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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How is it like to attend Harvard Business School ?

The question !

Today I was with one of my Vietnamese ex-student, a young successful man, and he asked me a strange, unexpected question: ” Did you ever regret anything about getting an MBA at Harvard ?” I was surprised and I replied “never” without hesitation. Then he asked me why ! It’s always hard to answer such question on the spot because it leads to a number of thoughts. So, this is for him ! And for you !

First of all, this was a dream coming true at a young age. I was 25 at the time and my dream was to study in the US in a prestigious university. It could have been Stanford or MIT but then, Harvard was some kind of myth. When you’re offered a ticket entrance for theirMBA, it’s hard to say no. But actually, I only realized the value of the journey after going through it.

First of all, I went through “experiential learning” before the word was invented. Solving cases, day after day, for two years, was quite an experience. Eighty students in a classroom, trying to get a minute or two to talk and get a point to their peers and their prof, teaches you the importance of self expression. If you never talk, you’re frustrated and never get recognized. If you say some platitude, you feel others looking at you with some kind of pity and the prof ignoring you ! You learn humility and the value of words.

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Secondly, I gradually built my selfconfidence. This is a key point in all strong MBA programs. People enter fresh, either underconfident or overconfident, and the confrontation with others is balancing all that. You quickly see where you stand. In class discussions and through the tests. Being in a group of very smart individuals leads you toward excellence. It’s like playing in Champions League. At the end, you get out of that experience with an exceptional level of confidence in your skills and, if you’re lucky, you are balancing that happy feeling with a high degree of humility. That’s the top !

Thirdly, I was taught by great profs. I had had good and some very good teachers in my life so far but i was amazed by the enthusiasm and the professionalism of Harvard profs. I got interested in marketing when following Hiro Takeushi, http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/profile.aspx?facId=6563, a young Japanese guy, now a famous professor who was just stunning ! A real show ! I learned strategy with Malcolm Salter http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/profile.aspx?facId=6545 and Joe Bower http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Pages/profile.aspx?facId=6426. Their techniques of teaching inspired me so much that I decided that I’d be a prof of strategy some day. Which I became. They were fun, but tough. Friendly with students but incredibly respected. So inspiring that we were waiting impatiently for the next class session.

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There are many other things that made this MBA the experience of the life. A wonderful campus, the legacy of heritage, sport and fun, and a number of anecdotes that we like to remember. But basically, it gave to my life a dimension that is still guiding me today.

Harvard is not the only place where you can experience all this. In any great MBA, including the one I’m now teaching in, the journey is more important than the knowledge. Today it’s easy to get the knowledge: you click and it’s there !   Giving sense to knowledge is the trick !

I wish you can all, “ride high”, as rangers say in the wild West. As high as you can. And still higher !

Be inspired !