Faculty Perspectives: Rob Kaplan, Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs and Current LEAD Professor

Rob Kaplan (HBS’83), Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs, is teaching LEAD in section F this fall. RCs should remember Rob from his recent live Q&A session after the case regarding Leadership Development at Goldman Sachs.

In order to introduce Rob to the rest of the student body, we are presenting a brief interview that touches on his experiences as an HBS student and professor, his 22-year tenure at Goldman Sachs, and his extensive involvement in the field of nonprofit leadership.

Harbus: Thank you for taking time to do this interview. Let me start by asking, how did you end up teaching at HBS? Whose idea was it?
I originally talked to Kim Clark in the summer of 2003. I asked him, “Do experienced business people ever come back and teach here? Is that a crazy idea?” I was most interested in LEAD and the Entrepreneurial Manager. I thought seriously about coming here last fall but put it off. A year later, I realized that stepping out of my business career would always be difficult and that, if I didn’t do it now, I might never teach. So, I took the plunge!

Harbus: Are you having fun teaching? What’s more fun, being a student or a teacher at HBS?
They are both fun. I loved being a student here. I had lived in Kansas my entire life, so this was a completely new experience for me. I am still great friends with many of my classmates. I gained a lot of confidence from experiencing the case study method. Being here really prepared me for a successful business career.

Teaching here is also a terrific experience. The faculty is a great group – very talented and collegial. I’ve learned a great deal from my LEAD teaching group and other professors in the school. The professors have spent a substantial amount of time helping me learn how to teach. Of course I’m biased, but I feel very fortunate to be part of the finest teaching group in the world.

Of course, most importantly, the students have been great. I’d say that I’ve learned as much or more from them as they have from me.

Harbus: Any humbling moments in your teaching experience at HBS?
The humbling moments are when I go to the audio/video tools, but can’t get the sound to work. By the way, thank you John Barad! [Section F Tech. Rep.] If he didn’t come down to help me, I’d be in deep trouble.

Harbus: In a recent Harbus poll, Eric Peterson was voted favorite case protagonist. Who is your favorite? What case do you find most interesting out of those we’ve covered?
I don’t have a favorite, but there are several that resonate with me: Donna Dubinski, because she’s probably going through the first traumatic change experience in her career; Rob Parson, because it illustrates the need for blunt and direct feedback….well before the year end review. But I wouldn’t single one out. I’ve learned lessons from each of them.

Harbus: What were your own early career experiences as a young HBS grad? Why did you join Goldman Sachs? What helped you succeed throughout all those years?
I worked at McKinsey for the summer. I actually received an offer from Goldman for the summer but turned it down because I didn’t want to go to New York; I decided that I didn’t want to be an investment banker.

Having said that, I have always loved the markets. I’ve followed the market every day since I was 11. I realized that at Goldman Sachs I could be in the center of many markets.so I changed my mind and joined the firm after graduation. Goldman has been a great environment to learn how to run businesses, manage people, and advise clients – all in a first-class, high-integrity way.

At HBS I developed the confidence to think for myself, decide what I believe and then push myself to express it. I left HBS with confidence that my view is as good as anybody else’s. I would encourage students to work hard to figure out what they truly believe (what resonates). If you do that, you are going to have an excellent chance to do well in business. Not enough people do that.

Harbus: What industry or function would you go to if you were graduating now?
That’s a question I should not answer (laughing). The truth is that I don’t know.

Harbus: Do you think there’s more uncertainty in the business world now than there was when you were graduating?
When I graduated, the Dow was at approximately 1000. By the year 2000, it had risen to approximately 11000.a multi-trillion dollar run. The 80s and 90s were periods of steady GNP growth, falling interest rates, and good economic conditions. This obviously changed in 2001.and we’ve experienced some bumps since then.

So, while the class of ’83 agonized over what jobs to take, as it turned out, most paths turned out pretty well.

From here, I think there will be plenty of opportunity. But, the world is not going to grow at the same rate, and I think there’ll be more restructuring. Moreover, I think more of today’s students will find great opportunities outside the United States.the group here will be far more global.

