26 May 2016

Distinguished Alumnus Tom Tierney (MBA 1980) Addresses Harvard MBA Class of 2016


Tom Tierney
Photo: Susan Young


1976 Receives BA, economics, with highest honors, University of California, Davis

1976 Joins Bechtel International, Field Engineer, Algeria

1980 Earns Harvard MBA with distinction

1980 Joins Bain & Company management consultancy

1983 Named partner

1992 Named president

1993 Named worldwide managing director

1999 Cofounds The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit consultancy

Thus might begin the glittering résumé of Tom Tierney, the Distinguished Speaker at yesterday’s Class Day ceremony for the Harvard MBA Class of 2016, presided over by student government co-presidents Anya Hayden and Brad Minkow and held on the great lawn in front of the School’s Baker Library/Bloomberg Center.

But résumés tell only half the story, he told the 922 graduates, their parents, families, and friends. “The front of your résumé is the dressed up, public you, customized for employers; the back side is the private and comprehensive you, often hidden, occasionally ignored.”

Tierney went on to add a few facts that aren’t included in his résumé: that he dropped out of his engineering major before switching to economics, that he drove a bus for a time after graduating from college, and that he felt totally unqualified for his job at Bechtel, not to mention Harvard Business School when he arrived in the fall of 1978.

Using himself as a case study of the “intense personal struggles” that, résumés notwithstanding, are a part of everyone’s life, Tierney described his rise at Bain – named a partner after only three years and managing partner in San Francisco four years later – and then the existential predicament he faced in the late 1980s as the firm’s growth stopped, debt piled up, employees were laid off, and the future looked bleak.

“The entire crisis had caught me…unprepared,” he explained. “I felt confused and trapped.” At the age of 38, Tierney, who had never intended to stay at the firm more than a few years before leaving to become a corporate CEO or start a company of his own – “more résumé building,” as he put it – wondered if the time had come to leave Bain.

Instead, he accepted an offer to run the firm and help lead it to a resounding turnaround and recovery. It may have seemed like a “dumb” decision at the time, he said, but I didn’t want to tell my children that their father had been head of an organization that no longer existed.

“What did I learn from this struggle and how did it add to the backside of my résumé?” Tierney asked.

  • The biggest events of life are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. Do the right thing, whatever that means to you, despite the odds.

  • It’s not about me. My job was to help other people to succeed.

  • It is more important to build a life than a résumé. We are defined not just by our accomplishments, but by our commitments.

    Tierney said he faced another life-changing decision in 1999 when he wanted to follow his longtime passion for creating a company that would make a difference in the social sector. And so, to the disbelief of many friends and colleagues, he left 2,200 Bain colleagues and all the prestige and compensation he could ever want to help start, at a dollar a year, “a four-person, unproven, nonprofit organization” that has since bloomed into The Bridgespan Group, now well known for helping nonprofit organizations and philanthropists achieve breakthrough results.

    The key question members of the MBA Class of 2016 face, Tierney concluded, is “What is success in your life?”

    The answer: “Both sides of your résumé. Not just narrowly defined success based on what you are paid to do. 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 at all cost, you will underperform your destiny. You may look great on paper, but you will not look so good in life.”

  • Contacts

    Jim Aisner

    About Harvard Business School

    Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.