Superconnectors come in all shapes and sizes, but one giant superconnector – in all senses – was also extremely intimidating. Step forward Bruce Doolin Henderson, founder of the Boston Consulting Group, a man I knew at the start of my consulting career, and one of the great influences on me.
Yet he was extremely difficult. It’s customary at funerals to eulogize the deceased. But at Bruce’s funeral the praise was put into sharp relief by some other comments.
The first speaker was Sy Tilles, a BCG veteran and former Harvard Business School professor, who was my boss in the late 1970s. Bruce, he said, “was not always easy to deal with. My vivid recollection is that periodically some brilliant young person would come into my office and say, ‘Do you know what he did to me?’ It was never necessary to ask to whom they were referring.”
George Stalk, another top colleague, said that Bruce “was physically and intellectually imposing. I feared him greatly … I struggled to avoid him in the office.”
My abiding memory of Bruce was at a client conference at Chewton Glen, a country house hotel set in Hampshire’s New Forest. I thought it went swimmingly. But after the guests had gone, Bruce berated us all for the staleness of our presentations. “I was saying all this stuff three years ago,” he declaimed, as if an Ice Age had since intervened. “Haven’t we learned anything new since then?”
Yet Bruce was a terrific superconnector. The Financial Times said “few people have had as much impact on international business in the second half of the twentieth century.” From being a one-man firm, BCG has become one of the two most prestigious consulting firms in the world, with sixty offices around the globe, 7,000 professionals, and revenues around $2.5 billion. Bruce connected a lot of clients with a lot of consultants, some in exotic locations. Above all, for me, Bruce is a stellar superconductor because he linked the worlds of business and business academia, and was the first person to funnel brilliant arts graduates into consulting and business. He hired some of the best professors in Boston and got them to think about business in a way nobody had ever done. He was a magnet for talent and for useful but unconventional ideas. He really did change consulting, business, and the world of ideas.
Bruce proves that you don’t have to be a winning personality or have outstanding skills at getting on with people to be a terrific superconnector. In fact, you can be pretty bad on those dimensions. What you do need, in that case, is the ability to think and act differently and draw together disparate people in an exciting quest — the more difficult the better. If you want to do something badly enough, and it’s worth doing, you’ll have to connect people who are in different worlds. You have no choice. As with Peter Harding (see earlier post), you’ll superconnect by default. Bruce commanded respect through the force of his intellect, his outlandish ambition, and his impossibly high standards. Peter superconnects because his passion attracts people from all walks of life. So networking is about content as well as communication. Connecting is not content-neutral.
If your ideas are strong enough, you will connect. But it helps to remember – the people you connect should be as different as possible. That way, new ideas can collect and collide and change the world. And then it doesn’t matter what they say at your funeral. The important thing is that they are there – and a motley crew. — Richard Koch