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Exit Strategy: Navigating from Cases to Reality

Akil Fernando (MBA ’24) collects advice from faculty on transitioning out of HBS and back into the real world.

I’ve felt increasingly nostalgic as I’ve walked through campus since spring break. With graduation around the corner, I find myself asking friends how they’re feeling about coming up on the last couple of weeks left at HBS, how they’re planning on making the most of our remaining time, and whether they could do another year of adult summer camp. One recurring theme is a degree of well-placed anxiety around re-entering the real world.

As a returning EC who took some time off, I thought I would’ve had the answers, having lived vicariously through my former classmates who went through the EC year and are already back to being functional adults while I’ve been finishing up at HBS. Sadly, I didn’t feel like I had any wisdom I could offer my current classmates, despite the extra time in the HBS bubble.

As I’ve wrestled with these questions that I’ve posed to my friends, I thought I would turn to practitioner faculty members as a sounding board. These professors and senior lecturers, many of whom are alumni of HBS, walked the same halls as this year’s graduating class as former MBA students, had decorated careers in their respective fields, and ultimately chose to return to HBS to teach. They are doubly HBS, in that they have seen their former students tackle the real world in addition to their own journeys.

Professors Ted Berk (MBA ’01), Monique Burns Thompson (MBA ’93), Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86), Vikram Gandhi (MBA ’89), Nori Gerardo Lietz, Shikhar Ghosh (MBA ’80), Emily McComb (MBA ’06), Allison Mnookin (MBA ’98), Kevin Mohan (MBA ’91), Kristin Mugford (MBA ’93), Reza Satchu (MBA ’96), Eva Sudol (MBA ’94), Derek van Bever (MBA ’88), Christina Wing  (MBA ’98), and Royce Yudkoff (MBA ’80) kindly sat down with me to share their reflections. My conversations with these faculty members covered prioritizing as students at HBS, keeping the exploration going after graduating, transitioning back into their professional lives, staying connected to HBS, and observing from their students in the real world. Below, I’ve distilled my conversations into nine themes for this year’s graduating class, spanning relationships, professional skills, and impact.

1: Relationships don’t end after HBS – some are only beginning – but they require intentionality

Mugford: You don’t have to work to keep in touch with friends because you bump into them everywhere. The trickiest thing after school is to build the muscle of intentionality to keep in touch with friends from here. That takes planning and work. Many of my friends got in the routine of doing an annual trip and shared their lives together. They made the plan and stuck with it.

Fetter: Students think they have the RC year to make 94 best friends for the rest of their lives. The goal isn’t to have 94 best friends, but those friendships can continue to evolve. Circumstances change – where you work and live, your hobbies, etcetera, will change. The number of classmates I met in the last ten years is remarkably high. You bump into people and realize you were in the same class through broads, reunions, etcetera and you want to get together with them.

Mohan: Go see the people who make the good comments in your random EC class or the friend of a friend. Have a coffee or a beer with them. I got to reconnect with those people again when I moved to New York City, and I was glad I had met them.

Wing: My priority was to meet as many international students as possible, because I’ve always thought of the world as being very global. If you take business trips, spend time looking up classmates that are in that city. In your adult life, you can’t overbook and not show up to things. You might be able to do that at the HBS Club of NYC, but the HBS Club of Dubai is a much closer network!

2: Life will be turbulent, but find comfort in going through it with your HBS friends

Sudol: It was interesting watching people’s lives and seeing their careers develop, drawing on people when they were going through changes. As you're building your career, don’t forget to invest in people so you don't find yourself alone when you’re approaching retirement. You will go through life, career turbulence, and family situations together and realize that you have so much shared history.

Ghosh: People believe if you put it on a spreadsheet it can be true, and that the world is controllable. In life, stuff just happens (e.g., you meet someone) and you need to be ready. People have certain life plans, but the truth is you can control a year or two and then the world changes…What you do control are values, relationships, and other things where you have a lot more agency.

3: Tradeoffs made at HBS mirror prioritization in your adult life, so find happiness in intentionality

Mnookin: On a specific day, what is the most sacred of that day? Is there a case that you're excited about? Is there a moment for an extracurricular? The life lesson of that is to just accept that life is a juggle, and when you juggle, sometimes you drop things. Some of the balls break when you drop them because they’re crystal, some are rubber and they bounce. Focus on the crystal and forgive yourself for the ones that are rubber.

McComb: The tradeoffs at HBS train you well – this place teaches you that you can’t do everything. People who were intentional about choices were the most happy.

