Best 40-Under-40 Professor Deepak Malhotra

Deepak Malhotra of Harvard Business School

Deepak Malhotra of Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School’s Deepak Malhotra, 38, is a master negotiator. So much so, that advisers to heads of states and armed groups seek his advice to navigate the messy, twisted path to peace. He also counts former supermodel and CEO Tyra Banks among his students. Those not lucky enough to attend this classes refer to his best-selling books on the subject, including I Moved Your Cheese: For Those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze. In fact, this journalist consented to sharing direct quotes with him before running the story–a testament to his persuasiveness.

The professor of negotiations brings this expertise to his students, who range from C-suite executives in Harvard’s Executive Education program to comparatively amateur MBAs in HBS’ Negotiation course. Since he started teaching at Harvard in 2002, Malhotra has collected the prestigious HBS Faculty Award and the Charles M. Williams Teaching Award. He’s also been tapped twice to present the end-of-year speech to graduating students. Teaching laurels aside, Malhota is most proud of his deep relationships with this students. “I’ve always thought of the teacher-student relationship as perhaps the most important one that exists,” he says. “I would even use the word ‘sacred’ to describe what the relationship is about.”

It’s no surprise that a top negotiator would value relationships. In fact, connections form the crux of his pet subject: “Negotiation isn’t about business or about money; negotiation is fundamentally about human interaction,” he explains. “The basic question we’re trying to figure out is how do we engage with other human beings in a way that helps create better understandings and agreements.”

He has an answer for that: empathy. “The most important tool, the No. 1 quality of a great negotiator is empathy,” he says. “Whether you’re negotiating a financial transaction, whether you’re negotiating conflict, whether you’re negotiating something horrendous or something benign, it all boils down to how well you can see the world the way they’re seeing it.”

Malhotra applies this principle to his teaching by recalling his own expectations and experiences as a student. “There were teachers who should have been teaching me X but really changed the way I saw the world and changed the way I saw myself and changed what I wanted to do with my life,” he explains. “And when I became a teacher I think that was probably deeply embedded in some way.”

But maintaining the learner mentality can be tough, especially for a professor advising some 1,000 students and junior faculty members each year. Malhotra practices kung fu and jiu-jitsu to regain the perspective of a student training under a master. He’s also a father of three children under six, which keeps him constantly on his toes. “My kids teach me how to negotiate, and then I teach my students,” he quips.

Fatherhood may have also taught him a thing or two about tough love. When a group of C-suite executives ditched Malhotra’s course in Harvard’s Owner/President Management program for a ski trip, he sent out an email dis-inviting them to the following class. “You should be in the business of creating value, and you can capture a piece of it once you’ve created it … you can’t do just one or the other,” he explains. Their classmates had scrambled to reorganize for a key group exercise and had lost valuable time in the process. “What they had done was so contrary to the spirit of what we try to do in a classroom and the implicit and explicit understanding we have of being in it together,” he explains. Several years later, Malhotra learned that one student kept a printed and framed copy of the email in his office as a reminder to stick to his principles in every situation.

While Malhotra’s teaching no doubt helps students navigate everything from purchasing a car to pitching a business plan, he views his primary responsibility as improving their lives in less materialistic ways. “Most people’s happiness in life doesn’t depend on how well they negotiate a million-dollar deal or how well they negotiate their house,” he points out. “It depends on all these other human interactions they have with folks, which they perhaps mismanage because they don’t have these basic tools and principles.”

While he can’t claim to teach empathy, he can emphasize its importance and demonstrate its value. “If you can have that as part of your approach to dealing with other human beings, you’re just more likely to end up in better situations and with better understandings and have a better life.”

Deepak Malhora is among “The World’s 40 Best B-School Profs Under the Age of 40

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