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Teaching, Morals and Learning at HBS

An interview with Professor Sandra Sucher, senior lecturer and member of the TOM department at HBS. Professor Sucher talks about her experience in industry, her work as a professor and her particular interest of examining morality and leadership.

You had a distinguished career spanning twenty-five years in the corporate world. After years at leadership positions and success in both the fashion retailing and financial sectors – what brought you to HBS to teach?

Sucher: I was HBS Class of ’76, and what you may not know is that I began in the doctoral program. I changed my mind, thinking that I should work in business before I taught business. What began as an intended few years in the work place kept leading to newer and exciting challenges.

The capstone of your industry career was a senior position at Fidelity Investments. You undoubtedly had other tempting offers and options at that point in your life.

Sucher: I was financially secure at that point. I still needed to work, but at that stage I was seeking intellectual challenge. There were certainly challenges within the work environment, but I was looking for something different. I feel that work would have offered me more depth of expertise; I wanted breadth. This desire for exposure to different things was perhaps the biggest driver.

Such a big transition in life can’t be easy. Can you offer insight on how you made the change?

Sucher: I used a career coach, actually. She assisted me in sorting through my strategy. I have made a few radical changes in my professional career and I would offer to anyone that the use of a career coach can be quite effective.

Professor Sucher is a practice track faculty member. Technically speaking, she does not have to publish research, yet she is the recent author of two books on teaching moral leadership. Her research incorporates lessons from literature that examine the nature of morality. From the abstract to her first textbook: “What is the nature of a moral challenge? How do leaders contend with the moral choices they face?”

Sucher: When I came back to HBS as a professor, I originally wanted to do research in service business innovation. The opportunity to teach a course about leadership, values and decision making came along. This was a fascinating course. I always thought that these were the most difficult challenges any leader faces. I was then asked to teach The Moral Leader, and it was in teaching that course that I first decided to write about moral leadership.

Can you give a preview of the elective course you teach: The Moral Leader?

Sucher: One novel we use is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day.” In it (the protagonist) reasons from a moral code- in this case loyalty to his boss. From this we explore the ways in which a moral code affects the decisions we make.

With hindsight, indentifying moral or ethical challenges can be relatively easy. In school we have ample opportunity to study what to do when we’re faced with such a dilemma. But how can we know when there is a dilemma in our career? How do we identify that there is a problem at hand?

Sucher: The trick, and we study this in Leadership and Corporate Accountability, is to be legally, economically and ethically sound in your decisions. You will be faced with many ethical challenges in your career. There is no algorithm to apply in ethical situations. You have to use your moral code, the law, and economics – to have the courage to examine the situation from multiple angles. Would you share an experience from your own career? OK. This was a moral failure, an experience that I learned from. In an earlier job, I discovered that my company was using two sets of books. One that investors used, one that we kept internally. I confronted the chairman about this situation and the reply was: “Things are done differently down here, aren’t they?” The discussion was over. I realize that I did not push hard enough. The experience taught me that it can be too easy to accept things the way they are. I learned from this and did better with a later experience. The second time around I communicated better, managed an investigation and came up with a decision process to deal with the issue.

RCs have the opportunity to take a course entitled Learning at HBS (LHBS). These six sessions are aimed at teaching students how to learn within the case method, as well as exploring issues that managers have to contend with in the workplace. You teach this to Section I – do you have any thoughts on LHBS that you’d like to share?

Sucher: A lot of thought went in to the development of this course. Pertaining to case discussion: what helps or hurts the class? Diversity in the workplace is also an important topic. The impetus for this was actually student feedback. Diversity was previously addressed specifically in LEAD and Leadership and Corporate Accountability but the students told us they wanted to tackle these issues much earlier in the curriculum. LHBS is a great course and it is a long-term tool for HBS.

The business world has changed dramatically during your career. The business school environment is also evolving. With thousands of M.B.A. programs to choose from, do you think the HBS brand is threatened? How should this institution adapt as it looks to maintain its excellence and relevance in the next one hundred years?

Sucher: The HBS brand is not threatened. Although great brands can be killed, we are not in danger. That being said, we do have work to do. I believe the number one thing is to continue to globalize, and by that I mean to enable our graduates to be informed and successful global leaders. The case method is powerful- that needs to stay. But we can perhaps explore new realms with our cases. HBS needs to fulfill a new destiny — to be the best global business school – not just the best American business school.

October 14, 2008
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