What do they teach you at Harvard ?

I was on the Harvard campus a few days ago and I remembered so many people asking me again and again over my whole life: what did it bring you to go to Harvard ? Was it really useful ? Was it worth the money ? Did you really learn more than at Solvay ? Etc.

It’s always hard to answer all this because the experience is… quite an experience ! An experience appeals to all your senses and it’s never as good to tell the story of it. Actually, getting through a tough MBA program in a great university is a “parcours initiatique”(an initiatory journey). That journey that changes yourself completely. Let me tell you how !

The first challenge is to get selected and admitted to attend the program. You start learning at that initial point. Four key success factors here:

(1) having a life journey that shows real potential for leadership,

(2) working again and again on essays and tests,

(3) having a clear motivation to justify the investment,

(4) getting your application file reviewed by someone who knows what an MBA selection process is.

Most of candidates do not take the necessary time to go deep in this process. They do a quick superficial work. So, the first basic lesson is: if you don’t prepare your stuff thoroughly, you can’t succeed in any serious thing. Easy to say, not so easy to do, but the base of professionalism.

When you enter Harvard you get a feeling of proudness that will never disappear but it’s quite different on the first day than what you feel at the end. Proudness to be a student in the best university of the world, for sure. Proudness to have gone through the tough selection process. Proudness to sit there on the first class. It’s quite overwhelming. But you soon realize that the journey will be long and tougher than you thought. You face competition. Competition from your own self more than competition from your peers. You want to be “à la hauteur” (at the top level). You thought you were brilliant and you discover that you’re just trying to survive. It takes some time to realize that the guys who are great talkers may not be great thinkers. It takes time to emerge and see where you stand in the group. And, gradually, you understand what your strong skills are. And, gradually, you become more and more confident in your own ablilites. Lesson two: let the so called “brilliant talkers” express their superficiallity. Listen and think, analyse, then talk scarcely but deeply. I’ve used this technique for years in meetings, conferences and business gatherings. It helps me judge very quickly who are the key people in meetings, they are rarely the ones who talk too much and want to get the light on them !

You enter for knowledge and what you get out with is a different mindset. Of course you learn a lot of things. But what you learn is not about techniques. It’s about ways to approach problem solving and decision making. I must admit that I’m not quick on making decisions. It’s my weakness. But I analyze quickly what is at stake. Working on business cases everyday during 2 full years trains your mind to get directly to the big picture. That’s what general management is about. You learn to forget about details and focus on the essentials. Analysis is the art to make links between elements of information in order to reach a clear understanding of a problem. Don’t misunderstand me: details are important, especially in the execution part of management. But lesson three is: getting bugged in details prevents you from understanding the core of a situation. Especially when you have to deal with complexity. One of my main frustrations in the academic world was to see so called intelligent people meeting and having endless discussions about details while letting the important unsolved. Maybe it’s coming from research methodologies. It’s just terrible for management !

It may seem surprizing to some of you but another thing that you learn at Harvard is to not take yourself seriously. Harvard guys and gals have the reputation to be hard nosed, competitive, serious and tough. It’s a caricature ! I’ve never had so many laughs in class than at the Harvard Business School. Laughing about jokes of others, laughing about profs remarks, laughing about myself. Business should not be considered seriously. It’s an adult game but it’s a game. And it’s a dangerous game too because it led to “monopoly behaviors” by some irresponsible guys on financial markets. Lesson four: laugh releases tension and stress. It should remind you that business, power and influence are minor problems in life compared with most people face in this world. I’m not sure that all my classmates remembered this but as far as I’m concerned, I did.4661119295_62ea7c5795.jpg

As a conclusion, you see that I didn’t answer my original question “What do they teach you at Harvard ?” by things like management techniques, marketing, finance or strategy. After all, techniques are changing continuously. Techniques you can learn in companies, in books and now on the internet. Being a better person, being curious of everything, being modest while self-confident and respectuous of others’opinions is what you learn in great schools.

Be inspired !


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