Elizabeth Spaulding, Partner; Leader of Bain’s Digital Practice

There’s a fascinating mix of continuity and dynamism about Elizabeth Spaulding. Continuity, because she’s been at Bain & Company for 20 years, joining the firm straight out of Stanford University. Dynamism, because she’s taken on a myriad of roles during her career and has risen to hold a place on the board as well as leading the firm’s global digital practice – advising clients on the fast-moving business of managing their digital transformations.

She certainly has no regrets about joining Bain all those years ago, being attracted to the firm by the rich variety it seemed to hold. As she reflects, “At the time, popular jobs coming out of school were investment banking, consulting, maybe to some extent more entrepreneurial things but that era hadn’t fully taken off yet. What appealed to me about Bain was the diversity of topics and projects. My own background studying engineering and French at Stanford probably demonstrates a passion for lots of different things, so that was really appealing to me. It was about the breadth and diversity, and the global nature of the firm.”

Female role models showed anybody could be in one of those jobs

This global nature was something she quickly experienced, being seconded to a client for six months within two years of joining, before transferring to Bain’s Paris office for a year and then taking on assignments everywhere from Silicon Valley and London to China and Singapore.

So, is she surprised that she is where she is today? “Yes and no,” Spaulding muses. “I probably didn’t expect to be playing the specific role at Bain that I am. But in terms of being both a partner and a general manager of a portion of Bain, I think that was probably my aspiration at the time.”

Drawing the boundaries – while also ‘leaning in’

If this makes everything sound like plain sailing, it becomes clear on talking to Spaulding that she’s had plenty of challenges to deal with along the way which she has overcome in a remarkably thoughtful and balanced way.

Interestingly, her story is not one of encountering gender bias or obstacles through her early career and onwards. Indeed, she makes it very clear that the culture at Bain is strongly rooted in meritocracy. “I had very little awareness or concern around things such as gender bias early in my career,” Spaulding recollects. “When I was promoted to manager and then partner, there were female role models that were in those positions and it showed that anybody could be in one of those jobs.”

For her, the challenges have been more around finding the right balance and ‘drawing boundaries’. With two young children, now aged 8 and 10, making the most of those special moments – even the simple things like dropping them off at the school bus in the morning, being at home with them for dinner in the evening – is precious.

“You’ve got to create really clear boundaries for yourself that create sustainability,” she says. “It’s about knowing what really matters to you and protecting it.”

Only change one big variable at a time!

But that definitely doesn’t mean not engaging with your career. On the contrary, Spaulding is a powerful advocate of “taking risks and leaning into opportunities”. If it’s about drawing boundaries, it’s just as much about pushing them too.

“People sometimes talk about imposter syndrome – the notion of being in a role and whether you’re really meant to be in it. Everybody probably naturally experiences that feeling sometimes. I think you’re probably much more likely to experience that if you really lean into something that is pushing your boundaries. If you haven’t experienced it, then you’re probably not pushing yourself,” she reflects.

And it’s here that we come to what Spaulding believes is one of the key differences between women and men in the workplace. Men are more likely to be comfortable improvising their way through unfamiliar situations, while women often think they need to be an expert before taking a seat at the table.

Or, in Spaulding’s words: “Younger men appear to be more open-minded about not having the expertise and figuring it out as they go. Whereas women really want to be able to say ‘I’m ready, I’m capable’ and actually sometimes it’s just the opposite; you should be leaning in and saying ‘You know what, I don’t know exactly how to do this but I’m going to figure it out and I’m going to surround myself with people who are going to help me do it.’”

You’ve got to keep a toe in

While there’s a lot to be said for getting comfortable with a certain level of discomfort, one of the most striking pieces of wisdom that Spaulding offers in our conversation is the frank advice that people should “only change one big variable in their life at a time.”

She expands: “If it’s the promotion window, really focus on that and create the space for it. If it’s having a child and taking good time off when a child is born or things change in your child’s life, create space for that. Moving any one of those things is just really all-consuming and trying to have two or three things going on at once is always going to be incredibly challenging!”

Another aspect of this measured approach is Spaulding’s view that there has to be a balance between partners at home.

“If you have a family and a career, I do think that the balance probably means one person at a time that is more focused on their career.”

Putting up the scaffolding

Spaulding has practised what she preaches here, with her own husband working full-time up until the time she became a senior partner – since then, he has dialled back and taken a position on a school board as well as being very involved in the local community. “It’s created a really great balance for us as a family,” Spaulding says.

What is also key, in Spaulding’s view, is that if a woman does decide to row back on her career for family or other personal reasons, she should try not to break off completely.

“You’ve got to keep a toe in,” she observes. “Whether you continue to work full-time, or whether you work a three-day week, that’s up to you, but there is just a barrier that tends to be created if you completely step out of the workforce that is quite challenging. I remember myself, just knowing how much I love having a job that’s really fulfilling and wanting to make sure I didn’t create a barrier for myself by taking so much time off that it actually made it harder to re-enter.”

Spaulding also speaks persuasively about the need to “have conviction” and not be afraid to hold back on points of view or opinions. Allies and mentors are important too – which for her range all the way from two senior (male) partners at Bain to her husband and her mother!

Beyond balancing the need to ‘lean in’ with having the home life you want, another aspect that Spaulding feels is essential for any career is to find a sense of purpose.

“A few instances have really re-invigorated this for me in the recent past,” she elaborates. “One was balancing the for-profit work that I do with not-for-profit work, and the answer is being active on a couple of start-up boards which are really mission-driven. Being able to ensure that you’re doing something with purpose is so important.”

While Spalding didn’t feel held back by gendered barriers in her earlier career, the lack of female representation at the highest levels of business is something she’s become more aware of as she’s become more senior. She gives the example of client board meetings she has been in where she has been the only woman in the room. “You have to reflect on what that means, what it means for my daughter, what it means for other women that I work with. This awareness has actually become more important the more senior I have become.”

While there is undoubtedly more to do, Spaulding is relatively sanguine that progress is being made.

“There’s a lot more explicit awareness and desire to create a really supportive environment,” she asserts. “For example, if a woman and her significant other choose to have a child, that first year afterwards is one of the most formative in where they head next. Creating the right scaffolding in that period is so important, vulnerability resources, all of those things have a huge impact on whether or not they are able to really thrive in what they are doing.”

This also extends, she says, to a greater awareness of the importance of diversity in leadership teams – such as at Bain, where it has become a big priority.

Overall, Spaulding says, she feels she has been “very lucky” in working at a firm like Bain that places strong cultural value around meritocracy.

At the same time, though, you feel that Spaulding is a brilliant professional who has very much created and worked for her own luck.