Companies & Industries

Breaking the Mold with Jeanie Duck


Jeanie Duck has the distinction of being the first person ever hired by top-tier consulting firm Boston Consulting Group directly as a partner (all other partners had been promoted from within before she joined in 1988). Someone who scores such a prestigious position must be a finance whiz with an MBA from Harvard or Wharton, right?

Wrong. Duck was a sculptor, with a masters degree in arts education.

A self-described "numbers phobe," Duck thinks a little differently than consultants with more conventional pedigrees. It follows, then, that the Alabama native, now a senior vice president, has become BCG's guru of something called change management. She's no stranger to change herself, having pursued several different careers before landing at BCG. Among them: Fine arts teacher, education supervisor, and bank training manager.

It was while running her own firm -- Jeanie Duck Consulting in Minneapolis -- that she caught the attention of BCG's Carl Stern, now the firm's chief executive. Duck was one of several consultants that an electrical equipment supplier had hired to work alongside BCG. "I was the only one who was talking about how the beliefs and behaviors of the organization had to change if the company's strategy was to be successful," Duck, 56, recalls.

Duck's take on how to successfully make changes in an organization -- namely, that corporate chieftains must learn to deal more effectively with the people who both implement and undergo the change -- is outlined in her book The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation & Change (Crown Business, 2001). She talked recently with BW Online's Eric Wahlgren about her switch from sculptor to high-powered consultant, and her strategies for implementing change in an organization. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:

Q: If you really wanted to break into consulting, how would you go about it when you don't have a business degree?

A: Well, I think you have to ask: What is it that I know something about? And what's the natural market for that? And it might be that you know a whole lot about what really works in manufacturing. And so your client base, potentially, is going to be manufacturers.

Finding people who you trust to give you feedback about yourself is key. You want them to tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are. You need to do a really serious assessment and say: "Okay, out of these possibilities, what are the things that I really enjoy or feel passionately about? What are the skills I could imagine myself spending a lot of time learning to hone and build?" And then, pick your niche.

You want to be competing in an area where you have a chance of success. And the other thing is, you want to have some savings. Because one of the things that I found was that from the time I first met a potential client till the first check cleared was often as long as nine months.

Q: You've made a lot of career switches. Isn't it scary?

A: Well, I think part of it is being okay with being afraid. Because I would say that there are times I've felt like I've spent a lot of my career being terrified. "Do I know enough? Am I competing with people I shouldn't be competing with?" I remember one time I was trying to get a consulting job that involved teaching a bunch of executives how to deal with stress. They were also interviewing an M.D. for the job. And they said to me: "Are you going to tell us that you know more about stress than a doctor?" And I said, "Absolutely not. But I can teach you in a way that you'll remember it." And they gave me the job.

So part of what I realized about myself was that my relating and communication skills were strong, but that I would probably never feel like I had enough content knowledge on any specific thing. So, if I were competing with the doctor strictly on content, I wouldn't be able to compete. I had to compete in a way that I knew I could. When you change careers, you have to know where strengths are and where they will be valuable.

I think that having a good support network, whether it's one person or several, is really important. It's hard to change careers, especially if you're going to go into consulting. In consulting, you are the product to a large extent. And as a friend of mine said, "Self-doubt weighs in at about 9,000 pounds a day."

Q: When you came in at the partner level at BCG in 1988, was there any resistance from other partners or colleagues?

A: Well, it was not only that I was coming in as a partner, but I was also about as far away in profile of the normal partner as one can be. I don't have an MBA. I don't even do numbers of any sort. I just don't like numbers. And so to be in BCG and not like numbers is a big deal. And then to be an artist on top of it, was like, "Could we get anybody more different?"

And I remember at one of my first meetings, I met a guy who said, "I don't understand why you would come when it's so obvious that you're going to fail." Fortunately, he wasn't a partner. He was a manager. And there were many times when I thought, "Thank God I came in as a partner, because if I had to wait for them to elect me, I might never make it."

The desire to conform in an organization is enormous. But if your official position involves being different, then being able to have enough in common so that other people are comfortable and yet maintaining your distinctiveness so that you bring a different perspective, is pretty hard.

There were people in BCG who had a natural understanding of people issues and who knew that was important. So they were excited that somebody who had concentrated on that was available. I would say that BCG has gotten much better at seeing this and knowing it's legitimate and having more and more people spend time developing communication, observation and behavioral skills needed to address people issues.

Q: Was it any tougher because you're a woman?

