Impact on a Large Scale
My name is Noah Stern and I’m 30 years old. I’m from Los Angeles, California, currently living in West Hollywood and I’m a consultant for Bain and Company.
I sort of stumbled into consulting. I went to UC Berkeley for undergrad and while I was there I was pretty active in student government. I really enjoyed that work. It let me help and play an active role with some big decisions and issues facing my college campus community. As I was graduating I was trying to find roles where I could continue having that kind of impact.
I was a political economy major. I was interested in public policy, politics, and economics. Student government allowed me to put those interests into practice. I was in student government, student senate, and I was also student body president. I feel like I’ve gotten to learn about all of these things on sort of a grass roots, community level and play an influential role in the student administration.
One of my peers had gone into consulting. She said it was a career where you can sort of punch above your weight. At a young age, you could have an important role on teams that are advising C level executives of major companies. Getting to work with leading companies in leading industries at a young age and still continue to learn was very appealing to me.
I applied for two jobs when I was leaving college. One was Obama For America Fellowship, and the others were for consulting. I distinctly remember going to the information session at Bain, and having a conference call for the Obama For America Fellowship right before. As I was sitting in the Bain's lobby, I had the conference call and it was all about cold calling and posting flyers. I'm not saying that it's not important work, it is very important and valuable work, but I wanted something that was sort of next level and different from my past epxeriences. More executive. I wanted to have an impact at scale.
When I went to the Bain info session they talked about advising CEOs and solving their problems. That felt a lot more intellectually stimulating and challenging, which I thought would help me learn more. Ultimately, I was lucky enough to get an offer with Bain and that’s the route I chose.
I just like to be helpful. I think a lot of the roles I've taken in my career and the reason I've gone to pursue certain degrees and what not have revolved around being helpful. When I was in college, I wanted to be helpful for the student community. I saw that there were issues that needed to be dealt with so I tried to be helpful. In my role at Bain I work with clients and I want to help them solve their problems.
Helping people really drives me. Sometimes it’s at the very executive level and sometimes it’s just working with clients who are struggling. I don’t like to see people struggling. I want to help them out and help them do better in their jobs.
I had a partner who once told me at Bain, “Our clients are most successful when no one can tell that we’re there.” The goal is not to take credit or get shiny awards, but that we make our clients successful. That’s success for us. That’s something that I aspire to and often do in my own life.
When I was in Bain in San Francisco, I worked primarily in two industries. I did some technology consulting and some private equity consulting. The ethos at Bain is definitely one that encourages people to go to business school. A lot of my peers were applying, and a lot of my bosses haved been to business school. It’s very much part of the culture and graduate school was definitely appealing to me, especially because I didn’t have a business education as an undergraduate. I never took accounting or finance , so there were definitely a lot of business terms I didn’t understand.
At first it didn’t totally resonate with me. I didn’t 100 percent see myself as a business person per say. I still had that political itch, and Bain was really awesome - they let me take a six month role with the United Nations in Jerusalem. So 2 years into my career, I took 6 months off for the externship. Bain let me hold my job to let me do that, which was an amazing and incredible opportunity.
While working with the UN, I was lucky enough to find a role working on an issue that I had always been passionate about. I was working on the Israel-Palestine conflict while working under an office directed by Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom.
That was a pretty unique experience and opportunity. I got to apply the training I got at Bain to an issue I was passionate about all while working with folks who have been working in diplomacy, economic development, and the Isreal Palestine conflict for decades. It was awesome, intellectually and personally being able to come in as a 25 year old and try to have an impact on an issue I'm passionate about.
While I was there, something sort of clicked. I realized that the reason I wasn't excited about the business degree yet, is because something was missing. I did want an MBA, to develop my leadership and management skills, but I also wanted to go deep on issues I found most interesting. I discovered that there are some programs where you could do an MBA with a Master's in Public Policy, and that's what got me excited. So, I applied to 4 business schools (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and UPenn) and only got into Harvard. You only need to get into one for it to work out! I got accepted into a dual degree program for an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a Master's in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.
Growing up I always loved history. I loved reading history books and I loved history class and it was just something that I was interested in. I think it goes back to that desire to help people. How do you help people on a massive scale? I’m not great at tutoring or helping people one on one, and I don’t think I would make a great teacher for groups of 1-20 people. Where I feel most useful is if I’m doing it on a larger scale.
To me, public policy politics is all about how do you create the most help to the most people. Addressing the big nasty problems. Not to say that there aren’t small problems that need to be dealt with, but I feel I can be the most useful where I can help a lot of people with big important problems.
There are two pieces there. I ended up doing a 3 year program and Bain encourages its consultants to pursue business degrees.
They covered 2 years of my graduate school. Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School want folks to pursue dual degrees. They think there’s value to what they call trisector athletes (private, public and nonprofit world). I was actually sponsored for my first year of school by a scholarship from David Rubenstein, so I’m a David Rubenstein Fellow. That covered my first year and Bain covered the rest.
