded the strategy assignment which recommended the separation. Now Bain was also going to be tasked with preparing the blueprint for separating the operations and helping the airline with the first stages of the implementation. What made this project so challenging was the way the separation would take place. It was a formula which would form the blueprint for many low-cost carriers around the world.
• The parent company wanted the low-cost carrier to be branded differently and appear to be totally independent to the public.
• However, critical behind-the-scenes operations and functions would be merged to drive economies of scale.
• Other critical operations which needed to be separated like check-in, baggage handling and so on would need to be managed separately.
• The airline would be moving all 4,000 of its current employees who worked on the low-cost side of the business into the new company.
Over the next few years we saw many airlines adopt the same model in creating low-cost alternatives to fight against pure low-cost competitors. A couple of things made this a fairly interesting project:
• This was all happening at a time when the airline and unions were locked in vicious salary and benefits negotiations. The unions were suspicious that the creation of a new low cost airline was a tactic to separate the poor performers into a poorly performing unit which would be allowed to collapse into bankruptcy. You must remember this was before the low-cost airlines started dominating air travel and their economics were not fully proven.
• The airline had already communicated a go live date which was about 9 months away. Since this date was already out in the press, there was no way they could change the date without looking totally unprepared.
• At this same time the parent company was going through some of its own major shifts. It had decided to expand into several adjacent markets and industries like catering and engineering. The airline was also preparing for a major switch to an Airbus fleet. All of these changes were sucking up resources and talent. There was a concern the low-cost fleet would be left with the scraps.
• The low-cost airline was deliberately being pitched as the anti-establishment airline. It was meant to be the cool place to work and the cool airline to fly. This created animosity between employees of the parent and low-cost airline, although they were both technically employed by the same company.
Over the next few years we saw many airlines adopt the same model in creating low-cost alternatives to fight against pure low-cost competitors.
I had a very, very interesting role. I had to work with a team who had to create the new organizational structure for the low-cost airline. It was a very exciting role. It was totally new type of work and I was not even sure where to being. Unlike a business-case type of assignment where the next steps were relatively clear, I could not even begin to think this one through. I spent a lot of time talking to Bain organizational design experts to build an approach we could use. It was like being back in university. I needed to go right back to the beginning and learn how to learn a new field. Two of the concepts that were drummed into my head by the senior partner specializing in organizational design were that:
• Structure follows strategy.
• Think of the structure as the element which mops up deficiencies in the strategy.
This turned out to be very useful advice. Using these as the pillars for my thinking, I decided the team would spend the first 2 weeks with the strategy team really understanding and splitting apart the strategy. We needed to perfectly understand what the strategy wanted to achieve and the best way for the organizational design to help achieve this. We also needed to find any possible flaws in the strategy and how the organizational design could mitigate this.
Structure follows strategy.
Differences between strategy, operations and implementation. By the time we had come in, the strategy team was winding up their work. Like all companies going through change, rumors of the recommendations were already sweeping through the corridors. We arrived just at that point in time when the operations needed to start executing the strategy. What you learn in operations and especially in implementation work is that things operate according to an entirely different set of rules from the relatively structured pace of strategy engagements.
Implementation is not about analyses. Sure, you need the correct analyses and it must lead to the correct recommendation. However, the correct analyses will not go very far. I cannot tell you how many hours were spent listening to the concerns and questions of the employees. They saw the analyses, but they did not what it meant or how it would work in the real world. Sometimes, and this was usually the case; they just wanted their concerns to be heard.
For example, during an implementation project, when the CEO miscommunicates or poorly communicates changes, the consulting team feels the brunt of the resistance. For example if the CEO is not clear about the pace of change needed, or is unwilling to create urgency, then the operations staff the consulting team engages is sometimes unwilling to work with us. That is very, very common. Implementation is not about analyses.
Sure, you need the correct analyses and it must lead to the correct recommendation. However, the correct analyses will not go very far. I cannot tell you how many hours were spent listening to the concerns and questions of the employees. They saw the analyses, but they did not what it meant or how it would work in the real world. Sometimes, and this was usually the case; they just wanted their concerns to be heard.
Therefore, most of our time was spent listening to employees and placating their fears. It was a far cry from my previous strategy work when I would spend most of my time analyzing data and developing recommendations. In this project I was spending the majority of my time in meetings and discussions. My objective was to get the employees to start moving forward and building momentum. At the start of the post, I celebrated because I thought I was on an operations project. This was not operations project. This was a mix of operations (analyzing the operations to present a recommendation – organizational design) and a lot of implementation (helping the client achieve the benefits) work. In hind-sight I think that many firms confuse the two. An operations assignment is not implementation work and vice-versa. They are very different.
