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Alumni Perspective – Orit Gadiesh, (MBA '77)

Orit Gadiesh, chairman, Bain & Company, is one of the profession’s most acclaimed experts on management and corporate strategy. Her early lessons in leadership came from Generals in the Israeli war room while she was in military service in the early 1970s. She subsequently attended Hebrew University where she studied psychology. It is hard to believe that Orit Gadiesh came to Harvard Business School in 1975 with very limited knowledge of English, yet graduated as a Baker Scholar and recipient of the Brown Award for the most outstanding student in marketing two years later. She joined Bain & Company upon graduation in 1977 and was elected Chairman of the company in 1993. Ranked by Forbes Magazine amongst “The 100 Most Powerful Women in the World”, and by Fortune as one of the “Most Powerful Women in Business,” Orit Gadiesh has also received Consulting Magazine’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” and sits on the Board of Directors of the World Economic Forum and WPP (a leader in marketing communications). She is a global leader, a true citizen of the world, and a calculated risk-taker known for her charismatic style and for always putting the client first.

What was your most memorable experience as a student at HBS?
I grew up in Israel and so HBS was my introduction to the United States. I did not speak English when I arrived. I would read cases with my dictionary. I still remember the first case: it was eleven pages including the exhibits and it took me six hours to read. I was pretty desperate because literally every second word I had to look up in the dictionary. And the dictionary didn’t give any business meaning to most of the words. For example, the dictionary described the word “contribution” as being “something about giving to nonprofit organizations”. So reading the cases was extremely time consuming. And then I would take my dictionary to the classes or to exams. Exams were the worst. It would take me three times as long to read an exam. I’d always sit in the first row and if it was a really long exam, I’d write at the end, “This took me three hours and twenty-five minutes to read, but here’s what I would have done had I had time to actually run the calculator.”

In class, I forced myself to speak even though that was difficult too because of the language. If I couldn’t find a word, I’d use six words instead of that one. I just had to force myself to do things like that and that’s how I learned English. Also, I had never seen American television, but I’d heard about advertisements. In Israel, there were none on TV. So I went to a classmate’s dorm room and I would turn the volume on the TV up only when the ads appeared to see what they looked like. Nor had I ever been to a large supermarket. So I went to a supermarket to see what it looked like and how products were set up. One time, we had a final exam on cereal, something that I had never tasted. I still don’t like it, but at the time, I didn’t know what it was and I couldn’t imagine there were sixteen varieties and why would you want more? I also had no idea who Johnny Carson was, or any American cultural icons. So I was learning quickly about the United States and its culture, and I was learning the language. I had no problem when there was a case on Turkey or almost anywhere international. But I had a problem when Johnny Carson or cereal were part of the case.

What influenced you the most while at HBS?
What probably influenced me the most was the case method. The first class I was in, I thought, “This is nuts.” Then I realized that it was a great teaching method because it forces you to be involved. It forces you to be a part of the discussion. It forces you to listen to the way other people think about a problem. You’re active as opposed to just passively listening to a lecture. And it allows you to draw on things that are not in the case but that maybe you learned that morning in marketing. Almost always in real life you make decisions based on “imperfect information” to some degree, and the case method is a good exercise to prepare you for that.

Why did you attend HBS, and in what ways has it helped or influenced your career?
HBS was the only school that I applied to. I came to HBS because every other business school required a background in economics. HBS was the only one that didn’t require a subject matter as a ticket to entry. Initially, I set out to earn a Doctorate in Business Administration (DBA) and planned to get an MBA along the way. I had imagined I was going to teach. But after getting my MBA, I decided that business was not something I wanted to teach. It was something I wanted to practice.

My time at HBS has played an incredibly important role in my career. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

I studied all different areas of business. I think it was important for me to not get too focused on any one area at that early stage. Had I completed my doctoral program, I would have focused on marketing because I was interested in that. Instead, I took a broad mix of courses in my second year. I benefited from that and, actually, that absolutely has helped me throughout my career. I learned that you should be able to focus on one or two things and be extremely good at them but if you lose your curiosity about and knowledge of other things you’re not going to be good even in the few things you focus on. You’ll be much too narrow minded or much too narrowly focused. You will not develop the capacity to be a truly good strategic thinker. You will be less likely to think ‘out of the box’.

HBS seeks to develop leaders who make a difference in the world, what advice would you give students at HBS today?
If I had to think of one thing that perhaps today’s students would benefit from, given the fact that most of them will end up working in or managing global companies, it would be knowledge and tolerance of different backgrounds and points of view. And it would be the ability to integrate that appreciation of diversity into whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

How do you define success?
Success back when I attended HBS was having more than the $400 (that was all I was allowed to bring with me when I came to this country) after paying back my student loans.

I think today I would define success as having the privilege to do what you love best and having the respect of the people in your profession for what you do. For me it translates into an environment where I can continue to learn, be challenged with complex problems, and meet interesting people from around the world. I work with some of the smartest people anywhere. I have actually achieved a balanced lifestyle. And I can do all of this while having fun.

April 7, 2008
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