When Bridgespan’s Tom Tierney Was Told He Was Crazy

Former Bain CEO turned do-gooder speaks at Harvard's commencement

“All resumes have a backside, if you will. That backside is the real you, all in. Your dreams, your struggles, your love, your fears. Your failures, shortcomings, anxieties. Your spiritual and physical self. The front of your resume is the dressed up, public you, customized for employers; the back side it the private and comprehensive you, often hidden, occasionally ignored.”

When Thomas Tierney decided at the age of 45 to quit his job as chief executive of Bain & Co. in 2000 and co-found a consulting firm for non-profit organizations, people thought he was out of his mind. And when they heard he would make all of $1 a year as the non-executive chairman of the four-person firm called Bridgespan, they thought he should be committed.

“Most people,” recalls Tierney, “thought I should have my head examined. Many of my colleagues referred to my ‘retirement’ as if Bridgespan would be some sort of hobby, like golf or fly fishing. Two Bain partners, close friends, privately asked me if my health was okay. It was the height of the dot-com boom, and I actually had a headhunter call me an ‘idiot’ because I wouldn’t consider moving back to California to run a high-flying internet company.”

Undaunted, Tierney, still chairman of Bridgespan, forged ahead to help create the world’s premier consulting outfit for the social sector. His observations about that time and the rest of his life—culled from a personal journal with more than 2,500 pages of recollections—were shared today (May 25) with Harvard Business School’s Class of 2016 on the occasion of the school’s Class Day.


Tierney, whose first job was working as a bus driver, spoke about the years in which Bain & Co., one of the elite global consultants, nearly went belly up. He also told students that they are not merely building a professional resume as they graduate from HBS. They are building a resume of profound experiences, struggles to overcome, battles to be fought.

“It is far more important to build a life than a resume,” believes Tierney. “We are defined not just by our accomplishments, but by our commitments. over time, our commitments—both professional and personal—become our life’s purpose.”

Toward the conclusion of his speech, Tierney shared a journal entry tht he had written at the age of 26, a few weeks before he graduated with his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1980.

“Harvard,” he scrawled, “is transforming me into a fast track type. I have retained my identity and my grass roots values, but I can see that this education and my talent for leadership will catapult me to new horizons. HBS has opened my eyes to my own potential, thereby magnifying my ambitions. I now realize that to accomplish any sort of meaningful social change, I must embark upon the fast track path but I muse be careful to remain grounded in my beliefs of equality and social justice.”

The transcript of his entire inspiring speech follows:

Bridgespan's Tom Tierney

Bridgespan’s Tom Tierney

Today, I want to share with you two personal life stories That frame what I call the question.  My hope is to prompt reflection and perhaps, in some modest way, be helpful to a few of you.

In preparing my remarks, I reviewed a number of your resumes.  You are an amazingly talented and accomplished group.  I could learn so much from you.  But your resumes are incomplete.  All resumes are like that ― they have an inherently “up and to the right” characteristic.  A constant piling on of evermore-impressive accomplishments ― accomplishments like graduating from Harvard Business School.  A well-crafted resume can make individual achievements look so flawless, so linear, so inexorable.

Maybe that’s actually been true for some of you, but I doubt it.

All resumes have a backside, if you will.  That backside is the real you, all in.  Your dreams, your struggles, your love, your fears.  Your failures, shortcomings, anxieties.  the health of your relationships with your spouse, family, friends ― with one another.  Your spiritual and physical self.  The front of your resume is the dressed up, public you, customized for employers; the back side it the private and comprehensive you, often hidden, occasionally ignored.


My own resume, for instance, fails to mention that my dad worked in a manufacturing plant, and when I graduated from UC Davis, my first fulltime job was working as a bus driver.  This was after I opted not to pursue a position in the K-Mart management training program.  my resume does note my time as a “field engineer” in Arzew, Algeria — but it does not describe my incredible anxiety about being utterly unqualified for the job:  in fact, I’d dropped out of my engineering major, and my prior international experience was limited to four hours with my family in tijuana, mexico.

My resume proudly proclaims that I graduated from HBS in 1980.  It most certainly omits my deep concern about being unqualified, and possibly failing ― especially since I was using my life savings to pay for HBS.  To this day, I’m convinced that I was accepted here only because admissions thought I was Algerian.  APPLICATIONS FROM NORTH AFRICA WERE DOWN THAT YEAR.

The front side of my resume also disregards a profound truth: my HBS experience opened my young eyes to a world of possibilities which I could not previously have imagined — and gave me confidence that maybe, just maybe, I could do something a little bit special with my life.

