I’ll never forget that Thursday on October 23rd, 2014 when I received a call from Bain & Company offering me a job. It was a 2-month period competing against 60,000 other candidates to earn an offer and I was honored to accept.
I would be joining a company called “The Best Place to Work”, earning a six-figure salary, and beginning my career at the same place as Mitt Romney, Adam Braun, CEO of MissionU, and Andy Dunn, CEO of Bonobos; it was truly a dream job.
I was joining as an Associate Consultant and from Day 1, was expected to make an impact on some of the largest, most respected companies in the world. Along the way, I would develop my business knowledge, my communication skills, and my leadership abilities. As one mentor mentioned, for the next two years, I would be “drinking knowledge from a fire hydrant” and he was right.
The two years I spent with Bain taught me much about myself as young professional, a businessman, and as a human being.
My two years at Bain came to an end a few months ago, but during that time, I kept a journal of the lessons I’ve learned – lessons that I now apply both to my professional life as well as my personal one.
I wanted to share 10 of my favorites –
1. Your enjoyment of work is more determined by who you work with than the work you are doing
As a management consultant, you work on a variety of projects for varying durations of time (some projects can last as little as one week while others could last years), varying tasks (some projects can be heavy on analytics where you are at your desk crunching numbers until midnight while others involve 6-hour meetings convincing people to make a decision), and varying teams (from small teams where everyone but you has a family to large teams where everyone decides to go to an Avcii Friday night concert together)
During my time at Bain, I worked on 12 different projects with 12 different teams varying from a two-month project helping a biotech company launch a life-saving drug to a two-week project helping a company decide if it should buy a protein powder manufacturer.
What I learned was that who I was working with was often a more accurate indicator of my enjoyment of the project than the actual work I was doing. One of my favorite projects was a 3-month cost cutting case with a tech company. While there is nothing inherently interesting about going through expense budgets and finding where spend was inefficient, I looked forward to each day of that case because of how much I enjoyed the people on my team and the client team. Working side-by-side with people you enjoy, who enjoy you, makes the time pass and gives you more meaning to your work.
2. People will change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change
As a consultant, one of your responsibilities is to move your client to action, but as people quickly realize, moving people to action can be as hard as trying to tell a baby to stop crying (actually telling a baby to stop crying might be easier). Change is hard because it involves an active commitment to a new set of routines, habits, and ways of thinking.
The clients that were quickest to change were the ones who realized what would happen if they didn’t change. They were often the companies who were not too long ago the dominant brand in their space until smaller, but more innovative companies came along and over time took away their control of the market. They came to Bain because they felt the pain of keeping the status quo and when our recommendations came, were quick to act on them, but had they changed earlier, most of them would have continued to be market leaders instead of trying to play catch-up.
But businesses aren’t the only entities who follow this rule, individual people do as well. As a first-year, I was luckily given a desk near a central meeting spot in the office; so pretty much in the course of a week, I would see almost everyone in our 400-person office pass by my desk to get to the meeting room, thus catching up with old teammates and my friends was quite easy since they were usually out waiting for the meeting room to clear so we would start a conversation for 2-5 minutes. Well, these 2-5 minute conversations would happen every 30 minutes as new people passed by which added to about 2 hours a day of conversations. When my cases were in lighter periods it was easy to handle since I was usually waiting for my manager or client’s input on my work, but when my cases were in our peak periods (14-16 hour days) it meant I stayed even later to make up the time I was socializing.
I was afraid of offending others if I didn’t talk to them since it was only 2-5 minutes, but eventually, it became painful as those 2 hours a day meant 2 hours of less sleep I received so I finally had to make a change. During those peak periods, when someone would pass my desk and started a conversation I would say, “I’d love to talk, but I’m in crunch period right now, could I get back to you with a time for lunch? That way we can have more time and I’m not thinking about this report I am sending out?”
The solution worked, I got back my 2 hours of sleep and still made time to catch up with those I wanted to speak with, but it took the pain of losing 2 hours of sleep on already few hours of sleep to make me force that change. Similar to the companies I was helping, it took for the pain of doing nothing to exceed the pain of changing when I finally took action.
Thus I realized, people only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.
3. Shortcomings + Humility = Progress
One of my favorite aspects of Bain’s culture was the emphasis on growth and development. As a new college graduate, I knew I had much to learn from the seasoned business veterans I would be working with that each time I was staffed to a new project, I would schedule weekly 1:1 PD (professional development) chats with each member of my team.