The Bain package is sort of a standard package that everyone gets if they’ve done well enough in their first couple of years at Bain, and the other scholarship that I got was because I was in a unique dual degree program.
I was at Harvard from 2015 to 2018. I started at the Kennedy School, then HBS and then my third year I did electives across both schools. Both programs were fantastic and doing them in an integrated fashion was really valuable. The Kennedy School allowed me to go deeper on the public policy issues I find interesting. I got to hear from world leaders all the time. Leaders from abroad, U.S. senators, heads of state, ambassadors, diplomats, and nonprofit leaders across a wide array of topics.
I was there during the 2016 primaries and elections, which was interesting. The Kennedy School just broadened my aperture on public policy issues, political science and economics. The business school allowed me to get sharper on business issues I didn’t know much about before - accounting, entrepreneurship, marketing, finance and other good topics like that.
The diversity of people I meet across both programs was fantastic. At the business school you have people who are more into finanace, consulting, big corporations, etc. The more traditional capitalists. That's what a lot of folks cared about. At the Kennedy School, you had a broad set of experience - from community organizers to veterans to diplomats. So, it was a whole spectrum of folks from all around the world. I feel like I just interacted with fascinating people who taught me a lot, and I would say probably just interacting with my peers who were sharp, passionate, knowledgeable was the most valuable piece of getting those two degrees.
While I was in graduate school I was dating my then girlfriend, now fiancee and soon to be wife, who was based in LA. A big focus of mine was definitely work, but also to spend time with my fiancee, our families and our friends together. We’re both originally from LA so going home made a lot of sense for me. After I graduated I returned to Bain in Los Angeles. We’re getting married in just under two months and that’s been an awesome part of moving home - getting to spend each and every day with my fiancee.
I’ve been in Los Angeles mostly working in Bain’s utility practice doing a lot of work in the energy sector, which is interesting because it ties my business experience and public policy experience.
A couple valuable lessons I’ve learned and been taught by a number of mentors along the way.
I think my success comes from being committed to that 3rd point. If you’re going to do something, do it well. Don’t give something 50% effort if it deserves 100%. If you’re going to give it 50% you might as well not do it at all.
When I commit to things I like to do it wholeheartedly - academically, professionally, with my friendships, with my work product etc.
I would also say having the mindset of being helpful has really driven me. I’m drawn to things where I think I can be helpful and when I’m not helpful I don’t want to do it. This helps me prioritize.
I also think curiosity is really valuable. I recognize that I don’t know nearly everything and I have so much to learn. You can learn from anything, from anyone and from any topic. If you don’t have a curiosity, you won’t learn from new industries that you’ve never seen before. Academically, you won’t take those classes that might be a little bit outside of your comfort zone and you won’t meet new people. Curiosity really takes you places.
My experience with consulting is that it’s really important to bring humility to your work. So, usually when you work with a client, they know their business best - they know their industry best. I’m not coming in to say I know anything better than them, but just to bring a new set of eyes and skills that I can apply to their knowledge base. The more humility you bring, the more you can really learn from your clients experiences and mistakes, and then use the skills you have to make improvements in their work. Having that humility allows the client to own the solution. If I come in with my own solution and they don’t understand it, or it's not from a point where they can digest it, it's going to fall flat.
In consulting, our work is confidential and we cannot reveal client names or the work we did. With that said, there’s definitely results with clients that I’ve been really proud of. When a client was stuck, whether it’s a challenge or something they’ve never dealt with before, and our team came in and really helped him through that challenge it felt great. On a recent project, we not only helped our client weather a pretty bad storm, but we helped push an industry forward while helping the client succeed.
Personally, I’m very fortunate and proud of my network of friends and my close relationship with my family. I think that’s a major accomplishment I’m proud of.
An accomplishment I’m proud of from graduate school was helping launch a business. A peer of mine developed a technology to help clean grease, fat and oils from sewer water coming from restaurants. He had the idea on paper, but he hadn’t pushed it to prototype and put a formal business plan together. I had done anything entrepreneurial before and because I knew I was going back to Bain I had the flexibility to experiment. I’m really proud that we took that idea, got it off the ground and actually got runner up at HBS’s new venture capital competition.
Another accomplishment I’m proud of was my capstone thesis at the Kennedy School. I partnered with a friend at school and we wrote a piece on how community colleges are an engine for social mobility. Our client was the then Lieutenant Governor and now Governor, Gavin Newsom. The thesis was featured on the community college website and we won an award at graduation. I put a lot of work into it so having it recognized made me really proud.
I think the challenge of staying sharp in and pushing my career forward is something I face constantly. It’s really easy to rest on your own experiences and your own knowledge base and not continue to have that growth mindset and curiosity too. Working in new spaces, learning new skill sets, keeping up with new technology and changes in industry is so important. If you lean on logic collected 2 years ago, it’s out of date. This is the 21st century. So, just constantly staying fresh is always a challenge. Anyone who’s worked in business knows that if you rest on your laurels, you will fall behind.