Which brings me to my two stories.  Both of which are from the backside of my resume — and involve intense personal struggles.


My first story is about a dumb decision.  It involves Bain & Company.

I joined Bain in 1980 with the intention of staying for two years. Just two years. I saw Bain as a sort of finishing school where I would work hard, learn a lot, and build my resume. I loved the people, The entrepreneurial culture, the meritocraCy, the pragmatic focus on delivering results.  Bain probably had about 100 employees at the time.  It was so intensely private that we were forbidden to discuss our clients with anyone outside the firm — even family members.  Fortune Magazine referred to Bain as “the kgb of consulting” and “too hot to handle” ― which we took as compliments.

A decade later I was  still at Bain — and still planning to  leave within two years.  i was an energized, rather rambunctioUs, young partner, managing the San Francisco office, and truly enjoying myself.  From my space on the 34th floor of Embarcadero Center, I could actually look cross the bay and see the Colgate-Palmolive factory where my dad had worked his entire career. Apparently, I had arrived.

But things were not as they seemed. In reality, Bain was facing a devastating crisis that would turn my world upside down.

Bain’s problems were largely self-inflicted.  A debt-laden financial structure, highly controlled decision making, and poor succession planning had culminated in a downward spiral.   There were painful layoffs, a reorganization, cost cutting. Bain stumbled along until Mitt Romney courageously left his role leading Bain Capital and stepped in to restructure the firm.  By mid-1991 the financial ENGINEERING was essentially complete, and a new partnership was formed.  Yet, the downward momentum persisted — and the remaining debt payments loomed large in the years ahead.


The entire crisis had caught me flat footed and unprepared ― like being blindsided by a drunk driver. I felt confused and trapped.  Do I forge ahead or accelerate my exit plan? On one hand, I loved the company, had deep commitment to my colleagues, and my leadership ideals encouraged me to solider on. On the other hand, I’d never imagined being a career consultant, and I certainly didn’t want to spend years of my life trying to help resuscitate a dying business.  We had a young son, another on the way, a mortgage, bills to pay; and my career aspirations extended beyond Bain ― I dreamed of being a dynamic corporate CEO or perhaps even starting a company. More Resume building.

I finally concluded that I simply could not, in good faith, leave my post during a crisis. But when Bain stabilized — as soon as I could look myself in the mirror and say I’d done my duty to the best of my abilities — I would exit to pursue other opportunities. The moment the time was right, I would move on.

And then, in another entirely unexpected and shocking turn of events, I was asked to run the company, to re-up, big time.  To take over from Mitt as he transitioned back to Bain Capital. This was one future scenario that I had not contemplated. I was 38 years old.

What should I do?  The smart answer, from a rational point of view, seemed inescapable: I should respectfully decline.  I did not want to uproot my family, to leave my beloved California and move to boston.  I had no intention of remaining in the consulting industry.  I had zero turnaround experience — had never run anything beyond a single Bain office and many of my partners were understandably ― and loudly ― critical of my qualifications.  If financial trends continued, Bain was almost certainly in a death spiral: talent leaving, clients defecting, new business drying up, inevitable rounds of cost cutting.  a highly respected investment banker bluntly told us that he believed the firm had less than a five percent chance of surviving.  five percent.  So much for my up and to the right career.

If Bain collapsed on my watch, i would be held accountable for an historic and headline-grabbing failure.  i could visualize the quotes “tierney tried really hard, but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t the right person for the job.”  It made no sense — absolutely no sense whatsoever — for me to double-down on Bain.

Ultimately, I made the dumb decision: I said “Yes.”  To this day i’m not sure why.  Was it the challenge?  Ego?  Naïve confidence?  A sense of duty?  Instinct overpowering logic?  In any case, I became president of Bain and subsequently Managing partner.  My family relocated from California to Boston, and I put my shoulder to the wheel.


Then, of course, the situation got worse.  Revenue continued to decline, turnover accelerated, cash flow dwindled to exremely dangerous levels.

Through all the turmoil, a single image kept me grounded and motivated: I imagined a day in the future, sitting down with my two sons, having to explain that yes, your dad used to run a firm called Bain & Company.  it doesn’t exist anymore.

No way.  No way.

Dumb decision or not, I promised myself that I would not give up.

