Bain Exec Tells UVA Darden Students Servant Leadership Key to Sustainable Success
By Dave Hendrick
Dave Johnson leads a significant sector of one of the world’s elite consulting firms, but the Bain & Co. managing director remains grounded by a working-class upbringing that included digging clams to put himself through what he described as the “least expensive” college in his area.
The first in his family to pursue higher education, Johnson said time spent running his own landscaping business in high school or harvesting quahogs in frigid, choppy waters while peers engaged in less taxing endeavors helped endear him to the opportunities offered at Bain, where Johnson has stayed for 32 years despite offers to join companies with which he consults.
Speaking to University of Virginia Darden School of Business students as part of the Leadership Speaker Series, Johnson, regional managing director of the Americas for Bain and a partner in the firm’s Boston office, said it was during his first year as a consultant when he realized the sort of impact he could have in his role.
Consulting for a telecom equipment services provider, Johnson said he advised the CEO of the company to merge with its biggest competitor, and then watched in amazement as the company did just that.
So, when the first of many entreaties came to bolt from Bain and join a client company to run a $400 million business as a 32-year-old, Johnson declined, telling his suitor he wasn’t yet done with his work with Bain.
One internal suitor who Johnson was unable to turn down was Mitt Romney, who convinced Johnson to take on the role of leading recruiting for the firm.
“How could I say no to Mitt?” Johnson asked.
The next challenge came when he was asked to open Bain’s office in New York City. Johnson said he appreciated the new challenge at Bain, which allowed him to fulfill an itch to run a business while also keeping all of the benefits of working at Bain.
“I had my cake and ate it, too,” Johnson said.
Building and recruiting for an office taught the Bain director about the value of keeping and retaining the best personnel. Indeed, in a business where new opportunities outside of the company are regularly presented to high-performing consultants, Bain works exceptionally hard at keeping its workers loyal and engaged.
Johnson said the idea of “servant leadership” was embedded into the DNA of the firm. Everyone asked to take on firm leadership roles are vetted for their ability to serve, guide and foster growth in the teams they lead. Once in a role, leaders receive regular, highly detailed evaluations regarding potential areas for improvement.
The idea isn’t to micromanage, but to ensure teams are well-served and leaders themselves are able to “aggressively grow their leadership skills.” Johnson said he, too, regularly receives lengthy, “single-spaced” reports with feedback on his leadership.
There’s also a firm-wide commitment to ensure employees are getting optimal value and sustainable experiences out of their case work, and case team surveys are administered monthly to ensure not only that client needs are being met, but that the case provides a balance of both “sustainable lifestyle and valuable learning.”
As Johnson explained, a focus on client needs at the expense of all else can easily overwhelm personnel, leading to the “justification of unsustainable people engagement.” That’s not a recipe for building loyalty within your ranks.
“We think we could not grow the way we’ve grown if we couldn’t get people to come and stay,” Johnson said. “Clients are core, but it’s only because people are inspired to come and stay that we can do great things.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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