The Labor of Love

What it means to lead a family enterprise after leaving the walls of HBS.

One of the many perspectives that I have come to cherish in our diverse community is the one which comes from my classmates who have a commitment to go home and work in their families’ enterprises. No doubt there are rewards to doing this, but what I find striking and teachable from so many of my friends in this regard is that the financial rewards seem nascent or completely irrelevant in their calculus about going back home to work with their family enterprise. The motivation that I gather from these classmates is often a reflection of their values; a unique sense of purpose and a focus on tangibly preserving and transmitting the ideals they hold to be most important. When one considers the lengths to which many of our graduates go to change the DNA of the corporations they work for or even the exodus from the corporate ranks that many others undertake to start enterprises, it becomes clear that the values I speak of are not in short supply throughout our community. However, I still think there is something instructive from the classmates who are returning to family enterprises and the lesson I believe is one of focusing on the things that matter most to your success.

The late Wayne Calloway, former Chairman & CEO of Pepsico, once said that, “Nothing focuses the mind better than the constant sight of a competitor who wants to wipe you off the map.” A number of my classmates who are returning to their families’ enterprise are acutely aware of the fact that the values they cherish and their desires to build sustainable enterprises have to meld together by their own focus and personal commitment, else they will cease to exist. Yet, I believe that the beauty of this comes from the fact that while many an onlooker might view this commitment as a sacrifice, the reality can also be that given the horizon of many family enterprises this same commitment becomes a shrewd investment with a duration that allows their values to become a competitive advantage, which viewed in hindsight might seem terribly sustainable. Enviable it seems from this perspective to have such a clear sense of where one’s competitive strength is derived, but make no mistake, I do not think the classmates I speak of feel that they have a choice in how they achieve results, the honor of their family names ensures that the way they achieve matters as much as what they achieve. This tension is healthy and a great way to check and balance that the enterprise sees the forest and the trees despite changes due to success and failure in the short term.

I have taken many of these observations to heart in thinking about my life and career. In-fact, I have found that the example of my classmates challenges me to think about any dissonance in my actions and intentions recognizing that this is a luxury not afforded to many family enterprises. The structure of the family, even if only by name, demands a conscience tribute in thought and deed. Understandably, some will see little practical relevance with what I have shared, and yet that is the point, there is little practical or easy about holding on to values and results simultaneously. In this there is relevance even for the Harvard Business School.

This institution started out with notions of preparing people to lead who understood the importance of high performance and the means by which these achievements were arrived. The very success of this school has been derived by staying focused on the education of leaders through our MBA program. Stewardship of this institution without the benefit of a family’s care to guard values as much as outcomes would ensure a corporate existence for this institution that would forsake the responsibility of its birthright. One can hardly imagine what might happen if we did not view the MBA program as the core of strength and the precursor for the critical path to the successes that we enjoy in our endeavors in areas like publishing, Exec Ed, research centers, and etc. Such an approach would fail to understand the true benefit of the MBA Program to the whole institution and would see the MBA Program as a featured accessory to the many thriving endeavors in which we find ourselves involved. In corporate enterprise and in life a focus on the here and now can prevent us from thinking purposefully beyond our existence and before our own involvement. In families the idea of legacy looms large and requires an attention to care in deed and intention which is the same idea that has allowed the stewardship of this institution over its first century to grow without losing sight of what matters most to its continued success, which in our case is the proper education of leaders with a demonstrated commitment to what Wayne Calloway is said to have called, “Results with Integrity.”

As an institution the Harvard Business School has come so far from and achieved a great deal from the humble beginnings of what N.S.B Gras, a business historian, called, “a good name and honest poverty.” The challenge going forward will be the same that some of my classmates will face in writing the next chapter in their families’ enterprise, which is how to stay focused on the things they value most in a world with changing opportunities and circumstances. I am hopeful that the Harvard Business School will not lose sight of the role the MBA program plays in its success, in large part because the support mechanism of family. This mechanism allows my classmates to have the courage to write the next chapter in their families’ enterprise and is present throughout our community of staff, faculty, alumni, students, and even Allston and greater Boston.