Welcome to the Simulation
Commentary, Featured, Features, Trevor Fetter

Welcome to the Simulation

In his inaugural column for the Harbus, Professor Trevor Fetter shares his thoughts on how HBS students can learn crisis leadership by observation in 2020.

I first knew Kevin Sharer as the legendary Chief Executive Officer of one of the world’s most important companies. Many of our MBA students first knew him as Professor Kevin Sharer in the Strategy unit at HBS. Kevin had a remarkable career in organizations as diverse as the Navy, GE and, ultimately, the biotech innovator Amgen. After retiring from Amgen, Kevin joined the faculty of HBS, where he taught, among other things, RC Strategy and developed and taught a Short Intensive Program (SIP) on “The Life and Role of the CEO.” After eight years on the faculty, he left this past spring to move back to California. For many years, Kevin wrote this column for the Harbus, commenting with an experienced CEO’s perspective on issues of relevance and importance to MBA students. He inserted a “mature voice,” as the editors referred to it, among these pages, offering observations on leadership, careers, and life.

It was a chance encounter with Kevin at a mutual friend’s California home in the fall of 2017 that led me to join the faculty. I am very grateful for his encouragement, and I, along with other contributors, hope to do justice to “Kevin’s” column.

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I often draw a comparison between the HBS classroom and what a business leader’s job actually looks like. In that sense, HBS is a two-year simulation. Depending on the course and the case, we may be simulating a leadership team as they analyze a problem to find the best solution, a CEO making a decision in a gray area where the alternatives are all bad or a young executive facing a tough situation for which they are not fully prepared. In some courses, we are simulating the process an investor uses to analyze a company to make an investment decision or to find out if something fishy is going on. Sometimes we are the board of directors—removed from day-to-day management but responsible for making important decisions that affect management and the future of the company. The HBS case method and classroom enable MBA students to gain vast and diverse experience in a short period of time. Months and years are reduced to an 80-minute discussion where students analyze a situation and decide what to do. I know it is hard to believe, but years from now you will remember many of these case discussions and what you learned about specific situations, companies, and industries. Last fall, thirty-five years after my RC year, my wife and I were driving north on Highway 128 in Napa Valley. A sign for the Freemark Abbey winery immediately triggered memories of a discussion in Managerial Economics (then a required course) in Aldrich 7: should they leave the grapes on the vine a little longer in order to have a chance for Botrytis to form and create a more valuable dessert wine? Make the decision tree; do the math; reduce it to an equation. (That course is no longer required, the case is not used in the RC, and to paraphrase Hansel in Zoolander, while I’ve never tasted the wine, I’ve always respected them for making it.)

In March of this year, HBS-as-simulation took on a new meaning as our classroom abruptly became virtual and every aspect of life changed in what seemed like an instant. While there have been many consequential problems and crises that affected the HBS community this year, I would like to focus on that initial pressing question: how to respond to the rapidly unfolding Covid-19 crisis in the midst of a semester.

This has been a brutal year, but for students of leadership, it has offered a live-action laboratory in which to observe leadership styles, consequences, and outcomes where the stakes are literally life-and-death. At HBS, those of us who were not in the room making the decisions were able to observe exceptional crisis leadership in action. 

First, consider the initial problem and outcome: faced with an ill-defined threat, the entire institution pivoted to Zoom within a short couple of weeks from a more than a hundred-year-old tradition of in-person teaching in a very specific purpose-built classroom. In LCA, we continued our discussions of case protagonists who are faced with gray-area decisions, often have no good choices, lack sufficient information, and must try to identify the least-worst path. They are under time pressure and cannot avoid making a decision.

This was precisely the situation that Dean Nohria and his leadership team faced in early March. Spring break would begin on March 14 and classes would resume on March 23. Over the break, students would scatter all over the world and return to the dorms, dining facilities, and Aldrich classrooms. The break put urgent time pressure on a decision, but it also offered an opportunity.

I recall one of my colleagues saying in March that in many respects HBS was like a stationary cruise ship, with several thousand passengers and crew. However, unlike a ship at sea, these several thousand inhabitants of Soldiers Field were coming in contact with thousands of other people beyond campus every day, creating a volatile situation in which the virus could spread through the community very quickly.

The situation that confronted the Dean had all the characteristics of the gray-area decisions we had been discussing in LCA: a protagonist is required to make a consequential decision with imperfect information under intense time pressure; he or she has many constituents with different interests; economic, legal, and ethical implications and constraints imposed by a variety of laws and by being part of a larger organization. 

In 14 years as CEO of a large organization, I made plenty of these types of decisions, although few as consequential as that faced by the Dean. After so many years in the CEO chair, I have a sense for when a big decision is made well, and the Dean’s decision to hold the last in-person MBA classes on March 12 and to resume with Zoom-based classes on March 23 was exactly right. As important, the way the faculty, staff, and students mobilized to carry it out is perhaps the most impressive organizational pivot I have ever seen. The Dean’s actions were timely, decisive, transparent, and well-communicated, and the entire organization rallied in support. 

The rapid move to online teaching also showed extraordinary dedication to the school’s mission by the staff. These members of the HBS community, many of whom students never meet, accomplished something amazing in a few short weeks: they procured an enormous amount of equipment for online teaching and changed nearly everything about how the school’s physical infrastructure operated. Members of the faculty with online experience trained their faculty colleagues in the technology and techniques of how to best teach on Zoom. The faculty and staff did all this while facing all of the personal uncertainty and stresses imposed by the unfolding pandemic. And the students rose to the occasion in a spectacular way by returning from the one-week break fully capable of making the best of the Zoom classroom.

My LCA students in (the fabulous) Section H of MBA Class of 2021 put me on the spot in our final class with a very direct question: did I believe the Dean had done the right thing, and specifically was it fair for the University not to offer a discount on tuition (beyond the minor reduction due to the cancellation of FGI)? I responded that I believe we conveyed 100% of the learning we had intended for the in-person course. It was not 100% of the total HBS experience for sure, and many students were disappointed and even angry with some elements of the decision. I also asked the section to consider whether they were over-valuing the social and networking elements of the experience and under-valuing the actual learning. I expressed that the value of their HBS degree in 2021 would not be any less than for the classes of 2019 or the partially online 2020. Still, I understand and appreciate the students’ deep disappointment with being on the receiving end of this kind of disrupted experience at a foundational point in life. 

This has been a very disturbing year for anyone who is paying attention to anything beyond the value of their investment portfolio, but it offers an opportunity for us to observe leaders and leadership in business, non-profits, and government. Just as we learn from the simulation of the case method in the HBS classroom, don’t miss this opportunity to learn from paying close attention to the decisions and actions of people in positions of authority. Are they decisive yet adaptable to changing facts? Are their decisions based on the best possible information? Do they communicate their decisions well? And does the decision maker take responsibility for the consequences of his or her decisions? File away your observations in 2020 for a time when the responsibility to decide is yours. And welcome, and welcome back, to HBS. Most of you are in the vicinity of campus, so for an example of exceptional leadership during this most difficult year of crises, you need look no farther than Morgan 125.


Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86) is a Sr. Lecturer in General Management at Harvard Business School. He teaches FRC, LCA, and the SIP: The Life and Role of the CEO. Before joining HBS, he was Chairman and CEO of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a Fortune 150 company. Earlier in his career, he was CFO of the movie studio MGM and an investment banker. In addition to teaching at HBS, he serves on corporate and non-profit boards and advises several early stage healthcare companies.

September 10, 2020
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