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September 18, 2012

MC@Work: Getting to Know Orit Gadiesh

As chairman of top consulting firm Bain & Company, Orit Gadiesh reveals her secrets for succeeding in a mostly male profession — and what former boss Mitt Romney is really like.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Subject

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You were born in Israel and served in the Israeli army as an aide to then Deputy Chief of Staff Ezer Weizman, who later became the nation's president. What was that like?
I worked in the war room bringing messages back and forth. Communications were very different than, say, what you saw with President Obama during the Osama bin Laden operation. We were just listening to walkie-talkies from the front lines. I saw people like the minister of defense and the chief of staff making important decisions without perfect information, which served me well later. I don't think you need to have perfect information to get people to change, which is what Bain is all about. I also learned not to be intimidated by important people. We worked in close quarters, and I saw them falling asleep, needing a cup of coffee. That gave me confidence.

After your compulsory service, you attended Harvard Business School, though you barely spoke any English. Still, you managed to graduate with honors. How did you pull that off?
That first week, I thought I wasn't going to be able to do it, but then I decided I'd never given up on anything before, so I wasn't going to now. My first case study was 11 pages and took me four hours to translate. What took everyone else an hour took me three. During exams, I used to sit in the front row so I wouldn't see everyone finish before me. But I was never shy about asking questions. I was the only woman in my study group, and there was one guy who always used difficult words when he talked. Every single time I didn't understand a word, I'd ask him to explain. But it got much easier the second year.

Early on at Bain, the CFO of a steel company you were advising told you that women were considered bad luck in his industry. You responded that he ought to send you around to all his competitors!
In consulting, it's very important that the client feels comfortable. So you don't get upset — you try to change things. And the best way is with a sense of humor, or with little tricks that I developed on the spot. Once, I was interviewing another steel exec — this was an industry where there weren't women — and every time I'd ask him a question, he'd look at the other consultant I'd brought with me, a guy named Paul. So during the coffee break, I told Paul, "When he asks a question, look at me. He's not going to talk to your ear, so he'll have to look me in the eye and start including me." And that's exactly what happened.

In the early '90s, Bain was on the verge of bankruptcy after several partners cashed out. Mitt Romney was brought in to turn things around. You reported to him. What kind of boss was he?
He was smart, thoughtful; he actually cared about the people he worked with. I don't know how people describe him now, but he was way beyond Mr. PowerPoint. He was negotiating with the banks, and what he did was extraordinary. He did turn the company around.


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