The Reinvention of Harvard Business School

by John A. Byrne on

Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria (Photo by Susan Young. Courtesy of Harvard Business School)

A couple of years ago, Nitin Nohria co-authored a Harvard Business Review article entitled “The Seven Things That Surprise New CEOs.” The Harvard Business School academic wrote the essay after several years of teaching and observing newly appointed chief executives who came to Harvard for a two-and-one-half-day workshop.

When Nohria penned the article with HBS star professors Michael Porter and Jay Lorsch, Nohira had no idea that he would soon assume a CEO-type role himself—the deanship of the most powerful and influential business school in the world. Now a year into his job, Nohria concedes that he has indeed been surprised by the unrelenting demands of the position.

“I used to be horrified at the lives of these CEOs who lived every day in 30-minute increments meeting with different constituents,” he says with a laugh. “Most people had to learn the job. Nobody was ready for it until they got it. It is a job that you grow into. It’s not a job that you are ever ready for. Some would say it’s ironic that I should be surprised and yet in many ways I had that same surprise.”

Surprised? Maybe. Unprepared? Hardly.

Within 12 short months since becoming dean of the Harvard Business School last July 1, Nohria has racked up accomplishments that would have taken some B-school deans a decade or more. They include:

  • Crafting and then communicating a new agenda for the school known as the five Is for innovation, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, and integration (See related story: The Five Priorities of Nitin Nohria).
  • Putting the leadership of the world’s most prestigious MBA program in the hands of an iconoclastic master teacher whose appointment raised eyebrows.
  • Pushing through significant changes to the MBA program against the concern by some that he was moving too fast.
  • Bringing in a record of women–39%– in his first entering class of MBAs.
  • Raising millions of dollars in donations, including a $50 million gift from India’s Tata Group and its philanthropic interests.
  • Creating task force groups to study everything from the school’s recruitment and retention of female faculty members to its disclosure policies on potential conflict-of-interests among faculty in the wake of the film Inside Job.

To some, the pace seems dizzying. “If you are a scholar of change management, you might shake your head and wonder whether it’s feasible to change so many things in an already well-run institution,” says Tom Eisenmann, who teaches entrepreneurship and heads up the elective curriculum at the school. “But we’ve made significant progress against all of them.”

FRESH FACES AND SWIFT CHANGES SHAKE UP THE OLD GUARD

At an institution known to gain comfort in conformity, Nohria has shown an eagerness to assume unusual risks, on both people and the flagship program for which the school is known. Some HBS old-timers were puzzled, for example, when Nohria named popular marketing professor Youngme Moon as the chair of the school’s MBA program, the first woman to hold that prestigious post. Though Moon has long been an exceptional teacher, she herself doesn’t have an MBA. She earned her PhD in communications–not a core business discipline–and perhaps more crucially, hasn’t hesitated to speak her mind.

On her personal website, Moon notes that Harvard “is an institution that was built on the backs of alpha males and even today the place seems to chew up junior faculty just for the fun of seeing how far it can spit them back out.” Such directness might have banished her to the doghouse in earlier years. Nohria concedes that when he announced the appointment, “A lot of people looked at me and said ‘really?’”

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  • Gigi

    Insightful article as always, John.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    Thanks Gigi.

  • Joe Seydl

    Great article, John! Very informative. Sounds like Dean Nohria is doing a lot! Hopefully other schools will follow in HBS’s footsteps by mixing academics with field experiences – it’s going to be necessity given how interconnected the global economy has become.

  • Arthur Dullsworthy

    Not sure. B-school messiah talk reminds of that Hopkins guy.

  • Sudhakar Sen

    sound leadership & nice blending of academics with industry

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