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Interview with Dean Nitin Nohria

Meet Nitin Nohria – the new Dean of Harvard Business School. You may already know him as a fixture at HBS for over 22 years. During this career, he’s expounded on topics of leadership, corporate transformation and accountability with today’s CEOs through the Executive Education Program and tomorrow’s through the traditional MBA track. It was this commitment that led Harvard University President Drew Faust to select Nohria for the top job this summer, a job which Dean Nohria claims “[I] never dreamed about getting. But I am privileged to be here, and have a lot of support.” I recently met with Dean Nohria to gain insights into his vision for HBS and the road ahead, and also to discover what makes him tick. I found him to be a soft-spoken man, an intellectual and a careful listener.

Dean Nohria certainly hit the ground running since replacing Jay Light as our 10th dean. Having just returned from a whirlwind tour across 3 continents in 10 days to meet hundreds of alumni, business leaders and academics, you’d think he’d be ready for a break. On the contrary, Nohria seemed poised and eager, charged with the energy of an academic year about to unfold. I first wanted to know what he had heard overseas. During this protracted global recovery, what was the world saying about, and expecting from its future business leaders?

“It was my first time traveling as Dean, and what I realized is that HBS is synonymous with business education globally. We should not underestimate the impact the school has had in so many ways: from influential alumni in all parts of the world whose business leadership has led to so much societal good, to our case studies and intellectual and educational leadership in how business education is being imparted. In India alone, students read over 430,000 of our cases this year. This is our impact globally.”

“We worry about the HBS brand being tarnished in recent times, but the reality is that people want us to do well. They expect us to continue to be a beacon of business education, and the world sees a vested interest in our success.”

Certainly the bar is being set even higher. Dean Nohria’s mission is to bring back legitimacy to the business community, and to business education. But how prepared are we to live up to these expectations?

“The question people are asking is whether the leaders we’re developing at Harvard Business School are (1) competent, and (2) have the right character. Is the school doing a good job of developing the competencies where our graduates materially know more and are better qualified to create value for society? How can we continue to improve on those competencies? Secondly, are we selecting for and educating leaders with character? Are our graduates actively thinking about how to create value for society? Are our graduates inherently self-centered or self-interested? My sense is that as long as you create value for society, people don’t begrudge you keeping a portion of it.”

So what kind of innovations would be needed to build these competencies and character within the MBAs?

“While case studies have historically worked well as they bring our students close to business practice, there’s no reason why with the advance of technology and the world becoming more accessible, we can’t provide our students with even richer experiences and bring them even closer to practice. I’d love to explore ideas on how to structurally institutionalize new forms of learning including simulations, IXPs, group exercises.”

“The 20th century in business was truly the American century, the 21st century is shaping up to be a global century. Today, there is more opportunity for value creation outside of the US than within. We reflect that worldview through the changing mix of our case curriculum and work experience of students, so many of whom have worked in geographies outside of the US. I want our MBAs to develop an imagination of the world as being inherently global, and think about possibilities for value creation outside of the US as well.”

“The academic experience at Harvard Business School is the cornerstone for developing both character and competencies, but the clubs and social activities provide great opportunities to begin to learn how to exercise leadership.”

Indeed, touching upon the Leadership Vacuum we witnessed last year, Dean Nohria believes no club position should go uncontested. He urges the student body to recognize that our current classmates will be our future counterparts in the business world. Better to learn how to influence and engage them now; this is where leadership truly begins. I asked how we as students could help realize this vision.

“HBS is nothing other than the lives our MBAs live in the world. I really want all of you to think about how you live your lives both professionally and personally. I want you to take these two years here to prepare not just for your next job but for your lives and careers”

A recent study revealed that on average, the “next job” for an HBS grad lasts about 9 months. But what did this mean for everyone jostling for that coveted hedge fund or PE gig post-business school? Dean Nohria offered the following:

“What you will be judged on, and will be measuring yourself on, is not your first job, but your lives and careers.”

I asked the Dean to share a bit about his early life and upbringing. What was it like growing up in India? How did those experiences shape his views on business as a life-long calling?

“My father was CEO of Crompton Greaves in India. I saw the impact business could have in transforming communities through better infrastructure and creating employment opportunities.”

His father’s faith and philosophy instilled a sense of “business as a way of making a deep difference in society. My sister is a physician, and I believe I’m contributing just as much to society through business as she does through medicine.” Dean Nohria continues this commitment to bettering communities. A few years ago he launched a scholarship, the July Foundation, for children of workers at Crompton Greaves factories.

Finally, I was curious to learn about Dean Nohria’s immediate family, and his decision to occupy the long-vacant Dean’s House right here on campus.

“What differentiates HBS from other business schools is that we’re a residential community. I hope moving on campus will allow me to interact with and be involved in the community even more. I’m married to an MBA. She’s the real manager of the house, and lets me know whether my ideas make managerial sense. I have two daughters, 13 and 15. I expect that they’ll soon be known around campus, and will fall in love with our MBAs.”

Since taking up the job, Nohria has met with every faculty member individually, talked to numerous alumni, business leaders and academics around the world, and interacted with many students on campus. After meeting our new Dean I’m convinced this is just the beginning. So as we enter a promising new academic year we can perhaps look forward to breakfast invitations from the Dean’s House, rubbing elbows in Shad Hall, and plenty of opportunities to share ideas. After all, Dean Nohria is eager to listen!

Author Biography
Ami Malaviya, is the Publisher of the Harbus. You can write to her at ami@mba2011.hbs.edu.

September 7, 2010
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