4 Things You Gain When You Leave Your Comfort Zone
By Simon Sprague
My Year Abroad in BCG’s Ambassador Programme
Looking back at the five years I have spent at BCG thus far, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel extensively. I’ve seen some incredible places, had experiences I never thought I would, and met a diverse array of people—both BCGers and those I’ve worked with as clients. In 2016, I was lucky enough to be given the chance to transfer offices from London to Summit, New Jersey for 12 months as part of BCG’s Ambassador Programme. Now that I’m back in London, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience and it is fair to say that it was a period of great renewal for me, both personally and professionally.
I had previously lived on the West Coast during my pre-BCG life as a chemist, but living in the heart of Manhattan and working across the US was a totally new experience. Despite being a born-and-bred Londoner, I had never previously lived in the centre of a city. Living in Midtown NYC brought filled my life with hustle and bustle, excitement, and lots of bagels.
My host office for the year, in New Jersey, could not have been more welcoming; they embraced me with warmth, generosity, and enough fake British accents to bring a tear to Dick Van Dyke’s eye.
While the New Jersey office is considerably smaller than the London office, I was amazed—and reassured—to find it imbued with the same values characteristic to BCG and a supportive, nurturing culture. One New Jersey tradition has stuck with me: when travelling either for work or pleasure, folks would send photos of themselves to the office email list with the hashtag #NJYanywhere. Many of the best photos adorned the office walls. My team’s contribution, taken on a case working with a pharmaceutical company in the Caribbean, shows palm trees and blue skies just yards from a large manufacturing plant we were supporting with an Operations transformation project.
As well as living and working in a new place, I was able to travel widely and experience the best that the US had to offer during my annual leave, from being drenched by a breaching humpback whale in Alaska to snorkelling in fish-laden crystal clear waters in Hawaii, and witnessing the Thanksgiving parade in New Orleans. I like to think that even though I am back in London, a little piece of me is still in New Jersey; a little piece of New Jersey has certainly stayed with me.
Working in a different geography exposed me to a range of different case experiences, and stretched me in ways I didn’t know possible. While I tend to focus on operations work in London, my year in New Jersey exposed me to diverse experiences: from rethinking the infrastructure strategy for a major telco to marketing a rare disease treatment for a global biopharma company. My experience in telco made me feel like I had started a new job altogether—the content was almost totally alien to me, yet the structure and approach seemed vaguely familiar. With the support of an expert Principal, I rapidly got up to speed and was soon discussing the merits of different types of fibre optic. This situation made me think about how I support my teams when they are new to content that is very familiar to me, and I’m now building a pack of materials to help them get up to speed when they join one of my teams.
Moving to New Jersey also meant that I was part of a different regional system (North America rather than Western Europe & South America), so the content I was exposed to was radically different—at regional Operations meetings I heard about our work with automotive and industrial goods clients, plus some fascinating work completed for US city and state government. These experiences complemented my exposure to Operations in Europe and showed me first-hand the sheer breadth of work within Operations that BCG is involved in.
Such a diversity of case experiences was particularly important given that I was promoted from consultant to project leader over the course of the year—arguably one of the biggest changes in role within the BCG career progression. Being exposed to a range of industries, types of work, and management styles provided me with new perspectives to help me shape my own style. I think working on cases where one is unfamiliar with the content can be extremely liberating; rather than falling into a role as an expert, you are growing not only in knowledge but also by being forced to stretch managerial muscles in a new way, which might not be possible for someone who has specialised within a particular industry or topic.
While I had had the chance to work with some incredible teams prior to my year away, my network was inevitably rather concentrated in Europe. Moving to New Jersey for a year exploded the size of my network. Suddenly at global meetings I found that I knew more of the faces, and many of them knew mine. These days when London colleagues are transferring to one of our US offices, I often find I can put them in touch with one of my contacts to help ease their transition.
My time away has also given me the space to reflect on what is really important to me within my career at BCG. I have reflected on new ways of making what is by any measure an intense job, sustainable. I have started scheduling time for myself within the working week and making sure I make time for friends and family. I recently took a four-month Leave of Absence using BCG’s flexible working arrangements that included time for reflection and relaxation, which has done me the world of good. I have started focusing on supporting and developing those around me—including, but not exclusively, those in my immediate team.
With these new priorities and clarity on what is important to me, where once I saw a job I hoped I might do for a few years, now I can see a career. I’m not sure what the future holds, but whatever it is, my period of renewal in New Jersey has irreversibly shaped its path.
About the Author
Simon Sprague is a Project Leader at The Boston Consulting Group