How Supporting Women Can Transform a Company

More than ten years ago, The Boston Consulting Group established a Women's Initiative to increase the number of women at the firm -- as well as the levels of their success and satisfaction. Our work in this area is hardly done, but we believe we've made tremendous progress. Over the past five years, we've seen a 70 percent increase in the number of women in our U.S. consulting ranks. And, five of BCG's female senior partners have been named among Consulting magazine's annual "Top 25" most influential consultants.

Central to the effort was a move by leaders of our Women's Initiative to take a close look at how we develop talent at BCG. Since apprenticeship is such a large part of our talent-development model for consultants -- our people learn by working on cases with and being guided by more experienced and seasoned BCG partners -- we partnered with leadership development firm BRANDspeak to examine how our apprenticeship culture and process was working for women.

After engaging with hundreds of consultants in focus groups, one-on-one interviews, and surveys, the team uncovered what women (and men) really wanted from apprenticeship. First, we found that while long-term relationships are important to both genders, women put significantly more value on them. Second, our women sometimes felt that they were expected to adopt a more "male" communication style -- a highly assertive demeanor that some found inauthentic. Finally, people viewed our performance-feedback process as overly focused on addressing weaknesses rather than building up strengths, something that BCG women often felt was a barrier to their development and advancement. It's worth noting that this last issue was found to be equally important to both women and men.

Zeroing in on these three elements sparked a comprehensive initiative, Apprenticeship in Action (AiA), to enhance our apprenticeship experience for women. I'm proud to share that the rollout, which began in North America four years ago, is now being launched globally. Lori Lepler, BRANDspeak's founder and CEO who helped us drive the effort, says,"Many of the cultural norms at BCG reflected the people -- largely men -- who had built the firm. The company's leaders stepped back and dove into the issue with the same rigor they apply to their clients, which resulted in some very powerful changes."

We found that the AiA program resonated with men as well as women, and we have expanded it to improve the apprenticeship experience for both genders. In particular, men at the firm have applauded the shift in our performance-evaluation process. While we still identify areas in which a consultant might need to improve, we take a more balanced approach by focusing equally on developing strengths. My colleague Michelle Russell, a BCG partner who leads the Women's Initiative for North America, notes, "What started out as an effort to address gaps in the experience for women has raised the collective apprenticeship focus for all. The engagement from men across the firm has been critical to our success."

While upping the support for women within the firm has been invaluable, we have also taken steps to help them balance their life outside of work. This includes well-established flexibility programs -- from part-time models and sabbaticals to flexible-leave programs that allow employees to take a break from work for up to two months while still retaining their company benefits. Though these options can often help women as they manage family or personal demands, they also allow our people to pursue their passions. Among other things, women at BCG have taken leave to work on political campaigns and to study microfinance in Africa.

As our Paris-based BCG partner Stéphanie Mingardon tells it, flexibility has been a key factor in her success. Stephanie worked part-time when she was pregnant and took a leave of absence after the birth of each of her children to focus on her family. She also took an 18-month secondment in the hotel industry and a one-year, temporary transfer to the New York office to deepen her expertise in the finance industry.

Now working full-time while raising three children, Stéphanie says, "I am still very excited about my job, mobilizing my teams to bring the best of BCG to clients. And when I get home, I realize how lucky I am to be able to combine this work with the fulfillment I get from being a mother. Raising my family has become my foremost priority, and BCG has provided me with the flexibility I needed to do it in my own way."

As we saw with our AiA initiative, flexibility programs are being embraced by men and women alike. That, in turn, has allowed us to build a BCG workforce filled with the best people from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences--something that my colleagues and I and our clients greatly value.

Rich Lesser is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the world's leading management consulting firms.