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.
The firm set down the path after reviewing several years worth of the monthly feedback reports it gathers from consultants about how their projects are going. One attribute jumped off the page.
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“What made or broke the vast majority of situations was if the team members felt inspired the whole way through,” said Scott Duncan, a partner in Bain’s Chicago office who co-leads the program here with colleague Katrina Calihan, a senior manager with an advanced degree in positive psychology. “That was the epiphany moment for us.”
Several macro changes are magnifying the importance of being inspirational, Horwitch and Whipple wrote in a white paper. They include: a growing expectation among customers to be delighted rather than just served; employees working more collaboratively and with less supervision; and millennials who are driven more by a company’s mission and values rather than salary and promotion. Bain’s millennial population is pushing 70 percent.
Through a companywide survey that drew about 4,000 responses, the firm identified 32 qualities that make people feel inspired, and calculated that possessing just four or five of those distinguishing strengths, your personal rock pile, makes you inspiring to the vast majority of people. Employees are encouraged to practice those strengths every day.
“The leverage is not in trying to get good at everything,” Horwitch said. “You have to understand that you have an intrinsic set of strengths.”
The strength-based program aligns with a positive psychology movement in the workplace, as well as in schools and clinical settings, that encourages people to bolster the attributes they are naturally good at rather than focusing on fixing their weaknesses.
“One of the things we know is that when things are negative, people see fewer options, they’re less able to problem solve. It shuts down the brain,” said business psychologist Jennifer Thompson, an associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “When people have positive environments, they’re more creative, they’re more productive.”
Gallup research has found that the odds of employees being engaged are 73 percent when an organization’s leadership focuses on the strengths of its employees, versus 9 percent when they do not.
Bain’s research found that a person with none of the 32 qualities has a 50/50 chance of being considered inspirational, but when they have just one strength the chance jumps to nearly 70 percent and when they have four it rises into the mid-80s, Horwitch said. After that there are diminishing returns; the rate never reaches 100 percent.
To help employees drill down to their four or five distinguishing strengths, Bain puts everyone through a daylong training, a self-assessment and peer feedback. Many times people miss their greatest strength or take it for granted, not realizing this thing they do so effortlessly has a positive effect on others, Duncan said.
Once they have narrowed their rock pile to six or seven rocks, employees are asked which skills are the most energizing when they use them.
“If they also give you a boost, those are the things you will feel most comfortable using with high frequency,” Duncan said. Employees walk away with smooth stones that have their core strengths written on them in permanent marker.
Birk, a case team leader with the stones on her desk, said none of hers were revelations, but she hadn’t previously thought of applying some at work. Her rocks include “responsibility,” meaning she takes proactive ownership; “emotional expression,” referring to her ability to freely voice her opinions; and “balance,” referring to her own work/life boundaries and her respect for those of the people around her.
In a high-performing environment where people are accustomed to frequent feedback on where they fall short, the practice of recognizing your own and others’ strengths has prompted people to take advantage of them more, Birk said. She said that when she starts a new project, she lets people know what her strengths are and that she is committed to making good on them.
“You’re always more inclined to shine and make a difference in the places that come naturally to you,” said Birk, 29, who is 2 1/2 years out of Harvard Business School.
Though the company doesn’t have formal data yet showing the efficacy of the program, Horwitch said people who have been putting effort into their self-development are seeing improvements in their upper feedback scores. Bain has also started to offer the system to clients.
Scaling the inspirational training throughout the rank-and-file of the growing organization has been a challenge, but it was important not to limit it to senior leadership, Horwitch said.
“If you wait until they get into those roles, it’s too late,” Horwitch said. “Then they’re playing catch-up.”
It was also important not to make the rocks a part of performance reviews or used as an evaluation tool.
“We’re thinking about it as a seven- to 10-year culture change,” Whipple, co-developer of the program, said. “We’re trying to make it actually be part of everyone’s day-to-day.”
One of the challenges given to employees is to devote five minutes a day to reflect on who on their team could use a boost, track that person down and use a strength to brighten their day, Duncan said.
Duncan, whose rocks include “stress tolerance,” “optimism,” “direction” and “recognition,” said he’s found that the latter _ recognizing people for their contributions, does the most to charge colleagues up.
“If you go just the extra distance and say, ‘You know what, the way you laid this out was extremely impactful to the client,’ you can tell that this person is not only immediately satisfied and happy, but a switch flips in their head,” Duncan said. “They feel better to know that the person they worked their butt off for absolutely recognizes and appreciates what they did for them.”
At the intersection of the 32 inspirational strengths is a core skill Bain calls centeredness, a quality of calm that helps defuse tense situations and keep stress at a manageable level, which everyone is encouraged to achieve.
What about the 28 or so qualities left out of a person’s rock pile? Will anyone care that you’re a great listener if you are terrible at giving direction?
The idea is to ensure relative weaknesses are not detracting from the strengths, Horwitch said. He said he was rated low on focus, and while he won’t strive to be the most focused person in the room, he needs to be aware of it.
“I just have to have the presence of mind to neutralize it,” he said.
What makes someone inspirational?
Consulting firm Bain boiled it down to 32 qualities but found that a person need possess just four or five of these distinguishing strengths to be inspiring to the vast majority of people. All of the qualities feed into a core skill, centeredness, defined as “engaging all parts of the mind to become fully present.”
The 32 inspiring qualities are divided into four categories.
DEVELOPING INNER RESOURCES
CONNECTING WITH OTHERS
Development (assisting others in advancing their skills)
SETTING THE TONE
LEADING THE TEAM