Widely recognized as one of the leading businesswomen in the world, Orit Gadiesh is the Chairman of Bain & Company. After completing mandatory service in the Israeli Army, Ms. Gadiesh received a degree in psychology from the Hebrew University in 1975. Two years later, she earned her MBA with high distinction from Harvard Business School, where she also won an award for being the most outstanding marketing student in her class. Ms. Gadiesh was the first Israeli woman to graduate from HBS. In her 40-year career at Bain, Ms. Gadiesh has worked as a corporate strategist in almost every market sector. She has accumulated endless insights to share with others. Ms. Gadiesh has contributed to the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal. Last month, AFHU interviewed her about her career success and solicited her advice for a new generation of business leaders.
To what personality trait do you attribute your success?
Intellectual curiosity has been very important to my career. It has kept me moving, examining and asking questions. Being curious is better than being comfortable. I believe in going outside my comfort zone and I think women (and men) should push themselves to try different things and learn new skills.
I read more than 100 books per year on topics ranging from fiction, to military strategy and science. I use what I learn in life and am able to apply the knowledge I gain in one area to another. For a long time, I worked in the consumer products sector. I used what I learned there and applied it to the technology and utilities sectors. I was able to connect the dots from what I knew about one business and bring it to another.
What has recently inspired your intellectual curiosity?
The technology revolution is fascinating. It has completely changed the way we think about business and I’ve immersed myself in it. I’ve been visiting China for 15 years and have incorporated what I’ve learned there into how we look at the world. Fifteen years ago, people didn’t understand why I was interested in observing and learning from Chinese strategists and operators. They thought I was crazy. Today they don’t question it. I am motivated by exploring, experiencing and learning new things.
Besides China, where else have you traveled?
I’ve lived in several different countries, including the United States, Paris and London. I enjoy exploring and finding new things. My reading helps me, and I always bring a new book with me. The first thing I do when I get to a new place is to walk into a supermarket or a drug store. By looking at what people are buying, you get a sense for a how a place functions, how people live.
How did the Hebrew University foster your career?
I loved my time there. I studied psychology and received a degree in psychology. The path to business wasn’t exactly clear, but a degree in psychology is one of the most useful things that anyone can have in their skillset. I’m not conscious of how I use it, but I know that I do. I think the Hebrew University is a fantastic place and I keep using what I learned there.
Having received a degree in psychology, why did you opt to go into business?
I considered becoming a professor, but I decided I didn’t want to be in academia. I wanted to be out in the world and to make things happen. After a casual conversation with a friend, I decided to apply to Harvard Business School. There were no stipends for HBS, but I received a doctorate scholarship. [Gadiesh graduated in the top five percent of her class.] After I received my MBA, I joined Bain.
What effect did your experience in the Israeli Army have on your career?
My military experience taught me how to make decisions with imperfect information. I worked for the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Israel Defense Force. I saw people in the war room deal with a lot of data and make the best choices available. The Bain model is similarly more practical and results-oriented than being based on a perfect outcome or theory.
I developed a lot of confidence in the Army. I learned not to be intimidated by people wearing important uniforms.
Describe the impact of the diversity you witnessed in the Israeli Army.
In the Army, I saw people from different cultures and backgrounds come together. It was a fantastic lesson in diversity. Any kind of diversity will give you a better product than you would get from a group of people who come from the same background. Our product is always better because of the diversity at our firm.
Does being Israeli inform your perspective?
My schooling in Israel focused on the history and philosophy of different countries because of the background of Israelis at the time, who were coming from Germany, Poland and Yugoslavia etc. It made education in Israel unique and allowed me to learn about different cultures.
I think I have a certain bluntness and a desire to be practical in getting to where I want to go. People often tell me that “I sound like an Israeli,” not because of my accent but because of my directness. I have heard that many times.
What challenges as a woman have you experienced in your career?
What I did mostly was to use a sense of humor to deflect awkward situations. I also developed little tricks. I realized that whatever was going on wasn’t about me; it was about them or their degree of comfort in dealing with a woman. My responsibility was to make clients comfortable with me, if I wanted to be able to help them.
I was once interviewing a CEO of a steel company and I brought along someone who had just joined my firm. The CEO would look directly at my [male] colleague when he responded to my questions. When the CEO went to the bathroom, I told my colleague to look only at me. “He will get tired of staring at your ear,” I said. After that, he started looking at me directly.
Another time, I was preparing for a meeting at a car company. The guy who was supposed to set up the meeting told me that I was going to be the only woman there. “The guys will be uncomfortable,” he said. And then he asked me if I was going to be uncomfortable. “No,” I answered. I told him to call their assistants ahead of time and let them know I would be there. I never made a big deal about it, but I made it possible for us to have a meeting.
There have been some clients who didn’t want to talk to a woman. But ultimately, it is about delivering the goods and whether you are good or not. It’s a double-edged sword. If there are five men and one woman in a meeting, they will remember the woman. It can be very positive, but you have to be good.
What is the key to longevity in a career?
You have to have people like working with you, and you need to enjoy working with them. I love my job. I have been involved with different technologies and industries and it has kept me moving. It is important to be challenged.
One of the first big assignments I was given at Bain was in the steel industry. At the time, in the early 1980s, the steel industry was an uncommon place for a woman to work. I remember telling Bill Bain, who had asked me to work on the project, that “there were no women in steel.” And then I thought, “wait a minute, he just threw me a ball, and I’m saying the ball is too big? I can do it.”
Since then I have worked in almost every industry. Most of what I do is strategy and implementation, and I have been able to apply my skills to different areas. At the beginning of my career, I was focused on the U.S. and then I became much more involved on a global level.
What does Bain do to support female employees?
The importance of diversity is engrained in the entire Bain leadership. To support our desire to have a highly diversified company, which includes gender equality, we have a structure of mentors and supporters. We approach it strategically. Our objective is being fulfilled in a number of ways and [extends to] recruiting, training and promotion at the firm. It is also reflected in a whole lot of programs, including maternity and paternity leave.
Did you have any mentors?
I learn from people around me all of the time, whether I report to them or they report to me. An important mentor in my life is Bill Bain, who taught me how to listen very carefully to what a person says, or what a client says. He was a great listener himself. I have always gone to Bill whenever I have needed to make a tough decision. He always helped me make a decision rather than to recommend one himself.
What is your advice to women starting out in their careers?
You should try to find something that you like or enjoy. If you like it, you’ll become good at it. And vice versa.