Culture at HBS: A Response to Jodi Kantor

Sep-11-2013 by
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The people for whom I have the most respect and admiration on this campus are not written about in The New York Times and are often not celebrated in graduation speeches.  What Ms. Kantor seemed to overlook in her recent piece about gender equality and culture at HBS is simple: the majority of people I know at HBS are thoughtful, caring, courageous, inclusive, and remarkably intelligent leaders.  The majority is passionate about gender equality.  The majority is dedicated to developing a new work/life paradigm for modern day business and families.

While they don’t make for dramatic or sensationalist stories, I wonder why we didn’t read about my classmate that volunteered hours each week as a Leadership & Values Representative to establish a safe and positive culture in section?  Why didn’t we hear about the female colleague who by being so down-to-earth, centered, and strong inspired me to be kinder and more giving with my own friends and family?  Why didn’t we hear about my finance section mate who volunteered over 5 hours each week coaching his peers on DCF valuation and multiples?  Why didn’t we hear about my colleague who has more wealth than I can imagine, yet never advertised it and offered support to me in my job search when there was no apparent quid pro quo?  Why we didn’t hear about my section mates who thanked one of our amazing female professors by writing and performing a song with the lyrics: “teach us how to be more like you!”?

What we often see, both within HBS classrooms and from afar, is a culture defined by the outliers.  When classmates, administration and the media focus on the individuals who have either committed severe offenses or have in some way remarkably beat the odds, these outliers in turn define our culture.  This is unsurprising – the business community is often characterized negatively as a result of notable but essentially isolated scandals such as Enron, the London Whale, or Bernie Madoff.   In no way would I recommend ignoring the negative parts of our culture.  I think we should continue to shine light on our weaknesses and vigorously hold individuals accountable for misdeeds.  However, it seems that in order to improve our culture, it’s important to dedicate at least as much as our energy, if not more, to celebrating the positive.  Although we cannot control what the media decides to sensationalize, we can spend more time acknowledging, encouraging, and embracing the amazing elements of our community.

In my view, the students, faculty, and staff who consistently go about their day with kindness, strength, conviction and respect, are the pulse of HBS.  And while this pulse is strong, I know we can do better.  With hard work and dedication, we can work together to make an already extremely special place an even stronger and more vibrant community.

Tactically, how can we do this?  If you haven’t been to a “My Take” presentation, I recommend attending the next talk. This is a forum in which some of HBS’ quiet, humble, and sincere voices are given a platform.  Where we can hear stories of courage and conviction.  Where we can listen to what people are passionate about and what motivates them to do great things in the world.  Where we can discuss what makes us unique.  Our section norms are another potential avenue.  Instead of just reading the “kill, f—, marry” anecdotes, we could also discuss profiles of individuals who have struck a healthy balance at HBS: those who have been able to socialize and party, while at the same time maintaining strong relationships with family and significant others; those who work tirelessly in high-paying jobs, while also giving back to their communities.  These stories may not be as dramatic as their conflict-filled counterparts, but they may go much further in providing the role models and reference points we all need during times of uncertainty and insecurity.

And, last but not least, most of what we can do falls on us as individuals.  When we see a classmate who is promoting a positive atmosphere, we can celebrate this by either talking about them positively with others, modeling their behavior, or telling them directly about their awesome contribution.

Almost all great teams have weaknesses.  Yet the teams that end up winning championships are those in which a balance is struck between addressing shortcomings head-on while leveraging and celebrating the strengths of every team member.  I am constantly inspired by “Team HBS”, and hope the leaders in our community (which includes all of us) continue to prove each day that Ms. Kantor’s characterization of HBS is, at most, an exaggerated relic of the past.

Eric Lonstein is a second-year student at Harvard Business School. For more information about this and other articles, email us at general@harbus.org.

Photo Credit: Emma Toshack, 2013. http://emtoshack.com/

 

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6 thoughts on “Culture at HBS: A Response to Jodi Kantor

  1. Tristan

    Thanks Eric…there are so many good things about life at HBS and in many ways I thank Ms Kantor for leading me to reflect on this.

    Reply
  2. Carey Jaros

    Thank you for your response, Eric. I could not agree more with what you’ve said here. The HBS in Ms. Kantor’s article in no way resembled the school I attended from 2003-2005. During my time at HBS, I can honestly say that there was not a single time that I felt like I was discriminated against as a woman. Not one. This is even more remarkable when juxtaposed against the business world, where my experience has been very different.
    The men I came to know at HBS – many of whom remain dear friends today – are some of the most compassionate, thoughtful, and fair people I know. They aren’t jet-setting megalomaniacs, but guys who are trying to figure out how to balance being good husbands, and fathers, and sons, and friends, with trying to pursue careers and give back to their communities. They feel tremendous pressure to live up to their potential and make good on all they have been given. I know this because I married one of my sectionmates. Incidentally, he stays home with our two daughters right now, while I work to support our family. Our HBS friends, men and women alike, think that is pretty cool – and so do I.
    Based on my experience at HBS, the people I met there are the first ones I would call if I were trying to work through something difficult – not just at work, but in my life. Why? First and foremost, because they are smart. But as important, they are good, moral people who can wade through complex issues and make decisions. This is what leadership is all about, and I believe HBS is the single best place on the planet for developing our future leaders.
    Hats off to Dean Nohria and his team for the work they are doing to make the school an even better place. HBS’ greatest strength is that it is always ahead of the curve, holding itself to the highest standard, and working on things that wouldn’t even be seen as broken, elsewhere.

    Reply
  3. Denise Silber

    Two remarks:
    a) The NY Times articles and comments have created a communications crisis, not an unsurmountable one, but a crisis nonetheless. Why are a couple of articles able to have so much impact? The main reason is that while HBS was a pioneer (thanks to Kim Clark) in wiring the campus for the Internet, in my opinion, the school has remained too traditional in its communication and completely underestimated the importance of Social Media. Many of the wonderful things that amazing people are doing at HBS should have naturally found their way into Social Media, creating a strong support system that would have diluted the impact of the recent critiques. When the current Dean visited the city I live in at the beginning of his tenure, I asked his intentions regarding Social Media and got a minimalistic answer. A Social Media strategy is not just having Facebook and Twitter shares on every page. It’s much more.
    b) Secondly in terms of the kinds of alums that are recognized by HBS, everyday kindness and egalitarianism are not the values we hear most about.
    I think that this is the ideal time for the school (and other business schools) to do some honest soulsearching.

    Reply
  4. Chuck Callan H'82

    Many things made it more difficult for female members of my class than for males. I am so thankful that Nitin is taking a sensitive and data-driven approach. The love and down-to-earth qualities of the recent reunion — among all attendees in all years — continue to sustain me. On both points, you don’t get it unless you’ve been there.

    Reply