I found this project to be hugely draining. While we were developing the organizational structure, the rest of the organization was moving head first into meeting the live date target. Therefore we had to provide advice before we had completely verified our findings. This was frustrating and difficult. We needed to ensure that we gave guidance which would allow us to change direction later if needed.
On paper the project was designed to be led by strategy who would hand over to the organizational design team who would work with the systems and processes team, and human resources group. The systems and processes could only be designed once the strategy team decided how the two companies would interact and organizational design sketched out the points of interaction. Human resources should not be doing anything until a skills audit was complete and we were sure who would move across, how this would affect their salaries and benefits, and when they would move across. All of this needed to be timed to work in concert. Although Bain was appointed to lead this process, we found that all parts of the organization were scrambling to get things done:
We could clearly see the chaos that was erupting. We wasted no time in communicating this to the senior Bain partner along with a string of recommendations which were implemented.
• The HR director would remain in the parent company. Knowing this, and wanting to keep the best employees, he had assigned his team to find the top performers and “lock them” into the parent company.
• The engineering crew and already realized they were losing about 50% of their Airbus technicians. To ensure they did not waste any training budget on the wrong 50%, they took matters into their own hands and split the crew. We found engineers sitting in limbo not sure what to do.
• The team leading the SAP implementation where bounced of the executive committees update meeting agenda as more pressing matters crept up. Feeling as if they were losing importance, they doubled their work rate. This would have been fine, except for the fact that they went ahead and redesigned key processes and automated them without checking if they fitted in with the new organizational structure.
• Poaching of talent was taking place in all parts of the organization. Knowing that a staff split was on the horizon managers where trying to retain their best people rather than letting the business needs dictate staffing.
The good thing about this project is that we were working right next to the strategy guys and needed to have oversight over everything else. We could clearly see the chaos that was erupting. We wasted no time in communicating this to the senior Bain partner along with a string of recommendations which were implemented.
• We needed to rapidly escalate the sharing of information and connection points. Limited information in the company meant that employees were imagining scenarios and responding to them. Their imaginations always created worse situations than reality. Friday’s were set aside whereby the team leaders for each part of the transition would get together, debate progress and reach decisions.
• The CEO needed to take a tougher stand and stop the bad behavior. After a few months of hand-wringing he eventually did. He replaced the HR director and replaced the Operations Director. The tone dramatically changed with these actions. He also asked the new HR director to ensure metrics measuring the ease of the transition was built into everyone’s performance evaluation.
• The company embarked on a massive communications exercise so everyone knew exactly what was happening and when.
• We were also much more brutal on separating areas where decisions where outstanding from the operations and strategy analyses, and where the implementation teams could move along. This worked really well. Especially after spending 3 full working days to prepare a critical path for the creation of the new low-cost airline.
• The part which came back to almost derail the project was the tax implications of transferring assets, pension funds and other liabilities. We spent a few long and tense meetings to nail these down.
I realized that while strategy projects have this image of superiority, implementation projects are a little like driving a car at high-speed around a circuit on which you have never trained. Rather than instructions being radio-relayed through your helmet, you also have to watch for clues from the pedestrians. It is tough and there is much room for mistakes and spectacular crashes.
Our days were long and tiring at first. To get the organization to start moving we needed to run a project which generated lots of momentum. You cannot generate momentum by sitting in your office running analyses, emailing requests or via phone calls. Our evenings were spent running the numbers and our days were spent meeting key operations people to provide updates and help them move along. We sometimes had to meet key people three times before they did anything. Therefore the first few months were packed with these meetings and setting up the processes for the project to move ahead as we scaled down our involvement. I can safely say that only after three months did the momentum really pick up from the clients side. We still faced some big obstacles but the organization was moving in the right direction.
This project was important for one reason. It finally showed me how important operations and implementation consulting were. Like most consultants I had been enamored with strategy consulting. While that was certainly exciting and I enjoyed the few projects I had done, I was starting to see that operators kept the cash register ringing. You could have the grandest vision of bringing together two great companies, however, to make that work; you needed to actually make the deal work. Strategy was just as important as operations and implementation. I started talking to some of the London partners about interesting operations projects they were about to start.
Like most consultants I had been enamored with strategy consulting. While that was certainly exciting and I enjoyed the few projects I had done, I was starting to see that operators kept the cash register ringing.
In this article we discuss the very practical challenges of applying benchmarking and the need to stress-test each recommendation in a “live” setting. This was Terance’s first benchmarking study.
Benchmarking is a powerful tool used by Bain. An effective set of benchmarks can quickly tell us how far away a company is from reaching parity with its competitors.
