Arrogant or Simply Confident?

“Many corporate recruiters love to hate the Harvard Business School. While acknowledging its talented faculty and students, they complain about the arrogant culture, graduates’ excessive salary demands, and their ambitions to be CEO tomorrow.”
The Wall Street Journal, 20 September 2006

We are nothing if not consistent. For the second year in a row, HBS ranked 14th in the national ranking of business schools by the Wall Street Journal. We did even better with the international rankings, rolling in at the admirable rank of 20.

These rankings were based on interviews with over 4,125 recruiters contacted by the Wall Street Journal and the results were released in the print edition of the WSJ September 21, possibly prompting collective gasps from RC students who thought they were buying into a top-ranked MBA program. The Ross School of Business (University of Michigan) was in the top spot, followed by Tuck (Dartmouth) and Tepper (Carnegie Mellon). Columbia and Hass rounded out the top five.

Recruiters were asked to rank the schools based on the perception of the students on twenty-one attributes, their future plans to recruit in the school and mass appeal to recruiters.

So, we have done it once more. Over the past year, we appeared to have made too many smart-ass comments during recruiting presentations, rubbed too many people the wrong way during interviews and pushed too aggressively in negotiating offers.

Should we blame ourselves? According to one recruiter whose comment was posted on the WSJ website, there is a sense that, “Overall arrogance [is] bred into students.” More disturbingly, another quote declared that the “caliber of student[s] overall [is] not as strong as peer schools in same market.”

In other words, we are being arrogant even though there is really nothing to be arrogant about. Ouch. We disagree vehemently of course. The selected few HBS students this writer spoke to declared the arrogant, aloof HBS grad to be a stereotype. Indeed, what others perceive to be arrogance may simply be confidence.

On the positive side, the WSJ report suggested that the same confidence (or arrogance, or what ever you want to call that slight swagger in our walk) puts us in good stead to be chief executives. Recruiters overwhelmingly picked HBS as the school to turn to first for a “successor CEO to lead the company into the next era,” with HBS gathering more than twice the votes of the next school on the list, Wharton. The school also topped the list for practical learning, thanks to its case method of teaching.

For those among us determined to change recruiters’ perceptions, your task just got a little harder, with the launch of a new magazine 02138 last week, a publication which really does nothing but reinforce the stereotype ( For us ignorant folk divided from our brethren across the river, 02138 refers to the zip code of Harvard University itself and yes, you guessed it, the magazine is written for Harvard alumni about things they care about most (i.e. themselves). The first issue of the bi-monthly magazine, for example, features “The Harvard 100,” a list of the most influential alumni. Harvard College dropout Bill Gates tops the list, followed by HBS graduate President Bush. Definitely indulgent, but can we deny how satisfying it could be in a narcissistic way?

This brief diversion aside, should we even care about the WSJ rankings? After all, this is one of a half-dozen MBA rankings conducted each year by various publications, most of which still regard the Harvard MBA degree highly. The Financial Times ranking of American business schools in January put us at number two (yes, we are behind Wharton), although U.S.News & World Report gratifyingly still ranked us at number one in its last list. The difference however, is that the WSJ is based on recruiters’ perceptions of students from each school, not as other surveys do, on the academic quality or the starting salaries of graduates. These are the people who matter to us most-not only during hell week. For better or worse, they determine our future for the next two to five years and our ability to repay the b-school debt.

Perceptions may be difficult to change but surely nothing can be too daunting for the HBS student? Or will that be considered too arrogant a thing to say?