MECE, 80/20 and other Tough Love at Bain: My life as a management consulting star and partner
Terence was a consulting partner at 2 leading international management consulting firms. 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 third 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 book which completes the arc of his career started in these articles.
Power at Bain lay 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 influencial.
My airline project was slightly different. The office was running low on consultants, a partner with whom I had worked closely at the 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 sale threw them for a loop. 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, organisational 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.
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, 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 sombre mood to everything which was, in my opinion, overdone. In time I would learn that this was his personality. That certainly did not help matters.
- 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 obviously affected our relationship.
- After working with the partners, I realised 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.
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 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!?
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 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 improve 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.
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.