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Decoding the Culture

Just before starting Power and Influence, I sought a final polishing from a friend of mine. Paula, a newspaper editor, is much worldlier than I am. I told her that I was attempting to adapt to the HBS culture, to sheath the edges of my iconoclasm in wool skirts and blazers. Paula had been in my Leadership class and sat near me when I’d worn leaves in my hair.

She said: “Katie, you can sit there in your pretty clothes and pretend that can fool them, but the first time you talk, they’ll know you’re cross-registering. Your leaves won’t be there, but they’ll still see them popping from your hair.”

She was wrong when she asserted that it would take my talking to unmask me, but I swaggered into Power and Influence thinking my facade would hold as long as I held my tongue.

“A cross-registrant!” was the first comment tossed at me. So much for the facade.
“How’d you know?” I inquired.
“You’re bouncy,” he smiled.
“Is that a good thing?” I pushed.
“Sure!” he said.

Derek Schrader, the person who perceived my over-the-river origin, was as affable as he was quick-sighted. His teasing welcome into the room extended into friendship. Derek’s hospitality was common to many of my classmates. Keith White was my nearest neighbor in Power and Influence. He couched his observations with wit that was pillowed with warmth.

Professor Jose Luis Alvarez was our instructor. He managed the class, mostly veteran HBS students, as they utilized the HBS case study method. It required quick thinking, for each comment had to dovetail with the preceding comment. If one referred to a comment that was a relatively ancient, two or three minutes old, one then named the person or persons who’d developed that already dusty idea. Being germane was the grease that forwarded the discussion.

The case studies also seemed to be opportunities to flex one’s social fluidity and grace. If one opposed another person’s idea, the rebuttal was generally prefaced with a gracious and frequently witty nod to that person.

If an idea was tweaked in such a way that it might agitate, the tweaking was preceded by: “I’m not trying to be controversial, but….”Whenever I heard this “…controversial, but….” qualifier, I expected something agitating. What was said wouldn’t even qualify as titillation at KSG, much less agitation. Although my sampling of HBS was as thin as the sliver of fudge that’s usually sliced for the advertised free sample, it’s the only taste I’ll be given and it might be sufficiently intense to serve this extrapolation.
The HBS culture seemed intellectually cautious to me. If it’s evolved to forward relationships, it works well, producing socially fluent graduates, but every approach has its price. Working cohesively enabled strong, sequential and linear discussions, but it possibly pruned tangential buds before they’d develop into long, leafy limbs that could bear strange, but sweet fruit.

The discipline and direction in the HBS Case Study Method does shear the shag from the analysis. Allowing intellectual buds to burst about everywhere can produce a tangle of conceptual branchings. The thicket of ideas can splay as unkempt and unseemly as an unshorn sheepdog on a pedestal.

Conversely, perpetually pruning anything that isn’t immediately germane or is controversial can deprive a discussion of the delvings that can surface the issues beneath the issues.
In the final analysis though, it was a privilege to attend HBS and witness the social and intellectual webbing achieved through their case study method. Professor Alvarez was the best part of my experience. He took my sometimes shaggy comments, sheared them and situated them into the analysis.
I hope that HBS students will avail themselves of the reciprocal generosity of Harvard’s other schools and cross the river to cross-register. If you do, then leaves in the hair are optional.

April 23, 2001
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