Interview with Professor McFarlan

Friday afternoon. The end of a short week for RCs, but the end of something larger for Professor McFarlan and the HBS community at large: the end of Centennial Celebrations. HBS turned one hundred this year, and the year-long series of events had as its capstone moment the Global Business Summit. Professor McFarlan was the Faculty Chair for this seminal event. Alumni and distinguished guests converged on the campus for three days to participate in a stimulating environment of debate, reflection and engagement of critical issues.

Dean Jay Light gave Professor McFarlan the responsibility of Global Business Summit Faculty Chair two years ago and ceded complete authority for creating the vision and implementing the details. “This was the ultimate event of the Centennial Celebration. To forge debate and have insight into what lay ahead of us for the next 50 years.” The professor, along with 50 of his faculty colleagues developed three central themes for the summit: leadership, globalization and the future of market capitalism. Given recent events, “there couldn’t have been a more relevant topic in October 2008.”

The summit was an alumni event from inception, although current students were given the opportunity to participate via a 100-ticket lottery and event simulcast on campus. In a perfect world, more inclusion was possible but the students did have a designated event in April. The summit was eminently important for the research done at Harvard Business School. For those that could not attend, every single session was recorded and archived and the bulk that was video recorded will be available on the web. All the content is or will be completely accessible to the community.

The guest list looks like a who’s who of global business leaders. Indeed, world leaders in general. CEOs, government officials and household names like Bill Gates all came to the summit. “Harvard has a terrific convening power. The summit was shown on television in India, where it was also on the front page of newspapers. Charlie rose ran a session on his program. Over life, you collect favors from people like marbles in a bowl. There’s no point in keeping all those marbles.” As for the number of attendees: “We’ve never run a logistical thing like this before (at HBS). Burden has the largest capacity at one thousand people.” Those planning the event knew the summit would be massively oversold – in the end facilities for two thousand people were needed, thus the city-like pavilion in front of Baker Library.

“I was able to get Bill Gates, who spoke not as the CEO of Microsoft, but on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” This was fitting for HBS’s Centennial given that the school’s first Dean touted the mission of teaching people how to make a decent profit decently. The operative word was “decently” and it was “good to see the most successful business man in the United States demonstrating this.”

Professor McFarlan has been at HBS for some 50 of its 100 years. He received his MBA in 1961, continued with doctoral studies and then joined the faculty. He was appointed full professor in 1971. His experience at this institution gave him ample authority to open the summit with a welcoming speech about the history of HBS. He and Dean Light spoke to the attendees on Sunday night and recalled that when HBS first opened its doors “Women couldn’t vote, African American students couldn’t live on campus; Upton Sinclair had written The Jungle.” That may all seem a long time ago, but when Professor McFarlan graduated from Harvard in 1959, there were alumni in town for their 50th anniversary who still looked young. Those early days didn’t seem so long ago, and now another 50 years have come to pass at HBS.

There are perhaps three measures of success by which to gauge the summit: “It was a terrific reaching experience for all who attended. It was an integrative holistic experience for the community (reminiscent of President Drew Faust’s message of interconnectedness – that what we do affects others) and I won’t know if the third (metric) was a success until my successor plans the 150th reunion.” The true test of this summit in the long term will be how well it chose to discuss the themes that will be applicable for business in the years 2008-2058. Judging at least by the enthusiasm of the participants and the rigor and honesty of the debates throughout, the summit was a tremendous success.