Week One at HBS
September 3, 2012 · Print This Article
I just finished week one in the MBA program at Harvard Business School. I’ve had a long flight out West for Labor Day to write down some reflections.
The immersive experience is truly exhilarating. Everyone is so prepared and intelligent. Sectionmates can hold so much case information in their head at once and then speak extemporaneously on demand. Since everyone is smart and everyone wants to look good in front of their peers, everyone prepares.
The Class of 2014 at HBS has 920 students. There are ten sections of about ninety students each who take all the required classes together in year one and create deep bonds with one another over time. In my section (section F), we have (at least) two Ph.Ds, two attorneys, two MBA/MDs, a Navy officer, an Army officer, a solar energy entrepreneur, a fashion entrepreneur, a guy who ran a hospital, and a nuclear engineer. Not to mention some of the sharpest consultants, investors, and bankers I’ve ever met from Bain, McKinsey, BCG, Goldman, KKR etc.
No matter what you accomplished before school, it’s more or less impossible to bring even a modicum of arrogance into the classroom as everyone is equally as impressive. Around a third of our section is from another country, bringing diversity of thought and perspective. While I’m still getting to know everyone in the section, I know we have classmates from Nigeria, France, Russia, Japan, China, India, Singapore, and Brazil.
The HBS Learning Model
Here, it is cool to be smart. We learn from each other as much as from the professor. The professor becomes a facilitator more so than an instructor. The experience of being in a rounded classroom utilizing the case method with so many other inspiring people is unlike anything I’ve been part of before. Needless to say, I’ve loved the experience so far and look forward to the months to come.
The case method works as everyone in the room is as smart and experienced as you are. There are no laptops. There are no mobile phones. Just eighty minutes of pouring into every detail and taking away the enduring lessons from a complex picture–three times per day. You never know when you’ll be cold called to present/summarize the case to your classmates, creating internal pressure to be ready for your moment. Nearly everyone is present and engaged even if they’ve been up till 3am.
You have to track mentally with each classmate comment in order to be able to be ready to make the next comment though quality of commentary is more critical than quality. A quality comment is one that is relevant and timely and moves the learning process forward in the class. A helpful scribe sits in every classroom taking notes on what was said, enabling later grading of participation by the professor.
Students With Competence & Compassion
HBS has made a concerted effort to bring in people who care about making a difference in the world and building shared value. It’s clear that it is no longer possible to get into HBS without having done something that makes a difference in a community or in the world. The smartest investment banker or management consultant won’t get in unless he or she has demonstrated a desire to serve humanity in some shape or form. I have heard that one the primary admissions criteria for interviewers is simply, “Does this person inspire you?”
After the debacle of the 2008 financial and housing crisis and the relatively high correlation between the graduates of top three MBA programs and the architects of the housing bubble, it is refreshing to see HBS admissions seeking to bring together a body of individuals whose purpose is to change the world for the better. I thought upon arriving last week that perhaps 20% of the individuals I met would express a desire to improve the world. Instead, I’ve found the overwhelming majority of students share this desire and realize the power of responsible business leaders to create sustainable models for building a better word. Here, sustainability has the double meaning of financially viable and environmentally viable.
Bravo to HBS leadership for systematically implementing a structure that brings together some of the most competent, caring, and compassionate people in the world for two years of life-changing and experience broadening peer pedagogy.
HBS appears as much a leadership school as it is a business school. It is a place for future and current leaders to refine their skillsets for building and growing sustainable organizational structures regardless of sector and accomplish much more than they could individually while meeting the people that will help them on their journey to impact the world at scale.
While I cannot properly compare the HBS experience to the Stanford experience, I am impressed so far with the promotion of the study of technology (both in the materials sciences, biotech, and info tech) and entrepreneurship.
A Place Friendly to Entrepreneurs
HBS also has made an effort to attract entrepreneurs. Some of my entrepreneurial friends in San Francisco and North Carolina had a difficult time understanding why I’d go to business school–historically considered the place for the risk adverse. I explained the school recently launched a new Innovation Lab (iLab) with available office space for startups and embarked on a top-led effort to welcome those who have started companies or wish to co-found firms in the future.
