Q&A with Domenico Azzarello, EMEA Managing Partner at Bain

02 July 2021 Consultancy.eu 9 min. read
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Domenico Azzarello is the EMEA Managing Partner at Bain & Company, based in Paris. He is responsible for shaping the strategy and leading the operations of the firm’s 21 offices across the region. He oversees the deployment of Bain’s plans, coordinates the regional activities and inspires the firm’s people to deliver sustainable results for clients.

You proudly work alongside your clients to address their most challenging problems. How did Bain’s teams manage during Covid-19 lockdowns?

It certainly came as a shock, there’s no denying that. Before Covid-19, we were travelling a lot and most often working from our client locations, hand-in-hand with them. Very quickly and with little time to prepare, we shifted into working remotely – not only being apart from our clients but also having our own team members split apart. Within two weeks, we shifted to 90% of our projects being virtual.

There were definitely some learnings along the way but the extent to which we were able to leverage digital tools to collaborate with our clients was remarkable. Meanwhile internally our teams came together to manage through each individual’s situation, which for many was quite challenging: lack of childcare, unwell family members, partners working in the healthcare sector as just a few examples. We tried to support each situation on a case-by-case basis to adapt to the individual needs.

Domenico Azzarello, EMEA Managing Partner at Bain

As for our clients, in some case we shifted from our existing work to help them with immediate needs related to Covid-19. After an initial dip at the beginning of the crisis, our business rebounded in quite a remarkable way.

What are the top questions that CEOs are coming to you with these days?

In the immediate term, there are many questions about post-Covid ways of working: we don’t want to snap back to how it was before, but companies need to address anxiety and lack of motivation among employees who are simply exhausted from the past 18 months. The challenge will be to take advantage of what was learned, not go back to 2019 but aim to create new hybrid ways of working to recreate purpose and excitement.

There’s also the key question of the role of the office – how do we make sure time spent there is truly valuable and used for the type of interactions that can’t happen as well via Zoom.

Another big topic, more long term, is sustainability. I think we will look back at 2021 as the year that sustainability took off in the business world. We have been hearing about it for years and momentum has been growing but the so-called ‘sustainability champions’ were the outliers. We might have thought that the pandemic would slow this shift but the opposite has happened and environment, social and governance (ESG) topics are now front and centre in the mind of CEOs, not only in Europe but also worldwide.

In parallel to that but still related, the pace of digital transformation has accelerated. The crisis was a catalyst of sorts: many companies faced unforeseen situations that required immediate digital shifts. But if you think of digital not as an end in itself but as an enabler for broader strategic goals, it’s a critical tool that business leaders cannot afford to pass up.

When it comes to our own business, we are building up our own capabilities in this area and recently opened a new digital innovation centre in Italy following our acquisition of Pangea, an Italian data science company.

When you think specifically about the EMEA region, what are the particularities compared to, say, the US or China? Both on a broad level and for the business of consulting in particular.

It is interesting. When you think about the two areas that I just mentioned, Europe is leading the way when it comes to sustainability. In my view, this is something that we can be very proud of: consumers, companies and governments recognise that this is important on so many levels.

But then you think about digital, and there is still work to be done. Europe shouldn’t be held back when it comes to innovation and I always get so excited when I hear about cutting edge technology being developed by the European start-up ecosystem.

If you think about our business of consulting, our challenge is to leverage our size and scale across the continent while respecting cultures and dynamics that are particular to a country or region. We need to make sure our people learn and develop in a consistent way, while still absolutely reflecting their home countries and backgrounds. We have amazing cultural diversity of our teams within Europe, and this creates a dynamic working environment and helps us be better at our jobs by having a larger variety of experiences and perspectives.

“The importance of technology, data analytics and innovation to all aspects of business today means that we must ensure we have the right specialist capabilities to serve our clients.”

How is Bain augmenting its traditional strategy consulting skillset with digital/analytics?

