By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
A small cluster of stones on Maggie Birk’s desk remind the consultant what she does best.
Responsibility, reads one stone. Emotional expression, reads another. Balance, reads a third.
The stones, tucked under Birk’s computer monitor at Bain’s Chicago office, physically represent her metaphorical rock pile: the natural strengths Birk possesses that make her inspiring to others.
Feeling inspired is often held up in leadership literature as critical to an organization’s success, making the difference between employees who pop out of bed to push through the challenges of the day and those who bury their heads under their pillows in dread. Research has shown that people who work for inspiring leaders are more productive, committed to and satisfied with their jobs, and less likely to think about leaving.
But what does it mean to be inspiring? And how do you achieve it? Among the various models that have tried to crack the code are the rock piles at Bain, a top strategy consulting firm where being inspiring is as much a part of the company’s product as it is a leadership goal.
As part of its internal strategic initiatives, Bain turned its analytical eye inward and took a bottom-up approach to find out what makes people within its ranks feel inspired. The resulting inspirational leadership program, launched among partners and managers in spring 2013 and now being rolled out to all 6,000 global employees, helps employees identify and cultivate their own special sauce.
Strengths-based leadership is not new to Bain, nor is the quest to be inspiring. What is new to the company is the deep dive it took to systematically understand inspiration at a time when the business climate increasingly calls for it.
For a firm that needs to motivate not just its own employees but also the clients they shepherd through difficult business decisions, being inspiring “is not just a nice to have, it’s a have to have,” said Mark Horwitch, the San Francisco-based partner who, along with senior manager Meredith Whipple, sculpted Bain’s inspirational leadership program.