Harbus: How difficult was it to adjust to being an associate after spending two years “thinking like a CEO” at HBS?
At Goldman Sachs, during the first couple of years, you learn the fundamentals of the business. Having said that, I started dealing with clients very quickly.

As soon as I started interacting with clients, I used a lot of what I learned here: putting myself in the shoes of the CEO, deciding what I would do if I were them and then advising them accordingly. I’ve kept that mindset for my entire career.

Harbus: It is a bit unusual for an HBS grad to stay with the same company for over 20 years. What motivated you to stay at Goldman Sachs for so long? Did you ever consider leaving?
How do you stay with a company for 20 years? One year at a time.

I kept getting more and more responsibility and opportunities to grow. Did I think about leaving at times? Yes, I did. And I think people should think about it. Sometimes the only way to stay sane at your job when you’ve had a bad week or a bad month is to remind yourself that you don’t have to stay; you are staying because you want to stay. You should always be asking, “Do I want to be here?” You should ask yourself that question every 6-12 months.

Harbus: What advice would you give to students who are being recruited at this time?
You should consider the following when you are thinking about a job:

First, are you going somewhere were you will be able to work on your strengths and weaknesses, particularly your weaknesses. If you are Eric Peterson, you should make sure you are cognizant of your weaknesses and ask yourself whether your prospective employer will help you get the coaching you need. Eric Peterson might have picked the wrong job and company given his developmental needs.

Second, what is your dream job? The job you take out of here may not be your dream job, but it should be in the neighborhood of your dream job. It should lead you to your dream job. It should be consistent with getting to your dream job.

Finally, what are the three most important priorities for commercial success in that job? You have to think, “Do I enjoy those three things?” After all, that’s what you’ll be spending your time on.

If you flunk on one of these, you probably should re-think why you are doing what you are doing.

Harbus: Certainly, you have been very successful in your business career. Can you also say a few words about your involvement in the nonprofit field?
I am involved in a number of non-profit efforts.one of them is co-chairing the Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair (HCNR). The HCNR is a “virtual” neurological research center that focuses on developing treatments for major neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Multiple Sclerosis. We stress collaboration among neurological researchers in the Harvard community. The center has 38 permanent employees
and a drug lab, clinical lab and other central facilities. Our mission is to make progress on these diseases and to change the culture of neurological research, based on the premise that more progress will be made if researchers work in teams (versus alone). So far, 740 neurologists have joined this effort.

I’ve always tried to pick non profits that I have a passion for.whether it’s related to medical research, education or children’s literacy. HBS graduates (and business people in general) have a great opportunity to help change the world. These experiences have been as meaningful (to me) as anything I’ve done in business.

Harbus: I would imagine such a highly academic environment is quite different from what you were used to at Goldman Sachs. How do you think your corporate leadership skills have helped you develop collaboration in this field?
Business skills are highly transferable into the nonprofit world. In this field, you deal with the same issues you have in building a company: you have to hire people, motivate people, set a vision and develop a strategy. Business experience is key to doing this-much more than people realize.

Most HBS graduates will get involved in nonprofit or community activities. I would strongly encourage it as it gives you a great opportunity to be a leader and make a real difference in the world.

What we learn in our LEAD class is absolutely transferable to the nonprofit world.

Harbus: What readings on leadership would you recommend? What books should be on a leader’s bookshelf?
I like biographies about leaders. For example I would recommend William Manchester’s books: The Last Lion on Churchill, or American Caesar on Douglas MacArthur. I also like The Making of the President, 1960 [64, 68, and 72]. I even read sports biographies. John Wooden, the basketball coach from UCLA, just wrote an excellent book on leadership. It is well worth reading!

I like to read books about how important decisions in history were made. For example, The Best and the Brightest, the book about how the United States got into the Vietnam War. Among business books, I recently read Disney Wars as well as Conspiracy of Fools about Enron.

In general, books about how leaders make decisions, how groups make decisions, and how critical decisions in history were made are very interesting to me. I also like to read about people, their emotions, qualities, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.

Harbus: Thanks again for sharing your insights with us. To finish off, can you say a few words about how you see your future at HBS?
I’d like to stay involved with the Business School for the foreseeable future. It may be as an adjunct to a full-time job in business.we’ll have to see. I would have to say that I’m hooked!