A: In some ways, I think being female might have helped because being female and southern was sort of like an excuse for "differentness." I was one of maybe five women partners at that time. Five out of 50 or 60. Today, the ratio is still around 10%. Maybe 15%. But not more than that.

Q: If you had to do it all over, what sorts of questions would you ask yourself and other people around you to figure out if you could eventually adapt to this new culture?

A: I would ask things like: "How do people succeed here? How do they fail? Who are your myths or your heroes, and tell me why they're heroes? Have you got any examples of differentness? Who are they? What's your track record on that?"

The other thing I might be asking: "If you were going to tell your best friends how to succeed, what would you tell them?" And then I would suggest trying to find people who would give you early feedback in terms of: "Have I really messed up?"

I also think that watching meetings and listening to who gets what kind of press internally is really important. Because then you get to find out who the heroes are. Who do people talk about? Who do they want to work with? Who are those war stories about? I think these are clues to how you succeed in a particular organization.

Q: We've talked a lot about your own changes. But let's talk a little about your suggestions in your book for dealing with organizational changes. You write that in mergers, restructurings, or privatizations, managers often get the operations side of change down pretty quickly. But they often fail to take into account emotional and psychological issues.

A: It's relatively straightforward to say, "We have to change our strategy. These are the activities we need to do. These are the customers we have to reach. These are the products or service offerings we have to make." So you can figure that out. But if you're talking to salespeople, for example, who make $1 million a year doing a job they know how to do in their sleep, why are they going to jump up and down and get excited to do what you now want them to do? Especially when you're the new guy in charge of strategy, and you're probably not going to stay there for more than a year or two?

In every company, you have people who are very comfortable where they are, thank you very much. And the questions you have to ask are: "Who are they? Do they matter?" If they don't matter, then don't worry about it. But if they're the ones who have to execute, then you've got to figure out: "How to do I get them motivated enough to be willing to change? How do they think about their jobs? And how do they think about themselves?"

What I've seen happen over and over is that the steering committee or the executives or whomever say, "Okay, here's the new plan, and here are the assignments, and it's really clear and it's really logical and you all go do it." And then, a year later, they're really surprised that the results aren't there. And the reason is that people either don't understand it, or they understand it very clearly but they think they're going to lose in this scenario. Or, it's harder for them than they expected, or it looks like the seventh program du jour that they've had to endure during my career.

Q: So, what's the message for managers charged with enacting the change?

A: Part of what you need to do is say: "Who do I need in order to make this successful and what's their profile? Why would they be excited about this, why would they not be? What's in it for them?" And maybe what you want to do is find one or two opinion leaders out of those particular groups and spend time brainstorming with them so that you know ahead of time what their arguments are going to be and what they're going to be resisting.

Hopefully, you'll find out what they get really excited about and you'll know how to position the change for that group. And ideally, those opinion leaders would be ready to be missionaries for you because they've had a chance to think it through, to argue with you, to really start to see the logic and the upside. It's work. And you have to do it. Most people think that they really don't have to do it.

Q: You mentioned that efforts to change fail because leaders are not "aligned," or do not agree with each other and are not committed to the same goals and the approach to reaching those goals. Why do you need alignment and how you get it?

A: Well, what we found to be the No. 1 cause of failure was lack of alignment. And, part of it can be that there really hasn't been enough time or that the executives haven't spent the time hashing out what they're saying or what they're going to do.

You could probably get near anybody to agree that the organization wants to be No. 1. But you may also get: "Well, I didn't know when you said that that it meant you were going to take my R&D budget and give it somebody else." And so, what I think happens a lot is that not enough time is spent saying, "What is it that we really mean here and how's that really going to get lived out?"

You have to deal with it. You have to deal with a reluctant colleague by saying things like "These are your three major objectives for this year, and your entire bonus is going to depend on your supporting this and here's what I expect to see behaviorally." And then you've got to follow up. When executives are not aligned, it's an invitation to mischief.

Q: Any other message out of the book?

A: I think the twin stars of really getting something done are clear accountabilities and rigorous follow-up. Because somebody could be trying and they just don't get it, and all they need is some help or they need some training or coaching. Or, it could be that they don't think you're serious. And, so really following up and seeing what's working and what's not is really important. It keeps the managers engaged.

Something bad is (inevitably) going to happen or something good is going to happen. Also, if you aren't engaged and something good happens, you miss the potential leverage that that good event has. When managers aren't engaged, they don't see the opportunities and threats. They aren't able to use them -- or mitigate them.


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