Benchmarking provides a rough magnitude of the scope of change possible and is critical to developing a top-down business-case. The problem with benchmarks is that unless you apply common sense you can arrive at some fairly ridiculous conclusions. I have seen this all too often in my career.
Benchmarking results may lead to ridiculous conclusions
The low-cost carrier project provides some especially illuminating examples. On this project the client had invited a specialist aviation benchmarking firm to benchmark a few processes within the operations and provide a blueprint for improvement on some of the core processes. Bain would use these as input into their analyses.
Very quickly into the process, and much to our dismay given the tight timelines, we realized the benchmarking exercise resulted in benchmarks which were of little value.
The low cost airline had a major hub in South-East Asia and regional hubs in 12 other cities across Asia, Australia and one in the USA. If you have flown a low cost airline you know they cut out every single frill: onboard snacks, extra luggage, seat assignment, seating space and so on.
Basically the customer is paying a really low price in return for no extras. Another thing low cost airlines cut out are delays. Low-cost operators are brutal at cutting out any possible delays. The planes leave and arrive on time. Always.
A low cost airline whose planes do not move like clockwork is a bankrupt low cost airline.
The specialist aviation benchmarking firm was adamant that the client could reduce the turnaround time for all aircraft from 12 minutes to 5 minutes. The turnaround time is the time from when a plane lands to the time when it is ready to leave. The turnaround time includes unloading baggage, cleaning the plane and, if needed, reloading baggage.
The Asian hubs had an average turnaround time of 8 minutes while the US and Australian hubs were pushing 12 minutes and in some cases 14 minutes. The business case for more than halving turnaround time was compelling. It could mean effectively adding 15% more flights to the day.
It was a significant business case. If we could do that, the airline would no longer need to apply for additional landing rights, would not need to seek a new terminal and likely could serve more routes. It was too good to be true.
The one thing about Bain is that the firm is very practical. Just because Bain produces top-notch analyses does not mean they do not have a feeling for how things work in the field. In fact, that gut feel for operational impact is exactly why the firm is so good. The firm has a rule of providing advice which can be implemented on Monday morning at 8 am. If advice cannot be implemented this way then what is the point of the client paying for it?
Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Bain senior partner said that since so much of the revenue improvement came from this idea, and we did not do the benchmarking analyses, we needed to test it. We were all given stop-watches and told to find the best crew in each hub and conduct a DILO (day-in-the-life-of) study to see if this was even possible. So we did it and the findings surprised us quite a bit and taught me the importance of applying common-sense:
• The Asian hubs hired younger, slimmer and nimbler women. They were quick and able to dart between the seats and clean up everything in no time. Even so they barely managed a 6 minute turnaround.
• US and Australian hubs hired older and not as slim women to work the turnaround teams. They just could not move as fast. They were also suffering to maintain the momentum throughout the day. It was the equivalent of repeatedly running a 100m sprint with too short intervals to rest.
When we brought this to the attention of the specialist aviation benchmarking firm, they mentioned that the solution was to hire younger and more nimble women. That’s pretty bad advice since it did not take into consideration the extra costs of hiring them. Younger women with more options just would not do such work for the same salary. This does not even begin to solve the problem of issuing employment adverts in the US which categorically discriminated against male hires or older employees.
Since the client was unable to lower costs by achieving economies of scale in the smaller hubs, the specialist aviation benchmarking firm decided to import the idea of cross-utilization. In this concept, an employee is trained to do more than one task. This eliminates the need to hire more people, increases utilization via their usage across multiple tasks and, the ultimate prize, lowered costs. Japanese auto manufacturers made this concept famous when they used it to fix defects and improve quality on their production lines.
After exposing flaws in the turnaround time recommendations, the senior partner wanted to test this important cost reduction opportunity as well. Armed with a few stop-watches and clipboards, we again marched off to do our DILO studies. Although this was not anywhere within my work scope, I still decided to assist since it was very interesting to do. The fact that the client flew us first-class to each hub did not hurt as well.
This is what we found. Arriving at a smaller hub, there was only one person manning the check-in counter. This employee would manage all check-ins and close the counter. Thereafter, she would go to the runway and guide the aircraft as it docked in. She would then unpack the luggage, pack in the new luggage and go back upstairs to manage check-ins for the next flight. She did this anywhere from 5 to 10 times a day, depending on the hub and day, and needed to complete each cycle in 45 minutes. This is tough work!
The distance between the check-in counter, which is upstairs, and the docking airline, which is downstairs, is about 1,300m on average. Every hub, except US hub, will have average summer temperatures of 39 degrees and average winter temperatures of 28 degrees. Imagine running around, hauling heavy bags and keeping up the company’s image in this heat. This was not an easy task.