4: The confidence you gained from engaging in the case method is a huge leg up

McComb: Being able to speak in front of 93 people is a good skill, and watching other people do it that are great at it is invaluable. It’s not about loving it, but being able to do it effectively. Getting a complex idea across in very little time is hard, and there has to be a “so what,” just like at your job.

Fetter: One of the biggest areas of transformation for me while I was here – which I see in students but it may not be apparent to them while they are here – was I gained confidence in myself, my ability to express ideas, formulate a thought on the fly under pressure with incomplete information.

Mnookin: Part of what the HBS approach gives you is that you’ve been dropped into so many scenarios. Have I seen that before? Do I have friends I can call? Are there questions I can ask? 

5: You are prepared and trained for the real world 

Van Bever: On the last day of class, my best friend and I got a 6-pack of beer and made a list of everything they taught us here. There were a hundred things and it left me very fulfilled. After I graduated from HBS I wouldn’t be in a meeting where I didn’t understand what was being said – it was so confidence building. This place chalks the field for you.

Satchu: The single most important thing that HBS did was give me the confidence to trust my judgment. Part of the reason was that I had an impression that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, but the path I took to get here and the obstacles I overcame – not of my own choosing – were incredibly valuable in hindsight.

Yudkoff: All of my professional life has been about trying to implement pattern recognition…. You want to involve yourself in the companies with better positions and identify them fast and accurately. If there’s one thing that HBS has given me, it’s that capability.

6: Get out into the field and do the little things right

Gandhi: While HBS trains you for the next 35 years in terms of leadership, vision, etcetera, when you get out you’re still at the low end of the hierarchy. The blocking and tackling, attention to detail, and building credibility block-by-block are hard things to get back to. Sitting in Aldrich and thinking about big ideas is a shift away from not messing up on the other necessary things.

Burns Thomson: I created “power maps” to chart the people above me as well as my peers and subordinates, to understand what you could learn from them. It was a perspective that allowed me to remember that any place that I went I’m still the new person, and everyone around me knows more about the context that we’re in.

Wing: Whatever you go into, brush up on the industry and get to know everyone and be thankful for being there. Always ask if anyone needs help. Relationship development is beyond important – not about showing how smart you are but about earning their trust and showing you want to be part of the team.

Mohan: People should find the job that they can stay in forever, if that’s possible. Find a firm and figure out how it works… where the bones are buried and how to do a good job. The most successful people have found the right job and stayed there.

7: You know yourself better than you did before HBS

Berk: I’d be thinking about things that I can do or start now that I can carry forward into my life post-HBS. What seeds do I want to plant that I can continue to cultivate throughout next year? Shifting the mindset away from “this is the end of something” to “this is the beginning of something.” Sure, the next phase is very different, but you’ve learned a lot about yourself and the circumstances under which you are your best.

Van Bever: My sense is that students graduating into a tough environment are asking “was I right to come to HBS?” At a minimum the job market is hard and at maximum the Harvard brand has been tarnished. It’s easy to miss the impact that this place has had on you.

8: Live an integrated life centered on impact

Satchu: For me, impact required two things: resources (money and credibility) and learning (making consequential decisions), so that people would follow you. Start with thinking about the impact you want to have in your life.

Gandhi: You don't need to be purely focused on career and income. Think about the ability to integrate impact and doing well while doing good. When I graduated it was all very sequential: you get your education, then you start a family, then you focus on legacy. I advise students to not think in a sequential way and to integrate to have impact right from day one. I’m highly encouraged that students are thinking about things the right way and are going to solve these big problems.

Burns Thomson: I’m always awed by their creativity and their focus on fixing something, whether that’s hunger, the environment, financial literacy… whatever it is, they’re really bringing their business skills to problems in the world that need it. It's a beautiful combination of highly skilled and humble.

Leitz: I’m here because I believe I can make a difference in the industry, and every one of my students will know the answer to the question “For whom do I work?” It’s for whoever your major stakeholder is, and if you know that, you’ll be totally fine in your career.

9: Faculty want to keep in touch and help where they can

Van Bever: The good news for people who feel anxious about leaving is that the school is sincerely interested in building a lifelong relationship with alums. The head of the MBA program is the head of the alumni infrastructure, so we’ll figure out how to remain a force in your life.

Berk: I stayed super connected to my section and my classmates, but I did not stay that well connected to the institution. I think some of that is a generational thing. I love how many of my students call me for advice and keep me updated. All of them are at different interesting points in their lives and careers. You have bought yourself lifelong access, and I did not take advantage of that nearly enough.

Akil Fernando (MBA ’24) is originally from Toronto, Canada and has held private and public market investing roles in California, London, and New York. He graduated from Western University, where he was involved in the undergraduate business strategy journal and the investment club.

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