And each week, I would ask the same three questions:
- What were my strengths/what do you enjoy about working with me?
- What is frustrating about working with me/What should I change?
- Where could I have “wow”ed you with my work quality this week?
My favorite questions were the last two because they allowed me to identify my weaknesses and ways I could improve myself. While it might be hard to allow yourself to be open to criticism, I found it as the best way to grow. Much of the growth I experienced at Bain came from these candid conversations. They allowed me to see myself from the viewpoints of others as well as to cover blind spots I have. I still have blind spots, but I have less than when I started because I cared more about discovering my blindspots than protecting my ego.
During one PD chat, a teammate, whom I looked up, remarked how my strength was realizing and praising the good work of others, but how uncomfortable it made her feel each time I had remarked about something she had done to our team and would purposely not tell me about her work to avoid the public praise. This was a shock to me because I always appreciate when other compliment me in public, but for her, she preferred to have it done privately.
I took that feedback and asked some past team members how it felt when I did the same public praising, and it came back that they also felt uncomfortable because often the work they did was the result of multiple people and not just the person I was praising. So they felt embarrassed, not wanting to stop me but realizing other people in the room should have been praised too, I was just ignorant about that fact. Upon hearing the feedback, I was embarrassed at myself for having done what I did for so long, but those candid conversations were the only reason I learned about how I was doing was making others uncomfortable. Today, I do praise, but mainly in private or only when I know of all the people involved.
I still have many blind spots, over time I want to address them as I grow.
4. Make decisions based on long-term benefits, not short-term consequences
I find that for every decision we make, there are short-term consequences as well as long-term ones, but we often only consider the short-term consequences.
In management consulting, when you are up to be staffed on your next project you usually have more than one choice for the project. You will do your research on each project and then rank the ones you would like to be staffed on. Consultants usually rank projects based on the quality of the team, history of the client, anticipated hours, and location. While all of these are great metrics, they are all short-term considerations. While you might have less working hours and a better client situation you become less prepared when you have to deal with long hours and tough client relationships versus if you took a case that had a tough client situation and higher hours; you will learn a lot more early on which would allow you to view future cases as easier to manage versus starting off easy and being faced with a tougher situation later on when you are more senior and more is expected of you.
During my time at Bain, there was one particular client that my class would avoid at all costs – the hours were among the highest of all projects, the client was tough, and unless you were a manager or partner, you would not get any time with the client (to the client you didn’t exist). So each time a slot opened up on the team and an Associate from my class would be staffed, they would go to our staffing manager with all sorts of reasons why they couldn’t – “didn’t like that industry”, “want to avoid that type of work”, “didn’t like the team.” but in reality it was simply to avoid the situation. But eventually, no matter what, someone had to be staffed to that project.
What I’ve found were the Associates who were staffed to that project after finishing their “tour of duty” had developed skillsets far beyond the average Associate. Because the case demanded much as high expectations from the client on a short time frame, the Associates on those projects I found learned to prioritize better, developed faster analytical skills, and were better at pattern recognition so it was no surprise how many of them would go on to be fast-tracked to promotions and be offer business school sponsorships. Their willingness to accept the short-term consequences, allowed them to gain greater long-term benefits.
When making a decision, consider the long-term benefits and not just the short-term consequences.
5. One hour today could save eight in three months
As an Associate, I built more excel models than I could count. When I built my first financial model, I was just excited to get to the answer that I built the model as quickly as I could to calculate the key numbers the client wanted. Instead of building in reference points and citing where my numbers came from, I just added numbers I pulled into the model and thought “I could come back and cite the sources if needed.” Three months later, when the case wrapped up, the client who was impressed with the model asked if they could give the model to their data team. When their data analyst opened the model, he asked, “Where can I find the sources for these numbers? The numbers look good, but I want to make sure I update them with the same sources when the numbers change.” I told him, I’d get it to him – the problem was at this point the model was 3 months old with over 27 tabs and over 50 data sources; I couldn’t remember where each source was and which PowerPoint slide it updated in our 500 slide presentation.
I ended up spending Friday night and that weekend tracking all the numbers. What would have been a 2-minute task at the beginning for each source (a simple copy and paste) when I had them in front of me took an entire weekend because I was trying to save 2 hours in the beginning and ended up costing me about 16 hours, three months later. I learned my lesson the hard way.
Doing something right today at the cost of an additional hour is worth doing, else you will pay for it later on.
