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A Tale of Two Cold Calls

People say that HBS is a “cut-throat” place. Some think this is a school where your classmates are happy to watch you suffer, happy if there is one less person to compete against for a “2.” Well, a friend of mine anonymously told me the following interesting story that illustrates that this stereotype might be a little out of date:

“I was sitting in my least favorite HBS class. The professor is apparently a “good researcher,” which is HBS-speak meaning that he couldn’t teach a room full of sailors to swear if his life depended on it, and has about as much charm as a Red Sox fan. Anyway, I had already been cold-called in the class and, as there were around 79 other people in the room, assumed that this would be my only cold-call of the semester. So I didn’t run any numbers for the case, though I did skim it before I went to bed. And, sadly for me, I also managed to sleep through my alarm and missed study group. Still, what was the big deal? I could watch some other poor soul get grilled, and then take a chip-shot late in the day to get my participation points. If only life were so simple…

Once the class started, the professor came straight to me. He asked me what approach I would take to solve the protagonist’s problem. For a second I hesitated, and thought about saying the dreaded words, “I pass.” But being the gambler I am, and despite the blank screen in front of me, gave him a general description of the approach someone should take to the case (that someone hopefully not being me). He then asked me point blank what I would do if I was facing the same dilemma. I looked at him, then at the case and saw there were two choices. Suddenly I was on “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and had a 50-50 shot. I took a deep breath, picked an option and announced as confidently as I could that there was only one sane option, and implied only a moron would do anything different. He looked at me, sagely nodded his agreement, and for one beautiful moment I actually thought I was off the hook.

Then he did something awful. He asked me for actual numbers.
I didn’t have anything approaching a number, unless he was interested in the score from yesterday’s Monday Night Football. I needed a miracle to escape and, figuring the Good Lord had better things to do on a Tuesday morning than help me with my cold call, was about to confess all when a miracle of sorts happened. The answer came to me! Not from heaven above, but almost – it came from the person in front of me. There, in 100-point font, was the number I wanted, needed and then announced with absolute certainty to the class. It could have been the Colonel’s recipe for fried chicken for all I knew, but I figured it was worth a try. Again, the professor nodded, and then proceeded to ask me where and how I had gotten the number. Rather than saying, “from a friend,” I again was ready to confess when my neighbor turned his screen ever so slightly toward me. Suddenly, the relevant lines on an elegant Excel spreadsheet were highlighted in bright yellow. I read those lines with authority, and as the professor turned around to write them on the board, tried to figure out what they might mean. This continued for the next ten minutes or so, until the collective efforts of my classmates in front of me, on either side of me and even on the other side of the room (using the clarifying-question-to

buy-the-victim-time-and-distract-the-professor technique) had seen me through my cold call to the professor’s satisfaction.

It was, as they say, a rough ride. But as the song says, sometimes you can get by with a little help from your friends. After that experience I knew the true character of the people around me, and of my section. So, at the end of the day this place isn’t cut-throat, and anyone who thinks that isn’t just slightly misinformed – they’re just plain wrong.”

February 4, 2002
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