Again the specialist aviation benchmarking firm had no solution. Their view was that given the limitations of not hiring more staff, only cross-utilization would work. So we flipped the idea around.
Rather than increasing the number of staff, what if we reduced the amount of work done by the staff. The major bother for us was the difference between above-ground and ground-level activities. They were very different and doing one well (managing heavy baggage) automatically meant employees suffered when it came to engaging with customers. Who wants to work with sweaty and smelly employees?
Eventually we recommended this client form alliances with other low-cost carriers. This was at the time an unusual move but is now common. Therefore, the client would manage the above-ground activity for an alliance member and that member would manage the ground level work. In different hubs there were variations but in all, there was a splitting of work. This allowed the employees to focus on one activity and do it well. It also allowed the airlines to do everything as usual without adding more staff.
On an aside note, this idea off outsourcing selected functions worked so well that the client was able to reduce a sizable chunk of its workforce without impacting performance at all. In fact, delays decreased and customer satisfaction improved.
This goes to show the importance of critically evaluating constraints in a business problem.
Benchmarking study’s idea that could cause significant damage
The external benchmarking firm also provided one piece of analyses which would have a profound effect on the client if it were implemented. The analyses showed that the client was unlikely to receive berths at the major airports if it went ahead and bought the largest Airbuses available. The provider was recommending that the client bought smaller planes since they stood a greater chance of getting berths at the older terminals at the major hubs.
Doing this would have a profound impact on the client’s economics. Larger planes have much greater fuel economy. Giving this up would dramatically impact the clients financial strategy. Not to mention wreak havoc with all the planning for the larger planes. There were also no guarantees that the client would be granted the berths in the older terminals.
The higher taxes and landing fees in the larger airport would lead to higher final ticket prices. In other words, why would anyone choose a low-cost airline which was not very low-cost, flew smaller planes, charged more for fuel and forced them to check-in at major cramped airports?
Bain’s solution was not all that original, but it did save the client. We recommended that the client stick to the larger planes, plough the savings into lower ticket prices and fly in and out via less congested airports in the suburbs. We reasoned that customers really wanted the lower fares and would not mind the inconvenience of using a smaller airport. The upsides were lower taxes, less delays and less congestion. Ryanair had done this successfully in Europe so it was conceivable the same model would work here. It did.
Things to remember when benchmarking
This experience crystallized some important lessons worth remembering when benchmarking:
• Does the benchmark work given the practical issues facing the company? Some benchmarks look wonderful on paper but can never be applied without paralyzing operations.
• Has anyone actually seen this solution work?
• Does achieving the benchmarks leads to financial and quantifiable savings or financial and non-quantifiable losses?
• Are there constraints which need to be examined in greater detail?
• Have the regional differences been identified in the global benchmarks?
• For this solution to work, do the employees have to be robots?
• Have you asked the employees who will be affected by the change for their advice?
• Do you know how your employees will feel after you have implemented this “solution”?
That’s one of the reasons why I always feel good inside when I complete a project. Bain is so different in the way they operate. Solutions must be analytically sound. However, that’s not enough. They need to work in practical terms. Someone from Bain is always thinking about how much value there is in implementing the idea.
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The path from emerging markets township to consulting partner is rarely traveled. Yet it is possible if you focus on what many others do not: do your job well.
There is an interesting pattern to burgeoning new suburbs bearing glamorous names like “Bel Air Gardens” or “Pacific Palisades”. Are you thinking about palm trees, the perfect blue sky and gigantic mansions? Please adjust your mental picture to a place where the closest ocean is 150 miles away, there are no gardens anywhere, let alone parks or bicycle paths.
The truth is they are usually the names given to ultra-low income housing projects in some of the most impoverished countries in the world.
Growing up, I pondered the following questions:
Do developers really think they need to market low-income housing to homeless people?
Is there a segment of the homeless population actually debating the merits of sleeping in a tin house versus a proper home?
Will the lives of the destitute really be brighter since the name is happier? I always wanted to meet one of these developers and understand the logic of their misplaced marketing budgets.
I had plenty of time to think about these things because I was born into such a low-income project in the middle of nowhere in a poor emerging market economy. In a town of poor people, in a very large family and on a combined income of US$350 in a good month, more than 50% less than the national average, we were somehow hovering very close to the bottom of the pyramid.
Before continuing, I will do a little timeout about why I wrote this piece. This article is extracted from a book every Firmsconsulting employee and partner receives when they join our firm. It explains the source of our values.
