By Judith A. Ross
Every day chief executives all over the globe face decisions about how to transform their business and take it to the next level. Management consultants at Bain & Company have collaborated with more than fifteen hundred corporations from every economic sector and region of the world to help them and their CEOs do just that. And since its founding in 1973, the firm has measured its success by determining how effectively it improves a client's performance.
This emphasis on results convinced Orit Gadiesh (HBS MBA '77), Bain's chairman since 1993, to join the firm after earning her MBA in 1977 as a Baker Scholar and recipient of the Brown Award as the most outstanding marketing student in her class. "What attracted me was the conviction that the product for the consultant is a client's results and not a report," says the charismatic Gadiesh, a veritable Renaissance woman whose interests range from physics to theater and who devours some one hundred books a year.
In her more than two decades at Bain, the Israeli-born Gadiesh has advised hundreds of CEOs and senior managers on structuring and managing portfolios of companies, developing and implementing global strategy, executing turnarounds, enhancing organizational effectiveness, determining technology strategy, and designing cost-reduction programs. Named one of Fortune magazine's fifty most powerful women in business in 1998 and 1999, she represents the consulting profession's gold standard to colleagues and competitors alike. "Orit is a consultant's consultant," observes HBS professor Joseph L. Bower. "She is a great problem solver and attracts clients like a magnet."
Back at Bain's headquarters atop Boston's Copley Place after a business trip to Europe, Gadiesh recalls early assignments in the steel, automobile, and chemical industries. In one instance, along with a team of colleagues, she helped a steel company improve its product quality and bottom line by advising it to adopt a continuous-casting process. "In conjunction with the company's customers and metallurgists, we changed the way our client worked," she recalls. "Beyond that, we had an effect on the entire industry, since other companies soon followed suit. With technology and e-commerce now changing everything so rapidly, we continue to make strategic recommendations with that kind of impact."
With more than half of Bain's clients now located outside the United States, Gadiesh spends 70 percent of her time in the field, traveling to the firm's 27 offices in eighteen countries across six continents. Her focus on workable solutions never wavers. "Concentrating on implementation requires an awareness of an organization's capabilities," she asserts. "It means working with people at all levels, building a partnership that gives clients ownership of ideas, and sometimes telling them what they don't want to hear."
Gadiesh received her first lessons in leadership in Israel at age seventeen when she joined the army. For two years she worked as an aide to the deputy chief of staff. "I observed many powerful leaders at close range," she recalls. "Israeli generals don't direct from the sidelines; they lead by example." When Bain ran into financial troubles during the late 1980s, Gadiesh put those lessons to the test.
Borrowing against an employee stock ownership plan, Bain's founders had plunged the firm into debt. The subsequent restructuring and layoffs devastated morale, causing many of those remaining to seek jobs elsewhere. With headhunters knocking on her door, Gadiesh realized she couldn't advise others to stay unless she made that commitment herself. "About twelve of us got together and agreed to work on turning things around," says Gadiesh, who further contributed to the recovery effort by delivering a heartfelt speech about "Bain pride" that lifted the spirits of her colleagues and remains part of company lore to this day. "We all focused on the future," she points out, "restructuring our ownership and governance models and rededicating ourselves to rising to every challenge to help our clients."
Gadiesh continues to emphasize the importance of working together. "I don't think of myself as a leader," she notes. "I think of myself as part of the leadership of the company. A leader in a consulting firm can't get too far from the job; things evolve quickly, and you tend to forget how difficult it is in the trenches. In addition," she emphasizes, "I enjoy what I do, and I want others here to feel the same way. If something's not fun, it's not worth it." Gadiesh also attributes Bain's success to a set of guiding principles—a system of core values that she says communicate "true north" to the entire organization. "True north is the critical direction on the moral compass and the basis of our behavior, regardless of the circumstances," she explains.
Gadiesh came to this country after studying psychology and graduating summa cum laude from Israel's Hebrew University in 1973. During a visit to New York City, she met a recent HBS graduate who encouraged her to apply to the Business School. However, the former Israeli high-jump champion had to clear several bars upon her arrival at Soldiers Field. In addition to some initial language difficulties, Gadiesh was unfamiliar with aspects of American life that many of her classmates took for granted. "In Israel, for example, we don't eat breakfast cereal, but at HBS I had to read and analyze an entire marketing and segmentation case about those products," she says with a laugh that fills her book-lined office. Ever the perfectionist, she prepared for class by going to a nearby supermarket to become more familiar with the wide assortment of brands on the shelf.
Gadiesh continues to bridge the two cultures of her native and adoptive countries. Involved with such bulwarks of Boston as Brigham & Women's Hospital and the New England Conservatory of Music, she is also on the board of Israel's Peres Institute for Peace. "It's a group of very special people who are thinking beyond the politics to bring peace to the region," she concludes. Wherever she goes, Orit Gadiesh takes pride in leaving companies and even countries better than they were.
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