I spoke before about the tremendous and fast pace of change in the business world, and we ourselves at Bain & Company are in the same boat. The importance of technology, data analytics and innovation to all aspects of business today means that we must ensure we have the right specialist capabilities to serve our clients.

That’s why we have ramped up our expert client delivery teams and specifically our Vector offering, which is an integrated, curated portfolio of digital delivery capabilities that enables and accelerates innovation and transformation throughout client organisations. The Vector ecosystem includes world-class expertise and capabilities in innovation and design, automation, machine learning and data engineering, data science, digital marketing, and enterprise technology.

These areas of specific expertise are no longer things that companies do, they are how companies do what they do. Our offering propels innovation and accelerates transformation by ensuring that the right digital capabilities are at the heart of everything we do. Crucially in our view, it’s not about "going digital." It’s about being digital.

I’m very passionate about this, probably due to my background in tech and telecommunications as well as customer experience: digital transformation combines these areas to achieve results that even only a few years ago were still hard to imagine.

What do you see as the growth areas – either sectors or geographic regions – for Bain in EMEA in the coming years?

Looking at Europe specifically, we recently celebrated the one-year point in the journey of the new Bain Nordics. Our new teammates from Qvartz have integrated into Bain’s four existing offices in the region and we are aiming for leadership in that market with particular expertise in private equity, industrial manufacturing and services as well as retail and consumer products.

When it comes to practice areas, we have been busy across the board from sector-specific work especially in fields going through intense periods of transformation like energy or retail as well as cross-sector capabilities like technology, analytics and of course sustainability. Supply chains have been an area of particular focus as the pandemic revealed fragilities and local sourcing became more important for many industries.

Our business has been incredibly resilient and our clients have never needed us more than they do today. We have been very busy especially since the start of the year and we expect that to continue.

How has Covid changed the business of consulting?

The honest answer is that we are in the process of figuring it out as we speak: as countries slowly start to return to ‘normal’ operations, we need to rethink (again) how to do our jobs. Will we travel as much? Surely not, as we have seen that virtual meetings can work well in many situations.

When it comes to the future of the office, it has always been an important space for us and for our corporate culture which is something we are very proud of at Bain. People see each other, work together, build relationships as a team through informal contacts – not to mention the importance of apprenticeship and on-the-job learning that is so difficult to replicate remotely.

That said, we have long encouraged flexible working as best we could, and we are actively seeking feedback from our employees and from our clients as to what they think the future should look like. At Bain, we want to be at the forefront, working with our clients to develop new working models that respond to the changing needs and expectations of our teams, rejoicing in the opportunity to come back together in person when we can, but also making the most of what we’ve all learned we can accomplish remotely too.

I think that this will be an interesting journey, not without its pitfalls: we, by that I mean Bain and the broader world, all went remote, suddenly and at the same time. But the return to work is much more staggered and with many different plans that vary by country, by industry and by specific company.

From my perspective, I have never been ‘grounded’ for so long in 20 years! Over the past year I have (re)discovered the pleasures of going for walks, meditation and dinner every night with my family.

What keeps you up at night?

In my current role, I work of course with our clients but I am also responsible for the well-being of our employees. We are starting to see more and more the impact that Covid-19 and prolonged lockdowns have had on mental health. At Bain, we have tried to be very open about this, not only to support our colleagues directly but also to teach and encourage our employees to support each other.

It’s been more than a year since ‘normal’, and this is when burn-out happen. I’m acutely aware of this and I really strive to make sure we do the right thing to support our employees. We want our people to enjoy coming to work, to be engaged with their peers and with our clients and to continue to build our remarkable and unique firm culture.

You’re an Italian national, which stands out as there are not many Italians leading a region at tier-one firms. Is there anything particularly Italian about your leadership style?

You’re right I am Italian, but I have lived in France for many years, and I also have German roots: a real European! My colleagues would probably say that I am at my most stereotypically “Italian” when it comes to starting meetings on time – particularly now that I spend some days back in the office it’s been such a pleasure to chat to people on my way to grab a coffee that I am regularly a few minutes late.