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The Journey Begins

Prof. Kevin Sharer

This column is addressed mostly to the class of 2018, but perhaps the class of 2019 might take a peek too.  First, my congratulations for earning the right to be in perhaps the most admired, sought after and elite group in the business world.  You very soon will be a graduate of Harvard Business School. This fact will forever mark you as one who in your twenties distinguished yourself from your peers as a person of unusual promise, intellect and capability.  The rest of this column will talk about future challenges, opportunities and choices that will demand you grow in many, many ways beyond your HBS experience, learning and networks. None of these challenges and opportunities should diminish the joy, satisfaction and pride you and those who love and support you feel upon leaving the banks of the Charles.  So, let’s focus on the future.

First, we should partly call into question some widely held beliefs.  HBS takes the general manager perspective and deeply embraces the mission to prepare leaders who will make a difference in the world.  Some confuse this into thinking graduates are more immediately ready for senior responsibility than actually is the case. The truth is that the best are ready to and need to learn quickly, realize doing the job well is paramount and that having the support of your boss, peers and subordinates overwhelms in importance the fact of your degree.  So, the big idea is that your degree gives you a chance to perform and learn but will not in any way compensate for serious gaps in on the job performance. The next belief is that the many case takeaways and hundreds of course frameworks can be put to use directly and will be especially helpful in persuading others. Certainly some takeaways and frameworks will help get you started, but you must understand context and see your most important skill as that of someone who can assess a complex, multi element and often ambiguous situation clearly.  This analysis should lead to fact and logic based identification of possible courses of action with clear ideas about implementation imperatives and challenges as well as risk management. You can think of this task as answering the question: “what is the big idea, why do you think that and what do you propose we do and why?” You are well prepared to analyze complexity and think clearly about what to do, but the relatively benign and supportive environment of the HBS classroom will be replaced by rocky terrain. Much stock is put in the immense value of the HBS network and some might imagine it as a kind of golden ticket.  Make no mistake, it is useful and can help. However, your most important networks are ahead of you. How could it be otherwise? You spend twenty months here in a whirlwind that is as much or more social than intellectual or real accomplishment based. You will spend much more time with others, build things together, help each other, and overcome great obstacles along the way. These networks will and must be more important and deep. This is not to say that your HBS close friends will not be friends for life or that you will not enjoy reunions. The point is that your most important network building is ahead of you.

So, what about the important developmental stuff?  The big idea is pick a good place, do a good job and good things happen.  The hardest to get right is the place, i.e. industry, organization, and culture where you are proud to work, feel valued and respected, and have a real chance to grow in every way based much more on merit than relationships.  Perhaps this is why so many recent grads change organizations so often early in their career. The next big idea is your mental self. Do you come in as a humble rookie who wants to learn and perform or as someone who feels that as an MBA you are entitled to special treatment?  You cannot hide your true feelings here so be sure to get it right. Rebooting at the same organization is almost impossible. What is your plan to grow? You likely have some but relatively minimal self-knowledge. For most of us our self-knowledge tends to overemphasize the positives and under realize the imperatives for change and development.  Assume you have received little truly insightful coaching or assessment. You are probably fine intellectually, but have gaps in understanding organization dynamics, technical knowledge, basic management, communication and leadership. Almost everyone at your stage does. The key is to realize it and find a way to get better. You can.

Let’s close with the BIGGEST idea.  Be optimistic and joyful. The world needs and wants you.  Opportunities are boundless. To paraphrase President Obama’s beautiful comment: “The arc of opportunity bends to those who have real character, perform, grow and are willing to take risk.”  The journey is long, the views from the heights beyond description in joyfulness and satisfaction, surprise awaits, and you will meet a fascinating mix of fellow travelers on the way. Let me close with the words of an old Naval person of which I am one.  I wish you fair winds and following seas. Make your family as proud of you thirty years from now as they are today.


Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.

May 21, 2018
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