One on One with BCG’s Michelle Russell

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For so long, executive teams and leadership roles at consulting firms have been overwhelmingly filled by men, but the profession has made great strides in recent decades. Part of this shift has been driven by firms’ internal programs, such as The Boston Consulting Group’s Women@BCG network, which strives to attract and retain top female talent, nurturing their unique talents and goals along the way. We caught up with BCG Partner Michelle Russell, who heads the Women@BCG program, to talk about the changing landscape for women in the consulting profession and how programs designed to benefit women really benefit everyone.

Consulting: What is the history behind Women@BCG?

Russell: It started over 10 years ago as the Women’s Initiative. It was a CEO agenda from the outset, initially primarily around women supporting women, sort of creating an affiliation network and creating that sort of home for people. Over time we’ve gone through a sort of evolution to how do we make this a priority for the organization as a whole. We think about it end to end. It starts with recruiting, making sure we’re getting more than our fair share of women from the pools we pull from. This summer we had the happy success of having more than 50 percent of women in our summer intern class. So it’s making sure we’re getting them in and then supporting them and understanding what our women want to be doing and how we can best support them professionally and personally. Looking at women in leadership roles, more than a third of our executive committee is women, as well as more than a third of our CEO’s direct leadership team.

Consulting: What is the long term goal of Women@BCG?

Russell: The long term goal is to make BCG an attractive place for women in consulting, are we getting our fair share of women in the door and are we retaining them? If we go back five years ago we were losing women in the middle, we had a high attrition rate of project leaders among women and we’ve closed that gap and increased the diversity of the partnership. Back in 2012 if you look at our people survey, our internal employee survey, it asked if BCG made an adequate effort to retain women. In 2012 there was a 20-point gap between men and women (with women being lower). If you looked at the principle scores there was a 30-point gap between men and women. We have completely closed that gap and continued upward trajectory on that question. We’re making progress a step at a time.

Consulting: Over the 10 years that Women@BCG has been in existence, what’s the trend line been for women in the profession?

Russell: I think what’s exciting is the generation of leaders that we have now there’s a different tone to the female leadership, it’s about women really showing up with their full selves. I think there was a generation in business generally and in consulting, where some of our amazing trailblazing women felt like they had to play more by the boys’ rules. The generation of women we have now is more is basically saying, look, here I am, warts and all, I’m going to show up and you’re going to get all of me. That’s either going to work or it’s not, and either way that’s ok.

Consulting: What can firms do to attract and retain top women talent?

Russell: Fundamentally how you retain people is that they have a job they love. If you can create an environment where people want to get up and work, you’re probably going to retain them. We realized that no one was really looking at that day-to-day experience. Most women programs were looking at how do we make flex time work and how can we reduce travel, which are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. So what we looked at was what drives the satisfaction of women in the day-to-day experience. There are three pieces to it; one is around a culture that acknowledges individual strength and builds upon them, as opposed to a culture that’s too focused on people development. Two is around really having meaningful performance enhancing relationships that extend beyond the case. One challenge we all face in consulting is that it tends to be project-based in the early years. You have people switching team to team and how you make sure they’re getting that mentorship that grows into sponsorship into advocacy over time. The third is around communication effectiveness, how do you coach people. One by one we sort of tackled those three elements and it’s made a real difference. The other interesting part of those three elements is they actually matter to men, too. So by actually focusing on these things, you end up raising all boats.

Consulting: How do you measure success of the program?

Russell: One thing I think is that this has moved from a women’s issue to a firm issue. The signal for me is the most recent elected positions of the executive committee have been women and they’ve been elected by the full partnership. So it’s not a CEO saying it matters that you have women in those leadership roles. It’s not a committee saying it, it’s the full partnership saying these are the leaders we want representing us on the executive committee and it’s really important to have that.

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