CEOs must avoid getting caught in a bubble, says BCG's Rich Lesser

01 November 2021 3 min. read
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Avoiding getting caught in a bubble is the key to being a successful CEO according to BCG’s former boss Rich Lesser – a lesson he learnt in driving the firm’s action on climate change.

Boston Consulting Group’s global chair and former CEO Rich Lesser has shared a key tip for successful CEOs; avoid getting caught in a bubble. In an interview with the BBC, Lesser – who after nine years as the CEO of BCG handed the reigns to Christoph Schweizer at the beginning of last month, said that avoiding the ‘CEO bubble’ is essential – and it was an issue he personally had to address to grasp the importance of climate change.

Heading one of the world’s most influential and prestigious strategy consulting firms, Lesser was undoubtedly a successful CEO, the firm more than doubling in size and tripling its revenues during his tenure. One of his greatest legacies however will be guiding the firm on its response to climate change, such that BCG now aims to be ‘carbon positive’ (removing more carbon than it emits) by the end of the decade – at the hefty price tag of $400 million

Rich Lesser, BCG

Yet, Lesser admits that the firm, while it was addressing the issue, was initially slow to act boldly on climate change, in part due to the bubble which can form around CEOs of large companies. He explains; “When you're at the top of the hierarchy, you have a lot of influence over people’s careers. There is a natural tendency for people to start to say things that they think you want to hear, that align with your world-view, or make you happy.”

One way to minimise the bubble is to build diversity into the organisation – another area in which the firm has provided strong thought leadership in recent years. While colleagues might naturally be disinclined to disagree with a CEO, to challenge and push back, greater diversity helps to provide different perspectives in the room, which can create a culture where people will feel free to speak up and raise new ideas, even if they don’t turn out to be great.

He uses concerns around climate change as an example, a tricky issue for Lesser as the firm counted oil and other heavy industry companies among its clientele. Here, he had members of the partnership push back very strongly, and educate the broader partnership. “They turned out to be right,” Lesser says. “It did change the trajectory of the way we’ve acted; much more boldly. They helped me break through my own bubble.”

Celebrating when someone is right and they have been wrong is how CEOs can break the bubble, according to Lesser. And in this instance, it’s a shift set to have a lasting impact on the direction and culture of the firm. In addition to its own ambitious emissions reduction targets, BCG will serve as a consulting partner for the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), and recently launched a global Climate & Sustainability Centre.

Schweizer, too, will continue in Lesser’s footsteps on the issue. When asked what he thought the greatest challenge would be in the year ahead upon his election to CEO, Schweizer didn’t hesitate to nominate sustainability; “Companies and governments will have to get serious about decarbonisation extremely fast: setting the right targets, reduction mechanisms, metrics and enforcement, and implement swiftly,” he responded.