I chose to edit and publish this section from the book because a lot of clients from emerging markets, even those studying in the US, UK, Canada, Australia etc., write to me about the challenges they face in building their careers and lack of confidence they are battling.
I want to tell you that it is possible to be successful, confident and have the highest ethical standards possible. I became a consulting partner at a strategy consulting firm without any superior advantages. I simply focused on what others did not: I did my job well.
That may sound obvious, but most people do not do this.
Everyone else seemed to be more obsessed with marketing themselves, networking, building relationships and their image. I believed in demonstrated competency. The ability to do well, what one claims to have the ability to do.
It frustrates me when successful graduates of Harvard etc. and citizens of wealthy nations try to teach confidence to those born in tougher locations. It is not just frustrating, but personally offensive.
It is offensive because they are taking money from people with little income knowing full well that the so-called confidence building tools are completely irrelevant and useless.
Here is why.
Of course you would have confidence if you graduated from a great school and was born into a stable and prosperous nation.
Those born with such locational and educational advantages cannot ever understand the challenges of those born with little, because they never had to develop confidence from the base of those born with nothing.
Telling someone in Central Asia they can learn to be equally confident as you when they lack the education and locational advantages is completely misleading.
If the Harvard graduate’s confidence is primarily due to his or her education, then they do not have confidence, they just have a degree.
Make no mistake, I graduated from a great school and have great respect for my peers. However, I am referring to those graduates who create training programs for emerging markets students not knowing the issues those students face.
And do not get me started on those who tell you that you must be an expert on a topic to be confident. That is also the opposite of confidence.
It is exploitative.
Confidence is the ability to believe in oneself, despite a weak paper profile, when no one else will.
In fact, if you can only be confident because you graduated from Yale etc., it implies you actually lack confidence. If you can have confidence without fancy titles, imagine how effective you can be?
I hope those reading this piece will learn how to develop confidence independently of titles.
This article also helps you understand some of the pieces we published recently.
An earlier piece talks about an unusual approach I used to get an outstanding scholarship to succeed at a great university. I followed that up with a piece where I discussed why students from challenging backgrounds still struggle despite entering elite schools. I followed this up with yet another piece about why so many clients mistakenly pursue career competitive advantages when they should pursue career comparative advantages. I did another piece about how to ensure you do not engage in any ethical breaches.
In some ways, this is the prelude those articles.
I was the middle child in a large and financially struggling family. We lived a pretty basic life. There was a period for about 6 years or more of my life where I never bought any new clothing.
Though, I am not implying the other years were any better. It was basically a life of hand-me-downs from a sibling. We could only afford to buy clothing for one child around once every 2 years, and sometimes not at all.
Every shoe I owned had a hole at the bottom.
Walking to school in the rain was a fairly miserable experience since my socks were soaked through. Hot weather was worse. The tar on the road would melt, stick to my shoe and sometimes dissolve into my socks so I ended walking with a limp.
We had no lockers at school so I had to carry this massive backpack every day, huddled and limping in very hot weather. Kind of like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. At least he was immortalized in a book.
There were no choreographed recreational events during summer breaks and I basically meandered around the house helping my parents, working or doing nothing.
There were no community centers, malls or activity centers. The single Ping-Pong table was in the teachers’ lounge at school and that was clearly off-limits. It was basically a school, town hall, football field and tiny little convenience store within a tiny community.
Low-income housing is a term mostly associated with inner cities. Emerging markets are different. To modernize the countryside, which typically means taking farmers’ land to build infrastructure, the government usually creates these mini cities and towns in the rural areas.
Paying money for anything except to survive was a concept we could not grasp, so things like football camp, science camp etc. were luxuries from a different world. Paying for someone else to cook our food and serve us boarded on insanity. Getting a bag of crisps or a pie was a treat like no other. Sadly, that was the highlight of my week for most of my early years.
Like most poor families, we abused our time in the hope of saving just a few dollars. We would wait in long lines just to get a 10% discount or avoid a late fee. I could not relate to the teenagers I saw on US sitcoms or movies.
I watched “Back to the Future” several times and I could not fathom a world where teenagers like Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, not only had time and money to go to malt shops and movies, it was expected of them.
I felt I should be paying my parents to be brought into such a world. Not the other way around.
Learning about the world
My only links to the outside world were the semi-liberal newspapers, a horrible state-owned and heavily censored television station and radio network, and a community library the size of my current lounge.
The newspapers we regularly read devoted just half a page to global affairs and the other half to business affairs. Two pages were generally dedicated to agricultural news. A prize cow could conceivably make both the front and back page of the same issue.