6. Given a choice between working out or sleeping in an extra hour, always choose the workout
The hours at Bain can be long, but one thing I noticed was how alert I felt if I had a workout that day. On projects where I started the day at 6 am and went to bed at 2 am, I felt more alert after a 5 am workout than on cases where I started the day at 9 am, went to bed at 10 pm, but went to work without my workout.
I made my health my priority even if it meant a midnight workout or a 4 am run. When I was traveling for casework, if it came down to the decision between two hotels both nearby, I would pick the one with the better gym and on cases where I didn’t have time to go to my local gym, I kept a set of workout equipment in my apartment.
So given a choice between sleeping in an extra hour or going to the gym, always choose the gym.
7. A 50% solution, implemented at 100% is better than a 100% solution not implemented
During the first week of Bain training, you are taught to value results for your clients over everything else. If you come up with the perfect answer, but no one acts on it, it is as if the answer didn’t exist because it didn’t create any results.
I found this to be true even in my first case at Bain where we were helping a local low-income school district improve their teacher retention. The school system had been facing high teacher turnover rate, and as a result, students had less access to experienced teachers. After three months of working with the school district, interviewing educators from across the country, and benchmarking our program against those at other similar school systems, our team came up with a recommendation for a program that would improve teacher retention. Out of the 42 schools in that system, we recommended implementing at 29 of those schools the following school year to see the maximum effect of the program but beginning at 2 schools.
The school district leadership agreed that implementing at 2 schools would be ideal, but given the politics of the district, it would at best be able to implement at 1, to begin with. A year later, the program was implemented at 1 school and saw the desired effects of improving teacher retention – though it was half of our suggested optimal, having the program implemented at all was better than to have it not.
8. Worry about what is on the back of your shirt
At Bain, we had a saying to always consider what is “on the back of your shirt” which is to say, what others think of you when you are not present – your reputation. Once a reputation is formed it is hard to undo so every decision you make, everything you say has longer-term impacts so be careful with both.
9. Prioritize achieving results to being right
Promotion cycles happen twice a year at Bain, but before the official list of people is sent out, I could have a sense of who would get promoted from those I’ve worked with. There was one common trait among those who were promoted and those who weren’t. That trait I observed was that the ones receiving promotions cared more about having the right answer than their own answer being right.
The future managers and partners at Bain had this interesting trait. When they were consultants or senior managers, they would go into our meetings with an answer they thought was right, but if evidence proved they were would be wrong, they were willing to switch their viewpoint. When the facts changed, they changed. They were more concerned about getting to the right answer than being personally right and defending their ego. While they were often right, I imagine that frequency of being right developed over time from a history of being willing to be wrong.
This was such a valuable lesson for me and each time I find myself defending my belief, I pause and ask myself, “am I trying to get to the right answer or am I just wanting to be right?” If it is the latter, I slow down and consider that I might (and quite often) be wrong. As I learned, ego is the enemy of progress.
10. The gift of time is more valuable than the gift of money
From the time I was a kid until the time I graduated from college, I had very little money, so when it came to Christmas and birthdays, I often handmade gifts and cards since I had the time to do so and little money to spend otherwise. These weren’t fancy or artful, but they were made with 100% care and good intentions.
But when it came to the part of Christmas or birthdays when gifts were unwrapped, I would always envy those in my family who made money and could afford my grandma cruise tickets while I built a makeshift box for her earrings in my school’s woodshop. My grandma will use those cruise tickets, but will she even open my box? I thought money and what it bought was the greatest gift you could give.
After working at Bain, I became money rich but time poor. I realize now how much my time was worth. When I was in high school, I would drive two hours just to see a friend or grab really good food, now I ask if we can just Skype or eat somewhere halfway, because a two-hour drive is a large chunk of time I barely have.
Now every Christmas when I fly back from California to Georgia with my newly bought gifts, I can’t help but envy my little cousins who handmade their cards or knitted a scarf for our grandma.
The gifts that money buy are nice, but they can’t replace the gift of giving your time. Money can be earned back and you can make more, but there is no ATM for time, once you withdraw, that is it.
The management consultants I respected most at Bain were those who with their limited time still made a commitment to have dinner with their partners, made time to have lunch with the Associates, and rescheduled a client meeting so they could be there for their kids during school breaks.
Now when a friend offers to drive an hour to meet me, my best friend offers to drive me from the airport, or my little cousin knits me a pair of mittens, I come to see how valuable their gifts are.