It was four days before last year’s graduation at the Harvard Business School when Dean Nitin Nohria received the anguished phone call at his home on a Sunday afternoon. Two distressed MBA students had some rather tragic news: an MBA classmate had gone missing in Portland, Maine.
The evening before the three students had ventured into a popular bar in Portland Harbor for a pre-graduation celebration. Just before midnight, 31-year-old Nate Bihlmaier left the bar without his friends. Apparently over-served, Bihlmaier stumbled off the pier and accidentally drowned.
The full extent of the tragedy was unknown to Nohria when he convened a telephone meeting late that Sunday evening with key HBS leaders, including Youngme Moon, faculty director of the MBA program.
‘A TRAGEDY THAT NONE OF US COULD EVER IMAGINE’
“We had a family that was in a tragedy that none of us could ever imagine and we felt we should be there,” recalls Nohria. “This was the right thing to do. What could I ever do that was more important than this? My view was if I had gotten a call like that and my kid was in trouble I would drop everything and go.”
So at 6 a.m. on Monday, Nohria and Moon got into a car and went straight to Portland to lend support and encouragement. Over the next two days, Nohria comforted family members and students, openly praised the integrity and intelligence of the missing student to reporters anxious to portray him as a spoiled rich kid, and pulled every string a Harvard Business School dean could muster to insure the search was a top priority. He called then U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe along with a key contact in the U.S. Coast Guard, and he walked into the Portland police station to speak directly with the chief of police.
“’I know that you have other things to do but we have graduation in a couple of days and we need to get this resolved quickly,” Nohria recalls telling the police chief. “’The only thing that would make me unhappy is if the speed of resolution was in any way shaped by how many resources we brought to it. I can understand there is always uncertainty. What wouldn’t make me happy is if we didn’t do all we could.’”
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE IN A DELICATE SITUATION
When the body was pulled from the bottom of Casco Bay on Tuesday, Nohria had another delicate issue to wrestle. “You have one family that is in deep mourning and you have 900 families for whom this is the greatest celebration of their lives,” he explains. “How do you thread the needle of honoring both? We couldn’t allow the sorrow of this family to completely cloud the joy that other families had every right to feel. Yet, Nate’s family had every reason to feel sorrow and we needed to honor their sorrow.”
On graduation day, Nohria managed to do both while not trivializing either. At commencement, he named a scholarship in honor of Bihlmaier, presented his diploma to the student’s pregnant wife and parents, and for the graduating students and their families celebrated what many regarded as a lifetime achievement. “I think we found a way to get through it in which everyone came together in amazing ways,” he says.
Nohria’s empathetic handling of the tragedy as well as his bold leadership of the Harvard Business School earn him Dean of the Year honors from Poets&Quants for 2012. As dean of the world’s most powerful and influential school of business, Nohria has unflinchingly led the school into a new brave era.
BIG CHANGES AT HARVARD THOUGH NOTHING WAS BROKEN
When he became dean in July of 2010, it would have been tempting for the leadership professor-turned-dean to go slow or to play the role of a mere steward at Harvard where nothing was broken. Instead, Nohria has aggressively pushed through an overhaul of an already world-class MBA program, adding experiential learning to Harvard’s dominant case study method of teaching. He astutely used the convening power of the school to get into the center of the debate over U.S. competitiveness, leveraging the star power of HBS’ faculty, its alumni and the Harvard Business Review to bring attention to a crucial economic concern. And he has been willing to openly confront controversial issues that most deans would sweep under the table, from sexual harassment to grading policies that had disadvantaged female MBA candidates.
And now Nohria is in the quiet phase of a capital campaign that is intended to raise an unprecedented $850 million to $1 billion for an institution that already boasts an endowment of $2.8 billion, the largest of any business school in the world. The last HBS campaign brought in $600 million between 2000 and 2005. The newest fundraising effort will officially launch in September.