HBS also has a number of resources housed within the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, an Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program, the FIELD program in which everyone on campus is required to start a small business in their first year, and a number of second year courses on technology and entrepreneurship. Unlike the past, entrepreneurship is today seen as a legitimate path into HBS and encouraged on campus.
While it will no doubt be challenging for me to balance leading a start-up on the West coast while being in school, HBS makes it as easy as possible. With a strong co-founder and COO running the day-to-day ops in San Francisco, and the ability to check-in around 3pm after classes each day, I know the company will make it through with my focus split for the time being.
While the school has already taught many well-known entrepreneurs and Global 2000 leaders, often it has been the undergraduate Harvard drop outs (Gates, Zuckerberg) who have built the most well-known technology companies. I can only imagine in the years ahead a number of world changing leaders will emerge from HBS with the innovative mindset and business intuition of a Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Musk.
Everything pretty much runs like clockwork at HBS, leaving the student endless opportunities for engagement and learning. Much like a Porter strategy case, the interlocking systems of operational execution and aligned processes for strategic differentiation have been consciously architected.
One suggestion I could make for improvement so far is to have a professor teach a required 80 minute session on the alumni portrait project to help guide us in our first day reflections on “what we wish to do with this one wild and precious life.” The only other recommendation I’d have would be to form a Science and Engineering Club on campus to complement the Energy and Environment Club. I hope to be part of creating this club in the time ahead as I’ve developed immense interest in nanotechnology, renewable energy, robotics and synthetic biology this summer after attending Singularity University’s Executive Program and watching Dr. Jeffrey Grossman’s videos from MIT.
Week One Cases
And then, we have the cases. We have read nine cases so far in four days of classes. The average is 2 or 3 per day–requiring the student to hold immense amounts of information in his or her head and create a mental map for rapid information retrieval and summary of each case.
The cases are 15-25 page documents covering actual historical business situations from the perspective of a main character (called a protagonist) with a handful of tables and exhibits with additional detail. The professor often puts the students in the roles of the case protagonists and at times asks students to role play critical moments in a beautifully improvised learning experience that when done right can be magical.
The initial week cases were selected by the faculty to teach broad lessons while exposing us to entrepreneurship, globalization, marketing, social enterprise, and organizational behavior. In Leadership, we’ve studied the case of Erik Peterson at Biometra. In Marketing, we’ve studied the cases of Snapple’s resurgence under Triarc and Black and Decker’s 1992 decision to brand their high end power tools as DeWalt and give them a distinctive yellow color. In Finance, we’ve looked at arbitration in a Major League Baseball collective bargaining dispute with the Kansas City Zephyrs and evaluated the forecasted financials of a Tanzanian water filter startup.
In START, a two day program for students before the beginning of regular classes, we looked at the Zappos case of building a company with a great culture and focus on the customer experience and the awe-evoking case of a Bangalore heart hospital that provided low cost angiograms and open heart surgeries to tens of thousands of patients and then raised equity financing and scaled globally.
The most compelling moment often comes at the end of class when we are shown videos of what happened after the case (or get to hear from the case protagonists in person themselves).
Just in this first week I’ve picked up really valuable lessons around branding, management, and financial planning. Synthesizing these diverse lessons into a whole picture each week will be an enjoyable experience for me as I grow and learn. Time and again, we’ve learned from the cases (Black and Decker and Snapple in particular) that strategy is a collection of integrated processes that differentiate the company and its products and align internal resources toward becoming the best in the world at providing a particular type of value to a particular type of customer.
In sum, if you have an opportunity to come to HBS, even if it’s for one of the many Executive Education programs, go for it. And if you wish to be a solid candidate for the HBS MBA program in the future, invest just as much time and effort in the work you’re doing to make a positive impact in the world as you are in your profession. Or even better, ensure that your profession is actually how to you wish to change the world (i.e. you’re working for a company or organization whose particular way of changing the world aligns with how you want to change the world).
I likely sound exuberant and excited. It is because I am! I am glad to be here. Almost giddy like a little kid in a candy store, perhaps. It is a great privilege to have these twenty months ahead of me to learn and grow and be pushed. Afterward I will take on an immense responsibility to use my remaining time on this planet to make a difference. I look forward to that day while being fully focused on the present.