A Revealing Interview With Harvard Business School’s Dee Leopold

HBSsignLeopold says that for years she would come to campus and pick up folders in giant buckets and bring them back to her home in Concord, Mass. “We had boxes and boxes of things going back and forth all the time,”  she recalls. “It was very scary. You would say to the babysitter, ‘If there was a fire, you get the kids out first but very quickly you better go get those folders because there wasn’t any electronic record of them.”

It wasn’t until she became director in 2006 that she actually began working full-time from an HBS office on campus which is now in Dillon House.

An avid reader, Leopold sat down with Poets&Quants’ Editor John A. Byrne before taking off for a Great Books retreat in New Mexico where she will read and discuss E. M. Forster’s Passage to India. But she is also in the midst of reading One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobb’s book about the Cuban missile crisis, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

What’s the biggest difference between admissions now and when you started?

Because there were no interviews, we didn’t have as aggressive a calendar. Right now with the first deadline on Sept. 9 we will get through all the round one written applications in three weeks. because we’ll start to invite people to interview. In olden days, we could be passing around a folder pretty much until the day decision letters went out. It was a black box. Candidates didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes—if their applications had been read or not read.

When I showed up, we had a database and the Class of 2004 was the first class where everyone had been interviewed. But there was certainly less transparency. If there has been an arc in admissions that I can see it’s been toward transparency. It’s letting the candidates know what is going on with them. You don’t have to keep things a secret. What secrets could you possibly need to keep? So we like to make sure that whenever there is an opportunity to be transparent, we are. We think about that a lot.

There really are no secrets?

No. It’s a selection process. There aren’t rules like if you have this score you will be in and if you have that score you will be out. Selection is thoughtful and not rule-based. It’s not madcap or chaotic. We are making selection decisions. And it’s about the class. It’s not about whether I think John is a better person than Jim. It’s trying to get this wonderful salad going in the class and what ingredients does John bring and what does Jim bring.

We spend a lot of time imagining the kinds of conversations John would have with Jim if they were in the same section. What would they learn from each other? What would they ask each other? HBS is an amazing opportunity for conversations that you won’t ever have again in your life in terms of the richness of the kinds of people who are all heads-up and want to make a difference in the world and come from way different backgrounds. So we spend a lot of time thinking about what those conversations will be like. Those are fun speculations to have.

The pool has changed over the years, with far greater numbers of international candidates. Is that the single biggest change in applicants?

I’m not sure that is the most dramatic change. It’s been really nice to see more women in the pool. There are regions we see applications from that we hadn’t seen in the past. I have so much faith and respect for our admissions board because they specialize by industry and it’s their responsibility to stay current on trends. They’re on it.

There are no geographic specialties. We have people that tend to interview in certain locations. Everyone knows Elaine Chang is going to interview in Asia. The process is organized by things you choose—your industry–and not by chance—where you are born.

How has the world of admissions evolved in recent years?

I think it was a risk for us to move away from multiple essays. I think it was a risk to add the post-interview reflection. I think it’s been an investment in the interview process to make sure that this is a distinctive part of the application process. It’s important to us. We are making a commitment in 30 minutes to try to understand a candidate and to make sure that candidate feels understood. For people who interview on campus, it’s also an important time for them to get to see this place in its natural state—a real day here not waiting until after you’re admitted and there is some party.

This case method thing is really different and if I could really require one thing of applicants it is that they have some kind of signed statement that says I really explored the case method and I think I would really enjoy it because it’s so not like school.

We have so many people who have done well in school but those skills and muscles that you used to get As may not even get a workout here. Those are totally different muscles. If you like taking notes, if you like writing papers and if you like cramming for finals, you won’t get to do that here and you might be sad.

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