Minding the Gap: Nohria's MBA Reforms at Harvard

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria Photograph by Mike Fein/Bloomberg

In my last blog, I emphasized the dangers of the gap between scholarly research at elite B-schools and the real world of business leaders. Not exactly a new problem, by the way. In the early years of the 15th century, King Henry IV had a succession problem on his hands, not typical in dynasties in those days. He had serious doubts about his eldest son and heir, Prince Hal. He felt that Hal wasn’t “kingly enough.” He promptly summoned Falstaff to join the prince on the front lines, where the French forces were dangerously encamped, to mentor his tenderfoot son. By so doing, he created the first “executive coach” in recorded history. Falstaff’s transformational advice to the future Henry V: “If you want to lead people, you’ve got to enter their world.”

Seven centuries later, not bad advice, even more relevant today. Wise people, in and outside the academy, are echoing that refrain. From the outside, David Brooks, the Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote that “Our universities operate too much like a Guild System, throwing out plenty of students with dissertations without practical knowledge. Why aren’t there more scholars who teach students to be generalists, to see the great connections?” From the inside, Luigi Zingales, professor of finance at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, in his new book A Capitalism for the People, is concerned that overspecialization is a serious issue in the business world as it is in B-schools: “We need to overcome the bad academic social norm that frowns on academic writing for a wider audience.”

Enough kvetching already. In my previous blog, I ended on a positive note, quoting a former dean of the Yale School of Management, Joel Podolny, now vice president and dean of Apple University. He is convinced that faculty and deans at the top B-schools “are doing good things that will make an impact on both internal and external stakeholders.” As a natural-born optimist, I want to believe he’s right. But as president of a major research university, over four decades ago, I was skeptical. Early in my presidency, I made what politicians nowadays would call a “misstatement.” It was a rookie mistake, using humor inappropriately in my first formal talk to the faculty. I should have known better. Looking back, it was just plain stupid, an offhand, gratuitous aside. “Universities,” I intoned, “are harder to move than a cemetery.”

And so they are. Why that’s so is a subject for another day. But for now, a pop quiz: What do Francis Ford Coppola, the film director, Howard Schultz, the Starbucks CEO, and Nitin Nohria, the 10th dean of Harvard Business School, have in common? Coppola compares filmmaking to opening a hotel. He just finished building his fifth hotel, which has been in production for six years, longer than it took to make Apocalypse Now. “In a movie,” he says, “the details are the things an audience notices. In a hotel it’s everything the guests experience.” That rhymes with the mantra of Schultz, “We sell coffee but our main product is the experience we provide—of a third place, away from home and the office.”

With Nohria, the reforms the school has taken under his leadership are incredible, at least to that skeptical side of me. This week (July 15) the Boston Globe published an article about the reforms that pretty much corroborates Podolny’s optimism. In it, John Byrne, editor in chief of Poets & Quants, a website covering graduate business education, was amazed by the speed with which the changes were made: “He has done in two years what it would take most deans 10 years to do.” More important than the speed of change is the substance of the initiatives. Nohria set forth five institutional imperatives. They were not taken out of the blue but resulted from an arduous, 10-city listening tour to discover firsthand the perspectives of alumni, corporate leaders, and other stakeholders, including the media. Additionally, he held a series of one-on-one meetings with his own faculty and staff.

In the early years of the last decade, I spent a fair amount of time on the HBS campus and consider Nohria a trusted colleague and friend. On campus, he’s seen as one who understands and respects HBS’s unique culture. Over the years, as a department chair and vice dean, he built a reservoir of goodwill and trust. Undoubtedly that accounts for the remarkable two years that so impressed John Byrne. The reality is that the trust and goodwill have been marinating for a decade or more.

Nohria puts the changes he’s initiated this way: “To make more progress in the education of leaders, we have to get better at translating knowing into doing.” That “knowing-doing” distinction is the key pivot to narrowing the gap between theory and practice. I refer to the London Tube’s warning: “Mind the Gap.”

To take only one of Nohria’s radical departures: All 900 students in the incoming first-year MBA class will take a newly designed course to complement their other classes. In the first semester of the first year, teams of six to eight members will spend 15 weeks planning, creating, launching, and leading (yes, leading) a new enterprise. It’s what Nohria refers to as Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD). The objectives are clear: to integrate all the analytics, the case studies, the lectures, and the rest of the curriculum through the crucible of action, through doing it! At the end of the semester, each team undergoes a thorough debriefing and evaluation. Some teams will make the “final cut”; others, the “failed track,” will focus on what went wrong and why. Sounds like real life, doesn’t it? Except that in real life, organizations rarely take the time or even want to look at what went wrong.

I asked earlier what Coppola, Schultz, and Nohria have in common. Experience, experience, experience was my answer. But that’s too simple. I’ll get to another quality in my next blog when I will focus on another “point of light” now taking place at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. A dean there is also Minding the Gap.

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