What the NY Times didn’t say about Harvard Business School

I was recently responding to a few questions on my experience at Harvard Business School (HBS) for a blog post on their career site. It got me thinking that if all I did was read the press about HBS in the New York Times in the last year, I would have an entirely different picture of it than I do having experienced it firsthand. Recent articles tend to point to a feeling of elitism or gender related issues at HBS, which may exist in small pockets, but is not representative of the positive and multifaceted experience it truly is.

Maybe this sounds nerdy, but I feel too often people leave and talk about the alumni network and theme parties, in which I definitely did my fair share of participating, but the true learning experience at HBS is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. When else do you get the chance to sit in classrooms and debate real world problems with 90 other people, which allow you to reflect on the work experiences you have already had and shape your ideas on business & leadership for the future? The caliber of experience from those in the room around me was incredible, humbling, and a huge contributor to the learning process. No matter what issue was on the table in that day’s case, someone had been through something very similar and could share a real life experience, which increased the overall learning and engagement in the group significantly. This was definitely no accident. The faculty and staff put countless hours into the design of each section so different functional experiences and cultures were represented. Even the formality of it: when I first learned that I couldn’t leave class to check my phone or even go to the bathroom, I felt like I had somehow gone back to Kindergarten. But then, at the end of the first semester, I understood why they were so strict about the classroom format. The conversation would not have been the same if you were allowed to check out at your own convenience.

The professors are outstanding — prior to sitting in on a class, if you had told me that they could not talk for the majority of the class but still have such a meaningful impact on the discussion, I simply would not have believed you. Once I attended, it was very obvious. It is a beautiful art to get it right — allow people to participate in their own way, yet get the entire group to stay engaged and see many sides of the same issue from countless viewpoints. It also comes in all forms: from professors who can literally jump feet into the air onto the chalkboard sill (yes, this really happened in my class!) or those that always upheld an absolute seriousness to their demeanor. No matter what their mannerisms, each professor was able to get to know the students and prepare the material in a way that kept the classroom challenging, engaging and thoughtful.

What this translated to for me was the ability to gain a broad range of exposure across many different industries and business experiences. In one of the first year classes, Business, Government and the International Economy (BGIE), you study a different country every class, combining their history, economy and their future outlook. As an engineer in undergrad, to call my knowledge of history and global economy when entering business school “adequate” would have been a huge compliment. During the second year, I took a social psychology class, which I draw upon all the time in both my personal and professional life. The HBS experience expanded the toolkit that I have to pull from and also expanded my cross-functional views.

It’s hard to put into words what you really walk away from the experience with. After spending many sessions in the ethics class going through cases in crisis situations, I can’t guarantee I’ll be any better at solving a similar leadership crisis if I’m in one in the real world, but I certainly think I will automatically consider it from many more angles than I would have prior to HBS. I started a “nuggets from business school” journal with some of my own thoughts and takeaways. One of my first year professors provided an interesting analogy that prompted this journal: Business theories are like complicated bridges that you build yourself — they will not be perfect, they will need to be repaired and fixed over time, but the best way to get a sturdy one is to build it and stress test it in real life.

Being an engineer by original degree, and just me I guess, I’m not naturally a great writer, as you can probably tell by now. :) When I do journal or write, it’s usually just for myself, but I wanted to venture out there and try to share some of these thoughts. Who knows…maybe the feedback I get will help shake the foundation of my own bridge.

Two of the “nuggets” from my business school journal:

The strategy and values of your company are not what you say they are, but what is demonstrated by the many smaller decisions in the business every day.

You can set whatever strategy and values you want at the top of an organization, but what you really need to look at to assess if the strategy is being executed is the decisions people are making every day in the business. This is especially easy to get wrong in big companies with thousands of employees, where there is additional room for miscommunication. Defining company values is a very popular trend right now, but if those values aren’t translated to your whole organization and felt by the actions of your company, they are nothing more than words. In this case, it’s the actions and not the intentions that count. It’s not enough to post your values somewhere for all to see or quiz your front line employees on them to see if they can be recited correctly. It’s important to understand the decisions people make in the company and what culture and strategy is behind driving those choices.

Sometimes, you can’t just dip your toe into the water — you have to pause, think, and then cannonball in with all your weight.

Sometimes, in order for an idea to work, especially if it’s an organizational change or a change that requires an ecosystem around it, you can’t just “pilot” the idea. There is nothing inherently wrong with piloting an idea and sometimes it’s a great way to get a sense for the results or double check the course you are headed on. However, that doesn’t mean every idea can be piloted and too often, probably in fear of failure, we want to pilot every idea in the business world. The reality is that there are changes that you have to believe in and go “all in” on in order to see the true effect and results. This was something I had witnessed during my time at GE, both successfully and unsuccessfully, but only crystalized as a thought in my own business theory after seeing many HBS cases where people were attempting to make such changes and succeeded or failed based on their ability to understand the full scope of what they were impacting. Whether it’s Apple rethinking what a retail store looks and feels like, a distribution center changing the hierarchy of its warehouse to enable self-managed teams, or GE implementing “lean” as a concept throughout the supply chain, some changes don’t work unless you go all the way in.

But then of course, there is the difference between theory and practice — seeing many cases and recognizing patterns as a student can help you formulate an idea, but it is not the real test. It was very easy for 90 of us students, sitting in a classroom with no real consequences to say we would have done the same thing once we knew it already worked out. But would we really have? When our business or our own job was on the line? When everyone else is telling us this is a crazy idea and points out what happens when we fail? We will only know the answers to these questions over time, but at least having seen others do it before is a good starting point for inspiration.

Beyond the learning experience at HBS, the people you meet during those two years are the best part of the program. I feel fortunate to call many of them friends and sharing that experience with them made HBS not just a good experience from a career and learning standpoint, but as a life experience more broadly. After writing this, it seems to have turned into more of an HBS love letter than I originally intended, but I think it is important to share some of the positive aspects from an insider’s perspective and give some credit to this institution, of which it is so deserving.

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