That left the library for education where I literally read every scientific and business book, which is not saying much given the size of the library. Almost everything I knew about US teen culture initially came from reading Archie Comic Books.
When I found those books less than useful, I figured out a way to spend extra time at the school library and get my hands on more useful material, like how to get out of a village in the middle of nowhere.
I read a lot. I read so much that I slowly became myopic. In hindsight, my reading is probably what saved me. It opened my mind to the possibilities of what existed outside my tiny village. Time Magazine was the first magazine I read and became a staple of my teenage years. Almost entirely due to the editorial drift of the publication, I now naturally think about the geo-political issues first before thinking about the economic drivers.
If I had read Fortune it would have been largely different. I never read Fortune magazine until I went to university.
Even my style of writing was influenced. Time pioneered the concept of the photo-essay where the broader impact of an issue was seen through the eyes of those affected. It is a style I adopted and feel most comfortable using. It is a very bottom-up style of examining issues.
Beyond reading, I had nothing else to do.
I learned how data could be massaged by watching the state broadcasters. They were experts at lying by omission and almost got away with it. Yes, our country had some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but they forgot to mention most of the country could not access it due to ethnic conflict.
Our surgeons were lauded for their world-first feats, but they practiced at hospitals, which were off-limits to all but a few of the elite ethnic groups.
Our military was well funded and feted in the press significantly, but largely from killing its own citizens.
We owned some of the world’s largest oil storage facilities, mainly because no one would sell us refined oil, despite the fact we had plenty of oil.
There is always a story behind the data and the economy was collapsing as capital was deployed on wasteful policies for the elite.
We remained largely oblivious to the larger political machinations. All that mattered to us was inflation’s impact on the price of basic food items and the interest rate, since all our large purchases like a tiny little radio was bought on credit.
We were not able to afford any imported goods so even the exchange rate mattered little to us. We had no clue about economic theory to realize the inflation rate, interest rate and exchange rate where all linked.
Lifestyle of a consulting partner – to – be
To tame inflationary pressures, we grew most of what we ate since my father had a huge garden and could grow just about anything. He was that good. There was a wide variety growing in any year: oranges, peaches, guavas, strawberries, peas, eggplant, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, cabbage, corn, mandarin, okra, lemons, peanuts, lettuce and cauliflower were the things I can recall and there were undoubtedly more varieties.
The snowy weather sometimes wiped out his crop, but he just persevered.
If he was good at business and ambitious I could have been an AgMag today. For those not born in the high-stakes world of agriculture, that means agriculture magnate to describe a farming tycoon.
Unfortunately, he also tried to grow chickens, which was one of his few messy, smelly and noisy mistakes. Although, that was better than our neighbor who unsuccessfully tried to herd sheep or our other neighbor who opened a full truck repair workshop in his backyard.
Strangely enough, trucks entered but never left his workshop, so it may just have been a front for a smuggling operation.
It has never failed to amuse me that in just about any major city in the world today, good vegetables cost more than meat. Yet, in that very same country’s rural areas, vegetables are really cheap. I grew up eating little meat due to its cost, and today spend a lot just to eat good vegetables. Am I missing something?
We could not afford any vacations and barely managed to buy a used car, which constantly broke down and needed to be manually pushed more than once through the hectic town traffic as we held up impatient drivers.
Trying to jump-start a heavy 1976 American hot rod on a flat road in baking heat was not fun. If I did a total-life-cycle cost of that car today, taking into consideration the extensive maintenance, lost time due to breakdowns and incidental expenses, it was clearly a vanity purchase which we should not have made.
Of course, then we would have to be willing to walk 2 kilometers and wait 3 hours just to save $4 on a pair of spark plugs. The poor do not understand the value of time, though they understand the value of money.
Since my parents could never afford a mechanic for our car, they were always trying to fix things themselves. I was never the son who would be getting his hands dirty fixing cars, I was a book worm, but I could not avoid the ceaseless discussions about radiators, CV-joints, brake pads, brake linings, engine blocks, spark plugs and ultimately, motor racing.
Our house was far too small for that to happen. It was my white noise. After a while, I needed it just to concentrate.
Once, I was travelling in the convertible sports car of a consulting partner, and I was an associate. I had been at the firm for 2 years and knew this partner well. I had never once come across as someone who knew much about cars or even cared.
We were driving up a hill and I made an off-hand comment that he needed to take his car in since his CV-joints were rubbing. He was blown away when the dealership corroborated my diagnosis. That is how much my family’s discussions about car troubles had permeated my brain.
I could diagnose car problems just by listening to the sounds.
