RC Partners attend the Partners Case Night, a hidden tradition at HBS. Anja Do reports.
The Partners Case Night, albeit unknown to many MBA students and the Harvard Business School (HBS) community in general, is one of the key highlights for RC Partners in the Fall semester. I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the case discussion and to interview the professor who led the class.
So what exactly is a Partners Case Night? It is a class in which the case method is introduced to a group of HBS Partners in the same fashion as to MBA students.
The professor in charge is Ryan Raffaelli, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at HBS. He created and teaches the MBA elective course Leadership Execution and Action Planning (LEAP). Professor Raffaelli has been teaching the Partners Case Night for four years; prior to him, the teaching was conducted by the LEAD course head, Professor Tsedal Neeley. Hence, just like his predecessor, Professor Raffaelli seems like the perfect shepherd to take us into the world of “Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley.”
The tradition of Partners Case Night dates all the way back to the 1960s. In fact, prior to class, Professor Raffaelli learnt this from Professor Jay W. Lorsch, one of the longest serving faculty members, who was reminiscing about his time teaching the Partners Case Night. As it happened, Professor Lorsch apparently came to teach a case and found out that the partners were assigned a different case. That evening was engraved in his memory ever since!
Although the actual format of the Partners Case Night has gone through many iterations over the years, Professor Raffaelli admits that “this is one of his favorite classes to teach,” and his enthusiasm seems to reflect the legacy passed on by previous HBS professors. The case took place on Monday evening, October 15, at 7 p.m., and he had to take time out of his personal schedule to teach. This is one of many reasons, I believe, that makes Partners Case Night so special: it is planned and prepared with care and dedication from the HBS faculty and staff.
The Partners Case Night has traditionally been set up to coincide with a case that is taught in the RC LEAD course. For this year, we were presented with the “Rob Parson at Morgan Stanley” case, which was taught to the RCs just one week prior. Despite being written in 1998, the case is so famous that it is still taught 20 years later and distinctly remembered by MBA students.
In selecting among hundreds of RC cases, HBS faculty members look for a case that is memorable and relevant so that partners can have a conversation about a topic that applies beyond just the specifics of the case. In Professor Raffaelli’s experience, HBS partners are very well accomplished individuals in their own right. Oftentimes they have had many experiences in both their professional and their personal lives. He therefore felt strongly that this particular case poses questions about leadership and star performers that are universal and applicable to all of us.
Even for partners who are the primary caregivers of young children, or who are not working at the time, Professor Raffaelli is able to successfully include them in the classroom discussion. He compares the experience of raising children to managing a team because it makes us think about how our children experience us as parents. It boils down to simply watching people who are very good at something but find themselves trapped by some undesired behaviors. Hence the question “How do people experience leaders?” resonates as something we can all identify with and think about.
What stuck with me is his firm belief that the Partners Case Night provides a glimpse into what HBS is trying to achieve in the MBA program: “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” For many of us, we all have experienced good and bad bosses. So in a case like this, we truly get to learn about the trade-offs of people who are high performers, but perhaps are doing damage to the working environment or have residual effects around them. The case method is therefore simply a vehicle through which the mission of the Harvard Business School is being executed, and Professor Raffaelli sees this session as an opportunity to include partners in that mission.
At the beginning of the class, we were immediately given a taste of the cold call. A person in class was chosen to share his or her answer to the opening question of the case, and to introduce the case themes to the rest of the class. The partner who was cold-called on the day was Lauren Harry. Lauren is an RC Partner in Section B and works for the U.S. Government. Her response, in my humble opinion, was sophisticated and well-prepared. She declared, with confidence, that she would not promote the case protagonist because he had broken organizational rules and did not seem to embody the values of teamwork and “one Morgan Stanley” that were at the core of the company’s culture. She then went on to share the background of the case and elaborated on the rationale of her choice.
