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The Chief Reminding Officer: How Bain & Co. Built a Culture on Simple Cues

How managers at my former employer drive performance — one word at a time.

Bainies Speak a Different Language

Good managers and good coaches have a lot in common.

Both have high standards. They believe a thoughtful, disciplined process drives results. They believe that when you’re doing the right things (as Bill Walsh would say), “The Score Takes Care of Itself.”

I wrote recently that good coaches and managers also believe in the power of purposeful language. They use basic cues to reinforce their standards. Cues are short, meaning-rich words that convey meaning while imposing simplicity.

My previous employer, Bain & Co., is so, so good at this. Bain has a unique dialect, built from simple but meaningful cues, that both distinguish and reinforce its culture.

Here’s an incomplete glossary of “Bain-speak” — the cues that Bain’s strategy consultants learn in their very first weeks on the job and use for the rest of their careers.

“Zero-Defect”

Bain consultants solve hard problems and work with imperfect, messy data. Minimizing mistakes and errors is important. A goof in a model or survey can be “answer-changing”, swinging a recommendation 180* in a new direction. That isn’t fun. Backtracking in front of a CEO during a 7-figure consulting engagement never feels good, especially if your mistake is to blame. With this fear in mind, Bainies constantly “ZD” their work. “ZD”-ing can mean everything from proof-reading a slide to building complex sanity-checks into a financial model. ZD is not only a step in the consulting manufacturing process. It’s a mindset that Bain asks every consultant to adopt. The best ZD-ers cultivate a productive paranoia about their work. “No matter how careful I am,” they say, “I’m going to miss something. It’s my job to scan for that unavoidable mistake and build in checks so I find it before the client does.” That’s ZD.

“Answer-First”

When you don’t yet understand what’s going on, it can feel irresponsible to take a guess at what to do next. But in consulting, this approach is far from reckless. Building and sharing a hypothesis isn’t about pretending to be right before you have all the facts. It’s about making a decision about what matters most in your work. By taking a stab at an answer (any answer!) and then listing “what you need to believe” for that answer to be true, you create a list of factors you can test. This list can help you decide where you should go deep, prevent a ballooning scope, and focus a distracted client on what actually matters. One diligence case I led comes to mind. My Bain team was sanity-checking growth assumptions on a long list of disparate revenue sources for a client. The work could have become unwieldy. But we pushed back. We used an Answer-First hypothesis tree to highlight the most important revenue source. After sharing our tree, we earned permission from the client to spend our time there. The deeper, more focused approach paid off. We not only helped our client spend time on “what mattered”, but also tempered their excitement for an asset that underperformed for its acquirer.

“At-Cause”

Consulting is a hard job. The work is interesting, but the days are long. Every project has moments that are repetitive, stressful, and frustrating. It can be a grind. By the end of my 6-month rotation in our private-equity diligence group (“PEG”), I had found my bottom. I was checking off my days like a prisoner awaiting his release. I felt used up. Exhausted. Every Bainie I know hits a similar wall at some point. But looking back, they also talk about these periods with a strange sort of gratitude. They recognize that managing lows are an important part of a resiliency-building experience. Though it hurt at the time, there’s a certain pride of survivorship. A confidence drawn from two simple choices: First, to not quit. And second, to find the good in a tough situation. This is what being at-cause is all about. It’s professional stoicism. It involves acknowledging the hard times and, instead of wallowing in them, purposefully choosing how to respond and where to focus. Being at-cause, as Kevin Hart quips, is about “being an agent in your own rescue.” It’s about deciding to improve a bad situation or, at the very least, knowing how to stop yourself before you make it worse.

Writing Your Own Shared Language

A shared language like Bain’s doesn’t just appear. There are plenty of companies much bigger, far older, and, yes, more profitable who talk like everyone else. You can’t choose to have a shared language. It has to be built. Over time and through specific choices. When you encounter a high-performing culture that talks a little differently, you can usually trace their dialect back to a few consistent steps.

When you hear Bainies speak to each other, words like ZD, Answer-First, and At-Cause can sound strange; almost cult-like. Are these people trying to sound smart? Or do they just need to get out more?

These aren’t just words. They’re a form of programming. Bits of cultural code that all reinforce the same important ideas.

You belong.

You are part of this group.

This is what we expect from you.

This article is one of several in my series on the Chief Reminding Officer and how great leaders use coaching, recognition, and repetition to build great teams. Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

I help small technology companies build stronger teams and make the most of their growth opportunities.