Even today I can tap into an endless fountain of useless facts about Formula 1, Super Touring Car and European Off-Road racing despite never having watched a single race in my life. That never fails to surprise people.
My biggest adventure for most of my childhood was visiting the city to do our monthly grocery shopping at an outdoor market. I later realized established chains did not stock the food my people ate so we had to resort to outdoor markets with enterprising and unregistered merchants.
So we visited these sprawling open-air markets where meat, fish, vegetables and all manner of items were sold in baking heat, rain or hail. Everything could be negotiated and only an amateur paid the sticker price.
Our monthly food budget was roughly $100 and my parents made that stretch very far. Today a cocktail costs about $10 dollars in Toronto and a good meal is about $18. That alone puts it into perspective.
While we were poor, we never starved and always had enough food for breakfast, lunch and dinner – though it was still a struggle. Although, eating so many vegetables was not pleasant. It is truly astonishing how far $100 can get you with crafty planning.
There was another big adventure, which was far more exciting. Once every 2 years we would also take an even more adventurous trip to visit my relatives in a sprawling slum. For 16 years these were the major events to which I looked forward.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Visiting a doctor was almost certainly out of the picture unless the pain was debilitating. Only dental surgery qualified for that kind of expenditure and the nearest dentist was also in the city: another reason for the trip.
Before we bought the car, we had to take highly unregulated and rickety taxis into the city and then walk a good few kilometers to a debilitated mall to see a dentist whose license had most likely been suspended.
Why else would he treat us? His practice was within a mall, which sold everything from toys to live chickens. Yet, he was cheap and took uninsured patients who paid in monthly installments.
We fit this description perfectly.
Despite cutting costs on everything from medicine to food, we constantly struggled to make ends meet and sometimes did not. My parents were always bartering vegetables from their garden for other food items or buying food on some eat-now-pay-later scheme, which probably was not legal.
My mother also had her own pseudo-bank-assurance program going were housewives would contribute money to a fund to be used for emergencies. Thankfully, it was never tested with a real disaster because despite their best efforts, I doubt any of those housewives had the skill to price risk.
Though I could be wrong, since my parents had the highest credit rating I have seen in my entire life. They had a perfect score. Having to buy everything on credit, and I mean everything, they understood that a poor credit rating was going to cost them in the long term.
So they would do everything possible to not miss the monthly payments required. They would even borrow money from neighbors to make those payments. To them, filing for bankruptcy or living in debt was not acceptable. They did not trust the courts in the least, and with good reason might I add.
Things were so bad so often; we could not even afford $2 for an electromagnetics textbook I wanted to buy. There were some protracted negotiations to increase my education budget. Though, when you grow up in a rural community where everyone is poor, you assume this is just the way it is.
I had never visited a restaurant until I went to university and had never been on an airplane until I was 19 when Bain & Company paid for me to attend a recruiting event. This was incidentally the first time I stayed in a hotel, visited a vineyard or attended a formal dinner.
It was also the first time I saw consulting partners trying to be cool by dancing with students. They more than succeeded. It was downright chilling to watch.
That was a good year for me in general. Several multinational firms came to woo me with trips to fancy locations and nice dinners. I put on some weight that year. A trend, which has unfortunately, not reversed itself since.
To this day I remain the only member of my family to have left the borders and travelled as extensively. My parents have never been on a plane, never stayed in a hotel and never quit working.
When I retired from the firm, my main farewell dinner organized by my team was almost 5 times my father’s peak monthly salary. If you add up all the farewell dinners I had, it was definitely more than my father’s peak yearly salary.
Though, I am getting ahead of myself here because I may need to explain how we ended up in this situation of trying to survive each day. Generational disadvantages played a starring role.
If you found this piece interesting, let me know through your comments below and I will consider adding more background material.
Michael Boricki is a partner and director, based in Firmsconsulting’s Toronto office.
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In light of major scandals driven by ex-McKinsey employees (e.g. Jeff Skilling, Rajat Gupta and Anil Kumar) and consequent sharper focus on ethics by top consulting firms, lets continue our discussion about ethics and delve deeper into how to think about ethics, and what shapes ethics.
Ethics is required when the law is not written, not enforced or wrong
To think about ethics, let’s picture a bar chart running vertically. The entire bar represents all the actions you could undertake in your country. It is obviously a hypothetical bar since we could not list every action we could take. Yet, we know we can do countless things.
The bar chart goes from one all the way to the one billion things you could do. The bar is split into two parts. Twenty percent of the bar is dark blue and eighty percent of the bar is white.
Everything that is dark blue depicts every action you can undertake in your country that is covered by the legal system. Therefore, for the dark blue part there is a law that determines if what you are doing is legal or illegal.
