Rich Lesser from BCG on developing a culture of challenge within the firm

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When Rich Lesser was congratulated by a colleague who chose him to lead the Boston Consulting Group for nine years, they sometimes had a weird way of showing it.

The chemical engineer was a consultant for 30 years and CEO for 6 years when the BCG partner gave him his third and last term as boss in 2018.

The NSLesser CEO, 59, sells strategic advice to the world’s largest companies such as Starbucks, Royal Dutch Shell and GlaxoSmithKline, doubling its workforce to 22,000 in 2020 and gaining nearly three. Oversaw the doubling to $ 8.6 billion.

But when he took control and embarked on a mission for the past three years, the partner started knocking on his door discussing something other than sales and growth: climate change.

“There were senior partners for whom I had a lot of respect at BCG. They excited me for better wording, ”he said from his home in New Jersey.

The group was already working on a climate change project for its clients, but Lesser “relentlessly” urged his colleagues to act faster by mobilizing the company’s resources to tackle the problem. I say I did.

Talking about climate change risked angering customers in the polluted industry. There has been an enthusiastic public debate on global warming, especially in the United States, where many Republicans have come to regard it as fake science.

Lesser was already in control of a fast-growing company heading into new areas such as digital analytics when his colleagues demanded that climate change efforts be prioritized.

“I have come to believe they are right,” he says. “It’s not that we haven’t taken it seriously, but there is a difference between taking it seriously and putting all the power of a company like BCG behind it.”

At a crucial time, according to Lesser, senior German associate Philip Garbert sent an email to all of BCG’s roughly 1,500 partners around the world, clearly explaining the urgent need for action on climate change. That was when I did it. He now calls it an “interesting event,” but his initial reaction was different.

Rich Lesser says he encourages staff to talk, not just tell him or his elders what they want to hear © Monique Jaques / FT

“In one point of view, we were like this, ‘What is he doing? He just writes this, doesn’t confirm it to anybody, just sends it. That’s what Lesser remembers.

“But on the other hand… the content of what he wrote was important.”

In fact, Gerbert, who retired from BCG in good condition last year, told the Financial Times it was in his email. A 14-minute video, he produced himself to prevent a colleague’s career from being compromised by being associated with his intervention.

In a video initially not shared outside the company for fear of causing a backlash, Gerbert presented data to support immediate action and mobilized institutions and financial markets to mitigate climate change. He insisted he was in favor of doing it.

It was not until September 2020, after Gerbert’s plea, that the BCG committed to the stricter goal of achieving net zero climate impact by 2030, but in 2018 it made its carbon neutral activity.

The company aims to reduce travel-related emissions, the main driver of its climate impact, by 2025 from 2018 levels of 30% per full-time employee.

BCG has since partnered with the COP26 Climate Summit, and Lesser is the chief advisor to the CEO Climate Leaders Alliance of the World Economic Forum.

The company claims to have completed around 400 climate and environment projects for 300 clients in 2020, mainly due to the impact of global warming “on biodiversity and livelihoods”. Fewer complaints there are.

He says the business benefits of adaptation to meet growing demand from companies seeking advice on how to mitigate their contributions to climate change were secondary.

few have said before that he does not consider himself “a great visionary who thinks of everything for himself”.

He explains that the climate change debate is one of the best examples of a culture of challenges he has sought to maintain as CEO, and staff members aren’t just saying to themselves or to their seniors what they want to hear. I urged him to give an honest opinion.

“Everyone knows the weather wasn’t Rich’s idea,” he says.

What he calls the “CEO bubble” is the importance of fostering and hearing dissent, as executives who monitor the career advancement of their colleagues are constantly reinforcing their views with others. their entourage. Over time, a “status gap” can occur, making it even less likely that employees will challenge the person who has run the business for years.

“To create a controversial environment, reach out to those who oppose it, thank them and show how we’ve changed as a result, four to eight years will last a lifetime rather than zero to four. I think we have to work hard, ”he said.

So Beware of staff Last February, he urged them to overthrow their “inner dictator” by agreeing to rethink their beliefs. Think again: the power to know what you don’t know By Adam Grant, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Lesser was challenged not only from outside BCG, but also from within that rank.

Like other consultancies that have discussed the positive social implications, the BCG faces a scrutiny of its efforts against the big oil companies, which are still serious polluters, and governments accused of human rights violations like the ‘Saudi Arabia. Make.

“I think we tried all the time [my] Period of employment including [work in Saudi Arabia] We got a lot of attention to really pay attention to what we did and what we didn’t, ”Lesser explains.

Three questions for Rich Lesser

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Who is your leadership hero?

Nelson Mandela. I am impressed with his willingness to lead and I boldly demand change, but I do it by bringing people together, even if he has to endure.

What would you do if you weren’t the CEO of BCG?

High school math teacher or R&D researcher on synthetic fuels.

What was the first leadership lesson you learned?

It all starts with creating the right team: the best talent, united goals and aspirations, mutual support, the courage to speak up and drive change.

“We are a far cry from the hundreds of millions of dollars of work spent on other consultants on the project… which is not what we want to do,” he added.

The company does not work with companies that are “openly indifferent to or deny climate change” and guidelines to prevent it from working for potential clients in high-emission industries, unless they plan to tackle it. climate change. He states that he has established. ..

Almost 10 years after leading the company he first joined in 1988, Lesser will become BCG’s World Presidency on October 1. The 23-year veteran of the group, Christoph Schweitzer, will take over the day-to-day management as the new CEO.

I don’t expect being chaired to have more time to work directly on a small number of client projects and “thinking leadership” on social issues such as climate, Covid-19 and racial equality.

These broader questions became an important company goal to attract employees and customers, but when Lesser called on his colleagues to vote in 2012, they rarely registered.

“We did the social influence work… But this broader sense of ‘finality’ was not really included in the dialogue. ”

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