Business stories often have unhappy endings, but in this case, the new Bain partnership rallied and after a few years our turnaround became turbo charged, a minor business miracle and a testament to the strength of bain’s core culture and capabilities.  Bain once again became a fast-growth, prosperous, high-impact firm; and a fabulous place to work.  today, two decades later, the firm is dramatically stronger because of that crucible.

Although I’ll never know the path not taken, it seems my dumb decision turned out okay, mostly because i was surrounded by amazingly talented people.  When I stepped down in 2000, our debt was paid off and my successor was well positioned to succeed.

What did I learn from this struggle? and how did it add to the backside of my resume?

The biggest events of life are often unpredictable and uncontrollable.  The best you can do is to try to keep a clear mind and a steady hand.  and do the right thing, whatever that means to you, despite the odds.

It’s not about me.  It is natural for ambitious and competitive people who want to succeed to view big decisions as vehicles for their own objectives. for Their resumes, so to speak.  yet, struggling with the decision to double down on Bain ultimately led me to understand that my job was truly to help other people — our partnership — to succeed.  I could bring strength and fierce resolve to every interaction.  but My purpose was to serve in pursuit of meaningful goals.  Team goals.  Organizational goals.  ambitions that extended beyond my personal horizons.  It was not about me.

It is far more important to build a life than a resume. We are defined not just by our accomplishments, but by our commitments.  over time, our commitments — both professional and personal — become our life’s purpose.  my commitment to lead bain was ultimately a decision about the kind of life i wanted to lead, the kind of person i wanted to be.

Which brings me to my second story ― and another dumb decision. .

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had inside me a desire to make a difference in the world.  As much as I loved business and loved Bain, I felt pulled toward public service, an interest which manifested itself early on in my bain years through a range of pro bono projects, volunteering, and serving on nonprofit boards.  I learned a lot about the social sector and how to be helpful.  I even imagined myself launching a “make a difference” company — although I had no idea what that might mean.  The phrase social entrepreneur had not yet been invented.

Even during the most intense periods of the Bain turnaround, I could not shake my attraction to the social sector.  After a few years, as the firm resumed growth and profitability, I began analyzing social sector trends and brainstorming possibilities.  My thought partner and ultimate co-founder was Jeff Bradach, a Bain alum from my      San Francisco days and an associate professor here at HBS.  We had no clear goals but shared a passion for social impact and the nonprofit space.

Our quiet little collaboration ultimately gave birth to the business plan for The Bridgespan Group.

In late 1999 my vague notion of a “make a difference” company became a reality.  Bain’s worldwide organization received two communications — both surprises.  One message described the launch of Bridgespan, the other said that I was stepping down after eight years as chief executive.


After deep, personal reflection, I’d finally decided to say goodbye to my 2,200 Bain colleagues, my leadership role, the prestige, the compensation — to help start a four-person, unproven, nonprofit organization, and to do so as non-executive chairman, earning exactly one dollar per year in compensation.  I was now 45 years old.  In my prime.  None of this was rational, especially after all the pain of rebuilding Bain. My career repotting was an unnatural act, but to me it made all the sense in the world.  Grammar aside: I could not not do this. It was about building the life I wanted, not building my resume.

Bridgespan is designed to help nonprofit organizations and philanthropists achieve breakthrough results — while at the same time developing ideas — applied knowledge — that could be useful broadly across the social sector.  Bridgespan is a Combination consulting firm, research institution, and teaching vehicle.  A nonprofit itself, Bridgespan serves leaders, Ngo’S, and caUses that would not typically have access to premium professional services, customized to their needs.  it PURSUEs impact, not profit.  Bridgespan was incubated at Bain and then spun out as an independent entity — much like had BEEN done with Bain Capital fifteen years earlier.  It made so much sense to me.

But most people thoughT I should have my head examined.  Many of my colleagues referred to my “retirement” as if Bridgespan would be some sort of hobby, like golf or fly fishing.  Two Bain partners, close friends, privately asked me if my health was okay — there must be something wrong.  Why else would I quit?  It was the height of the dot com boom, and I actually had a headhunter call me an “idiot” because I wouldn’t consider moving back to California to run a high-flying internet company — which, by the way, later crashed.  a wealthy private equity investor asked me how much equity i was getting in bridgespan — when i explained to him that nonprofits don’t actually have equity, he walked away utterly perplexed.  Seasoned executives told me to earn money now and save the do-good stuff for later.  I was destroying my resume. What a dumb move.

The intense negative blowback really rattled me.  Stopped me in my tracks.  Perhaps I should pursue another big job, earn big money, put my social sector plans on hold.  Perhaps this time I really was making a dumb decision, my heart overriding my brain.