Everything in the white section depicts actions not covered by laws in your country.
When we talk about ethics we are most of the time talking about the actions within the white space, where the laws have not been written to cover your actions. If there was a law telling you how to behave in a situation, would it be an ethical debate given the law instructed you what to do? In most cases it will not be.
However, the world is not perfect.
There are times when the law is wrong. For example, when black people were not allowed to attend universities in South Africa or parts of United States. There are laws like that, unjust laws, right now in parts of the world. Therefore, in situations where the law is wrong, ethics should dictate your actions.
That is one example where ethics does not just apply to the white space but also applies to the blue space.
There are other situations where ethics applies to the blue space as well.
Think of countries that have exceptional constitutions. Their constitutions are so amazing that other legal systems around the world quote from these country’s constitutions and higher court opinions. For example, South Africa’s constitutional court rulings are highly referenced internationally.
However, there are parts of that country that are lawless. Clearly the law is not enough if there is no enforcement. If there is no enforcement people will misbehave unless they are ethically bound to behave themselves. Therefore, there are two situations where we need to apply ethics to actions governed by law, when the laws are wrong and when the laws are not enforced.
To summarize, ethics is required when the law is not written, not enforced or wrong.
The application of ethical principles is inversely proportional to the correctness of the law, the reach of the law and the enforcement of the law. If there are no laws, or the law is weak, or the law is wrong, or the law cannot be enforced, you are reliant on your personal judgment to make decisions.
The question is, how good is your judgment.
If ethics is about judgment, what drives our judgement?
We established that ethics is about judgment. Now I will give you 4 situations and I will show you what drives our judgment.
Imagine it is 1940 and you are a brilliant engineering student in Germany – blue eyes, blond hair, handsome but a bit naive. All you know is what is told to you, and you just happened to be a member of the armed forces. You are sitting at a hip Berlin bar. You are in a situation where everyone thinks it is just fine to persecute the Jewish and Slavic nations. Not only is this the kind of group you belong to, it is also aligned with the law in your country.
Let’s take another situation. Let’s assume it is 1910 in Canada. You are going out with your buddies, upstanding gentlemen who don’t agree that women should have the right to vote. That is all you see in the press. That is what people talk about. That is accepted.
How do you break away from that, when it is the only thing you know to be right?
Some of you will say, “Well, we actually know that’s wrong”. However, the reality is, to a large degree, we are defined by our circumstances. It is easy to apply a higher ethical standard in hindsight. We can prove this.
In the first two examples I have presented scenarios that today, in hindsight, we know to be wrong. In the next two examples I will give you things that we don’t necessarily know to be wrong today.
Think about eating animals. Human beings consume millions of tons, may be tens of millions of tons, of animal carcasses every year. It is completely acceptable to do this. It is acceptable to make jokes about it. In a hundred years people may look back at us and think we were animals for doing this.
We think it is acceptable because the network we belong to thinks it is acceptable. If you belonged to a social network whereby your friends thought it was horrible and distasteful to eat animals, you would probably not do it.
If your reaction to this was, it is not so bad so I am going to do it, then remember this is how unethical behavior becomes acceptable. We justify it based on what we see as being commonplace.
Let’s look at another example. Something that I notice every single time I am in a group of people – sexist comments. It is remarkable how much we tolerate sexist comments on television and in social settings. In fact social settings reinforce this behavior. Comments like “you are acting like a girl”, “you throw like a girl” or “only girls do that” are basically accepted discriminatory banter.
Just about every major comedy show in the United States has made some off-hand sexist comments. Some thrive on it and their ratings are directly proportional to this behavior.
One of the most popular shows in United States, “How I Met Your Mother”, actually has a scene whereby the main antagonist, Barney Stinson, talks about how he may have sold a woman into slavery. That show went on to have one of the highest ratings in prime time television for United States. It was a joke, obviously, but the fact is we find those things funny.
This happens right now. We think it is acceptable to belittle half of the human race. So why do we do that?
We do it because everyone else is doing it.
The social group you belong to shapes your ethics
In conclusion, the social group you belong to (your friends, the people from whom you seek acceptance, the people you spend time trying to impress, the people with whom you socialize, engage with, build relationships with etc.) shapes your values, or lack thereof.
The social network you choose to belong to will determine how ethical or unethical you choose to be, want to be or even could be.
So ask yourself: “How do the groups I choose to belong to shape my career and my life?”. If you are not happy with an answer to this question, make the necessary changes.
QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: Which behaviours or beliefs currently acceptable in Western culture will, in your opinion, not be socially acceptable 100 years from now? Please let us know in the comments.
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