In any of our lives, the question of defining personal success can be challenging indeed, and in this endeavor we often look for guideposts. Merriam-Webster’s definition of success is predicated on “attain[ing] a desired object or desired end.”
Thinking back to my own childhood I remember vividly when my father declared to my brother and I that he and my mother could not control our academic ability and therefore expected us to do the best that we could. He and my mom were quite emphatic and deliberate in their uncompromised expectations on the character my brother and I might strive for, and lapses were not well regarded or tolerated. It has been years since my brother and I received that talking to and, for better or worse, I think my brother and I still try to live up to those expectations. What I find curious is that I would have taken different roads in life if the guideposts for my thinking about success had been placed differently by my parents. Admittedly, I understand that I was not the most rebellious kid by any stretch and that others would have been quite comfortable in their own skin without seeking external approval, but the theme of sharing values and expectations as a desired part of membership in a family is something with which most of us can agree.
There used be a legal idea of “in loco parentis” that held that universities acted as temporary guardians for undergraduate students as they transitioned into adulthood at institutions of higher learning. Today much of the legal responsibility for such a relationship has been reduced, and I think it fair to assume, with a student population age in the upper twenties, that there is little need for Harvard Business School to act as a substitute parent for any of us. Nonetheless, we make a considerable investment of time, arguably our most precious resource, to commit ourselves to an educational process in which few guideposts are presented beyond job statistics, i.e. starting compensation and the timing of job offers. If the desired object of an education at Harvard Business School is to secure a six figure salary before graduation then we can pat ourselves on the back for succeeding mightily.
But could we likewise pat ourselves on the back when it comes to our desired end; educating leaders who make a difference in the world?
This dilemma reminds me of the one faced by Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack who recounts the story of having the opportunity to caddy for the Dalia Lama. Despite being awed by the experience with the Dalia Lama at the end of eighteen holes of golf, Bill Murray finds that the Dalia Lama has no intention of paying for services rendered. To which Bill Murray responds, “Hey Lama, Hey.. how about a little something.you know. for the effort.[to which the Dalia Lama replies] “Oh…it won’t be any money, but when you die, on your death bed, you will receive total consciousness” [Bill Murray internalizes by saying] “So I have that going for me, which is nice.” While I think it would be unfair to have the expectation that our success at educating leaders who make a difference in the world should be judged by the number of graduates who attain total consciousness, I think we would be equally remiss for judging success only in terms of money.
In this regard I think it is imperative that all of us to think differently about our metrics for success. You know after all the admissions essays, all the normative comments in LCA, and most importantly all the hard work our stakeholders put into making in this place a catalyst for something more than a factory for legions of Gordon Geko disciples, you would like to think we would have a little more to show beyond dollars signs for the effort. And while this notion is aspirational, it is should also be an operational imperative for this institution.
As far as first steps go, here’s one for starters, lets not get in our own way! We structure the MBA Program for two years, students pay for two years but we effectively get one year of educational value because of the timing of formal campus recruiting. Why not trust a little in the market forces and test our belief that our educational approach fosters the continued development of leaders who are differentiated in the marketplace. The most telling metric for success in such a case would be our ability to push formal recruiting back to the winter term for ECs and mid winter term for RCs. Such a move would allow career services to move focus away from managing job acceptances by graduation over to the more critical metric – job acceptance six months after graduation when loan repayments begin. I expect the vast majority of large recruiting partners would be mad, some would even pout to the Dean, Career Services or God forbid the Wall Street Journal, but they would ultimately hire our students on our educational timeline because of the confidence they had in our program’s graduates and our ability to continue graduating students who justify such confidence.
You would be hard pressed to find someone would be honestly worried about our graduates prospects under any market condition, so why don’t we recognize this and focus on the education our student. When you look at the alumni who just celebrated their 25th reunion you do not find many people who stayed at the same company they joined after graduation. And when you do come across people who did like Jeff Immelt, who spent the last twenty-five years at one company, you find that he made a hard decision to turn down an great offer from Morgan Stanley to join GE. As my classmates taking Authentic Leadership can attest, such decisions about your career and life might actually benefit from the course experimentation the EC offers and the third part of our learning model, reflection. You never know EC students might actually learn something in the classes they have the freedom to choose which in turn might impact their career decisions instead of the slated job opportunities during hell week or an expiring summer offer dictating what they hope to get out of their last year of education at HBS.
For the RCs it might be a good thing to have more than few sessions in strategy before deciding on consulting for the summer, it might actually help to figure out if you like second semester finance before signing up for a summer’s worth of late nights in investing banking, it might help to think about other entrepreneurs experiences before you skip out on recruiting to start that company in the summer, it might even help to have your views on a particular geographic region challenged during a BGIE country case before you sign up for a summer job in microfinance, and it might help have a couple of negotiations exercises under your belt to help you set clear expectations for what you want to get out of your summer experience.
It would be nice to be more intentional in our efforts as a community to meet the mission of the Harvard Business School, who knows we might succeed.and given our destination that would be a journey well worth the cost of admission.