Lauren and I had the chance to travel to the Section B retreat together, and it was in her husband’s car where I learnt what happened behind the scenes. Her husband depicted the cold-call situation in such a terrifying manner that she read the case thoroughly the night before in fear of being picked for a cold call. What are the odds? Her efforts certainly paid off, and she set the bar high for the rest of the discussion.
The discussion became more intense once the professor started calling on people from the opposite side to defend their point of view. What made the entire experience so thrilling was how divided we were as a group. The opinions were diverse, and yet logical. The points of view were directly opposing, and yet reasonable. Most people in their career have asked themselves “What would it take to move to the next level? How did that senior person get there?” The opening question was something we all were familiar with in our own lives, but we seemed to experience the dilemma quite differently. In case of star performers like Rob Parson, who are doing very well, we understand why they expect a lot from the organization. At the same time, the classroom discussion challenged us to evaluate whether their success should permit them to push boundaries and breach the rules and policies of the organization.
Subsequently, we had to role play a critical moment in case between Rob Parson and his direct manager Paul Nasr. This meant we had to act out the situation that the case protagonist was facing. Though rather nerve-racking, practicing this difficult situation meant that all of us partners would have to put ourselves in the shoes of Rob Parson or Paul Nasr. By doing so, we would come to appreciate the complex and sensitive nature of giving feedback, which is never easily received by the person involved.
The two brave souls who took up the task to enact the conversation between Rob Parson and his manager, in front of the entire classroom, were Melissa Musso (RC Partner from Section G, as Rob) and Alicia Misty (RC Partner from Section C, as Paul). Alicia, a banker in her professional life, began the conversation. In the same respectful manner, Melissa, a healthcare professional and a mum, responded with patience to Paul’s (Alicia’s) update and politely reminded her (his) boss, “You know I have three other offers right now.”
Needless to say, the exchange between the two women may have been kinder and more respectful than the actual conversation that took place between Paul Nasr and Rob Parson. More important, however, it was in this very moment that I finally understood what the MBA experience was like for my husband. I’m sure I can speak for many of the partners who were in the room with me that day. Not only did we marvel at the nature of these difficult conversations, we also wondered at how exciting it was to be in class every day to learn how to face these real and demanding situations.
At the end of class, partners were given a full half-hour to ask anything of Professor Raffaelli. One of the questions asked was about HBS’s philosophy to include partners through events such as this Partners Case Night and why the school began this tradition.
Professor Raffaelli shared that HBS demands a great deal from its students, in terms of their case preparation and attention in the classroom. There are very unique demands at HBS, and therefore excellence is expected in everything from everyone. Everything is perfectly planned, communicated, placed; nothing gets missed here. He marvels at the execution: “It is rather remarkable.” And as a result of that, the school came to the realization it needs to make sure that everyone has bought into this process, not just the MBA students; otherwise there would be a lot of damage done.
Over the years, Professor Raffaelli explains, he has come to appreciate the unsung heroes at this place. He covers this a lot in his EC course, Leadership Execution and Action Planning (LEAP), where he and the students spend a lot of time discussing essentially how leaders try to get things done in their organization. So for him, partners are one of those unsung heroes, in order for the school to accomplish the work they do here. They are one of the key ingredients that allow this to happen, and that’s why he cares deeply about them.
In some ways, partners bear a lot of the costs and burden of this program, and Professor Raffaelli believes that the Partners Case Night is an opportunity to share a little bit of the “magic of our classroom,” so that hopefully partners will begin to understand that all these sacrifices are worth it.
Before leaving us, Professor Raffaelli addressed us with a very emotional speech. The following words touched me the most: “On behalf of the faculty, I hope that you know how much we appreciate you and the sacrifices you have made—both professionally and personally—so that your partners can be here at this special place for the next two years. You are an integral part of the HBS community.”
Anja Do is an RC Partner at HBS who recently moved to Cambridge, MA, with her husband from Singapore. She identifies herself as a global citizen and loves meeting people from diverse cultures, backgrounds, and religions and learning about their personal stories.