2012 Dean of the Year: Harvard’s Nitin Nohria

“Our goal will be to use this campaign to gain greater support for the innovations we’ve put into the MBA program and to help us get the resources to raise the value proposition of the MBA,” he says. “In part, this will be an effort to get our alumni to better understand what we’re doing to remain a leader in business education. In our first century, we didn’t need to be global. People came to us. And now as we think about the new century, we need to do things differently. These are all expensive things relative to what it used to be. For them to be sustainable in the long run, we will need more alumni support.”

FIVE PRIORITIES SET THE STAGE FOR AN AMBITIOUS AGENDA

Nohria’s early accomplishments can be traced to the fact that he had built important coalitions at the school since becoming a teacher of leadership and management at Harvard in 1988.

An immigrant from India who came to the U.S. in 1984 to attend MIT’s Sloan School of Management on a scholarship, Nohria quickly made an impression with his intellect and his work ethic. After graduating with his PhD in management from MIT, he joined the Harvard Business School faculty where he focused on human motivation and leadership issues.

By the time he was asked to become the first HBS dean from outside North America, Nohria had established himself as a heavyweight academic who had authored more than 50 journal articles, book chapters and case studies. He also earned his institutional chops, leading the school’s organizational behavior faculty and had been senior associate dean of faculty development.

SELF-EFFACING AND SOFT-SPOKEN, HE’S NOT EXACTLY A DEAN FROM CENTRAL CASTING

Self-effacing and soft-spoken, the 50-year-old professor is not a dean from central casting. As Nohria himself has noted, he’s just five-feet, six-inches tall and bald. “Charisma is not the first word that comes to mind when people meet me,” he has said.

Nohria’s self-deprecation belies his bold ambitions for the school. As soon as he was announced as the incoming dean in May of 2010—two months before he assumed office–Nohria launched a “listening campaign” to inform his agenda. Conversations with faculty, alumni and students led to the setting of five priorities, which quickly became known as the five Is: innovation, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, and integration (see The Five Priorities of Nitin Nohria).

His first priority became innovation in Harvard’s educational programs, including the crown jewel of the school, its MBA program. Against concerns that he was moving too fast, Nohria pushed through major changes in the MBA curriculum. The revisions lessened the school’s dependence on its previously sacrosanct case method of teaching that has been the dominant pedagogy at HBS since the mid-1920s. The changes also impacted every one of Harvard’s more than 1,860 MBA candidates and the vast majority of its 218-strong faculty.

The most significant innovation was a new first year course dubbed FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development). It is based on small-group learning experiences that focus on leadership, global business, and entrepreneurship. Among other things, FIELD included a required eight-day global immersion experience during the January term and a requirement to think up and build a micro-business with seed capital from Harvard Business School. All told, Harvard spent $10 million to create and implement the changes (see HBS Preps 900 MBAs For A Massive Global Invasion and Harvard Coaxes 150 Startup Ideas Out Of Its MBA Students).

HE GIVES THE SCHOOL AN “A” GRADE FOR ITS INNOVATION IN THE MBA PROGRAM

Asked to grade himself on innovation, Nohria gives the school an “A” for what it pulled off. “It’s true that pieces of it have not been tried by others,” he says. “There are people who have sent students out on global trips. There are people who do entrepreneurial ventures. I think doing it in a structured large-scale systematic way with faculty oversight at every stage of the process” is what made this different. “Not many schools send a faculty member and three staff members to support a group of six or seven teams with real debriefs that occur every evening and a real structure for what to do. It may sound immodest, but relative to how many people said to me, ‘Nitin, you’ve got to be crazy to do this in less than a year,’ it was a big success. If that doesn’t get us an A, I’m not sure what would.”

Yet, Nohria is hardly smug about the innovations. “That doesn’t mean we got all of it right,” he adds after assigning himself the top grade.  “About two thirds of it worked and a third needs to be improved. So this year we have been ruthless about cutting out what our students told us didn’t work. We have a better narrative because we know how things connect and build upon one another.”

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