Thank goodness, family came to my rescue.  My wonderful wife, Karen — we are married 32 years this year — kept urging me to follow my dreams, my passion, to live the life I was meant to live — everything would work out one way or another, and that i’d be a better father for  my wonderful sons Colin and Braden. They mattered a million times more to me than my career.  my loving family kept me grounded and clear minded.

A cadre of exceptionally wise individuals, beginning with John Gardner, counseled me that at the end of one’s days, nothing matters more than family, friends, and whatever little bit you’ve contributed to help make the world a better place.

Social sector leaders, including Bridgespan’s caring donors, embraced me.

All these people gave me courage.  Churchill famously said that ‘fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.’ i decided to dive in, all in, and never once looked back.

Fast forward to today:  I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.  I’m able to work with incredible social sector leaders, outstanding philanthropists, amazing colleagues — all with the ambition to help make our world a better place.  What a life gift.  What a blessing.

What did I learn from this second struggle?

Once again, life is unpredictable and uncontrollable;  real success is not about me; and it’s far more rewarding to build a life than a resume. Life is much grander, more significant.

Resumes capture what we are paid to do — but by far the most essential and fulfilling dimensions of life do not come with a paycheck.

I now deeply appreciate the personal fulfillment, the energizing passion, the soulful satisfaction of serving others.  Of dedicating oneself to meaningful causes — no matter what sector or situation.


All of us are different.  We encounter different challenges and opportunities along our life’s journey.  We’re conditioned to pursue an up and to the right career path — to build a resume.  Organizations develop us to be “on track” — on track to the next promotion, on track to an exciting assignment, on track to the big bucks.  But whose track are we on, really?  It is our track or someone else’s?  Do we like where the track is leading us?  Do we even know where the track is leading us?

Which brings me to my final remarks and THE question.

Einstein asserted that questions are more important than answers.  When I was younger — especially being a strategy consultant — I concentrated heavily on the answers.  Nowadays, I reflect mostly upon questions.

So I have THE question for you.  I call it the question because it’s so all-encompassing.  the one we can ignore but not escape—a question that sooner or later defines us.

Here it is: “What is success in life — your life?”  Both sides of your resume.  all in.  Not just narrowly defined success Based on what you are paid to do.  What about success in marriage?  success with family? in Friendships?  Contributions to society, what you give back?  Your humanity?  Your physical and emotional health?

Success in life has no  formula.  But if you ignore the question — or push it off until tomorrow — if you fall victim to inertia, to others’ expectations, to endless pursuit of more, up and to the right at all cost — you will underperform your destiny.  You may look great on paper, but you will not look so good in life.

As you confront the question, you will struggle with impossible tradeoffs and complicated decisions.  But you will inevitably make choices — thoughtful choices, intentional choices — about what you do and don’t do, about how you spend your precious time.  the compounding effect of those choices, over time, will become your special, one-of-a-kind life.

today, assembled here together, these life adventures and a range of unforseen decisions await you just over the horizon.  How exciting!

HBS is a phenomenal launching pad.  In fact, I know exactly what I was thinking when I was sitting on that launching pad some 36 years ago.  I know because — since my time in algeria — I’ve kept a journal.  It is now probably over 2,500 pages. The stories I told you today are not just based on spotty memories — they reflect countless journal entries, spanning my fears and struggles during the bain turnaround, to my dream of a “make a difference” company.

one observation: all kinds of things could have turned out differently.  i’ve been very lucky.

but, You know what’s even more amazing?  During all these decades, I’ve been pretty much been myself.  turns out: i am who i am.  and As long as I stayed true to who I am, as long as I tried to live my life my way, things seemed to more or less work out.  the same will be true for you.  reminds me of that oscar wilde quote: “Be yourself.  Everbody else is taken.”

let me conclude with a brief Tom Tierney journal entry, age 26, a few weeks before graduation from HBS.  quote:

“Harvard is transforming me into a fast track type.  I have retained my identity and my grass roots values, but I can see that this education anD my talent for leadership will catapult me to new horizons.  HBS has opened my eyes to my own potential, thereby magnifying my ambitions.  I now realize that to accomplish any sort of meaningful social change, I must embark upon the fast track path.  But I must be careful to remain grounded in my beliefs of equality and social justice.”

You are an extraordinary class, a community of extraordinary individuals with more potential in life than you may fully imagine.  May each of you succeed in your own special life — keeping your eye on both sides of your resume — and staying true to who you really are.

Thank you.