Right now I feel like I’m in a bit of a crossroads because when I went to graduate school and had Bain sponsor me, I kind of committed to a 5 year plan - 3 years of grad school and 2 years in consulting. I didn’t have to think about career moves in depth during that time. That plan is now coming to an end this summer, so now I’m thinking about my next chapter. I think there’s just a lot of different paths I could go down now and it’s giving me a little bit of stress trying to pick the right one.
The goal that’s guiding me has always been the same. I want to be helpful for a lot of people. I want to be working on big important problems and I want to prioritize my time in that way.
There are definitely some new platforms that are emerging in the management consulting space. Many analyst are now using programs like Alteryx, Tableau and Power BI
Tableau is a tool for data virtualization and visualization. It helps you make dynamic charts, graphs, maps and more.
Alteryx is a tool for rapid repeatable editing of data on larger scales. So things that excel can’t handle.
Power BI is also being used a lot for data virtualization.
In general, consulting remains pretty wedded to Microsoft Office. We live on Outlook and Skype all day long. We also spend a lot of time in PowerPoint and Excel to build presentations and models.
For organization, our teams are starting to use Trello but it’s somewhat early days.
The other thing that’s been revolutionary for Bain is the cloud based authoring and editing through SharePoint. Being able to edit documents in real time makes our teams much more efficient.
If you don’t know how to use Excel or PowerPoint you won’t get very far. These tools are key for consulting and business in general.
I think there’s an opportunity to streamline the inbox to calendar relationship. People have tried to crack this, but I don’t think anyone has. I see a lot of people, including myself, wasting a lot of time scheduling meetings. When’s everyone free? Where should I be? What’s the integrated videoconferencing tool? Scheduling faster meetings and knowing everyone’s availability is still a messy process that executives need assistants to help them process that kind of stuff. Improving digital assistants would be awesome.
Definitely a notebook. There’s something about writing something down that helps you remember it in a different way than when you type it. It also helps you be much more engaged in a meeting. There are a lot of meetings where I feel like it’d be rude to be on my laptop. It’s better to use an old school notebook.
Whiteboards are big in my industry. Sometimes you need to brainstorm as a team, so having a whiteboard handy to collaborate is always useful.
All consulting firms have their own internal IP of prior case work, briefs on industries, briefs on best practices etc.
Finally, a good night of sleep. Sometimes you just need to sleep on it.
Books: Case and Point by Marc Cosentino and Evan Piekara. The book is about how to do a case interview and if you’re planning to apply to a consulting firm, you should read it.
I like books by Philip Roth, who’s often referred to as one of the greatest modern american writers. There are only a handful of authors where I’ve read multiple titles they’ve written, and Roth is the exception – I’ve read 5 or 6 of his books. Any fans should check out The Plot Against America which is currently airing on HBO.
Hidden Brain - This one is similar to Freakonomics, but has a slightly more psychological bend to it.
Pod Save America - It’s from some of the former Obama campaign staff and speechwriters. They do a weekly digest of political activity. Great for the liberals out there.
The Daily by New York Times - Daily news updates which looks at certain news in a bit more in depth.
Resources: My biggest friend, especially when I’m stuck in excel, is google. I just search certain questions I have and there’s usually a blog where someone wrote all about it.
I’ve learned a lot from my supervisors in the consulting world. Bain has very much an apprenticeship model where you learn on the job and your superiors teach you. Same for my peers. I’ve always been in a sort of class of people who have helped me, whether that’s in business school, the Kennedy School or at Bain. Who you surround yourself with is incredibly important. They say you’re the average of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time.
All of my coursework has been in school. The classes that were most valuable to me were ones that partially rounded out areas that I really didn’t know about. For new topics, I’d say in business taking accounting and finance were super valuable. You just need to understand the terminology even if you don’t become an expert.
Entrepreneurship courses are great as well. It’s something that looks unattainable, mysterious or lucky, but there’s actually a science to it. There is a way of thinking about it. So I found courses around that useful if you’re interested in that field.
I’ve also taken some great classes on leadership. I recommend anyone looking for a different perspective on leadership to read any of Ronald Heifetz’s books.
Lastly, I think that everyone should have a basic understanding of Statistics and Economics.
I would say the best way to learn is to get feedback. As you start to mature in your career it’s easy to get blind spots or think that you’re doing something really well when there’s actually a lot of holes in your work. So always asking for and soliciting feedback from supervisors and trust peers is very important. They can bring a fresh perspective to your work and help you realize what you’re lacking.
I’m also working on being more structured and intentional about how I spend my time. It’s important to not get distracted by things that don’t give me energy or fulfillment, so it’s okay to be a little bit more ruthless with my personal calendar in the same way I am with my professional calendar.
Success is working in a field, space or manner that gives you energy. Find something that gives you energy. Build your professional path around that source of energy. You won’t be successful if you don’t enjoy what you do.