Rich Lesser of BCG on fostering a culture of challenge in the company

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If Rich Lesser is admired by colleagues who elected him to lead the Boston Consulting Group for nine years, they sometimes show it in strange ways.

When BCG’s partners handed him his third and final term as their boss in 2018, the chemical engineer had served as a consultant for 30 years and CEO for 6 years.

As Chief Executive OfficerLesser, 59, oversaw the company’s doubling of its workforce to 22,000 and nearly tripled the company’s revenue to US$8.6 billion. The company gave Starbucks, Royal Dutch Shell and Glaxo History Gram and other world’s largest companies sell strategic recommendations.

But when he started his last three years at the helm, partners started knocking on his door to discuss issues other than sales and growth: climate change.

“I have great respect for some of the senior partners of BCG, they want to use better words to describe me, they lashed out at me,” he said from his home in New Jersey.

The team is already working on climate change projects for clients, but Lesser said his colleagues “relentlessly” urge him to mobilize company resources more quickly to solve the problem.

Talking about climate change may arouse the anger of customers in the polluting industry. The public debate on global warming is taking place in a lively atmosphere, especially in the United States, where many Republicans are beginning to see it as fake science.

When his colleagues asked him to prioritize addressing climate change issues, Lesser was already managing a fast-growing company that was moving into new areas such as digital analytics.

“I began to believe that they were right,” he said. “It’s not that we didn’t take it seriously. But there is a difference between taking it seriously and putting all the power of a company like BCG behind.”

Lesser said that a critical moment had come when Philipp Gerbert, a senior partner in Germany, sent an email to nearly 1,500 BCG partners around the world, outlining in a clear way the measures to address climate change. The urgent need for action. He now refers to it as an “interesting event”, but his initial reaction was different.

Rich Lesser, CEO of the Boston Consulting Group, poses for a group photo in his office in Hudson Yards in New York City on August 18, 2021.
Rich Lesser said he encourages employees to speak up, rather than simply telling him or his senior colleagues what they think he wants to hear ©​​ Monique Jaques/FT

“In one point of view, we were kind of like:’What is he doing? He was just writing this, he didn’t check it with anyone, he just sent that,'” Lesser recalled.

“But on the other hand… the essence of what he wrote is very important.”

In fact, Gerbert, who retired from BCG last year, told the Financial Times that his email included A 14-minute video, He made it himself to avoid any colleague’s career from being damaged by his intervention.

In the video, it was initially not shared outside the company because of fear that it might arouse strong opposition, Gerbert provided data supporting immediate action and advocated mobilizing institutions and financial markets to mitigate climate change.

BCG achieved carbon neutrality in its business in 2018, but it was not until September 2020, after Gerbert’s request, that it committed to achieving a stricter goal of achieving a net zero climate impact by 2030.

The company hopes that by 2025, compared to 2018 levels, emissions from business travel (which is the biggest factor in its climate impact) will be reduced by 30%.

BCG subsequently cooperated with the COP26 Climate Summit, and Lesser was the chief advisor of the Climate Leadership Alliance of CEOs of the World Economic Forum.

The company stated that it completed approximately 400 climate and environment-related projects for 300 customers in 2020, although Lesser insists that the main reason for the action is the impact of global warming on “biodiversity and livelihoods”.

He said that the business benefits of adapting to the company’s growing demand for suggestions on how to mitigate its contribution to climate change are secondary.

A little Said before He doesn’t think of himself as a “great visionary who thinks up everything by himself.”

He described the climate debate as one of the best examples of the challenging culture he was trying to maintain as a CEO, encouraging employees to speak their honest views instead of simply telling him or senior colleagues what they thought they wanted to hear.

“Everyone knows that climate is not Rich’s idea,” he said.

It is important to cultivate and listen to different opinions because he called it the “CEO bubble.” In this case, the views of executives who have control over the career development of their colleagues are constantly being reinforced by those around them. He said that over time, “status gaps” may form, which makes employees less likely to challenge someone who has led the company for many years.

“I think you have to work harder to create an environment that encourages debate in the fourth to the eighth year instead of the zero to the fourth year. Call on those who disagree with you and thank them and show them how we can change as a result. ” He said.

in a Staff notes In February last year, he urged them to overthrow their “internal dictators” by opening up to rethink their beliefs, citing Think again: know the power you don’t know Adam Grant, professor of organizational psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Lesser was challenged by people outside and inside BCG.

Like other consulting companies that trumpet their positive social impact, BCG’s work for large oil companies (still heavy polluters) and governments accused of human rights violations (such as the government of Saudi Arabia) also faces scrutiny.

“I think we have tried [my] Tenure, including when [work in Saudi Arabia] Get a lot of attention, be very careful about what we did and what we didn’t do,” Lesser said.

Three problems with Rich Lesser

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Who is your leading hero?

Nelson Mandela. I am in awe of his leadership qualities that boldly demand change. Although he was forced to endure everything, he did it by bringing people together.

If you were not the CEO of BCG, what would you do?

High school mathematics teacher or synthetic fuel research and development researcher.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

It all starts with creating the right team-top talent, consistent goals and ambitions, mutual support, courage to speak out and drive change.

“We have given up hundreds of millions of dollars in work, which has been transferred to other project consulting companies… This is not in line with what we want to do,” he added.

The company stated that it has established guidelines to ensure that it does not work with companies that “openly disregard or deny climate change” and that it will not serve potential customers in high-emission industries unless they have a plan to combat climate change. .

Nearly ten years after leading the company he first joined in 1988, Lesser will become the global chairman of BCG on October 1. Christoph Schweizer, a 23-year veteran of the group, will assume daily management as the new CEO.

Lesser hopes that the chairmanship will give him more time to directly participate in “thought leadership” on a few client projects and social issues such as climate, Covid-19 and racial equality.

These broader issues have become an important focus for the company to attract employees and customers, but when Lesser canvassed for his colleagues in 2012, they barely registered.

“We have done social impact work… but this broader meaning of’purpose’ does not actually appear in the dialogue.”

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