A Revealing Interview With Harvard Business School’s Dee Leopold

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

You ultimately decide who gets in out of the 1,800, right?

I do, but not always in isolation.

It’s clear based on our ding reports that some extraordinary people are getting turned down.

The way I organize my head is in a two-by-two matrix. One axis is work experience—or the voice you bring to the class—and the other axis is personal qualities—what kind of person you are. We don’t have people in the lower left corner. It would be great to have people coming from mutual backgrounds with amazing personal qualities who will be great at the case method.

I’ll give you someone who is coming to the class who is really interesting this fall. This is a guy who worked in a small manufacturing facility in a tiny town in Michigan where they make baby formula. He was in quality control, working with union people. Early on the job, they discovered there were bugs in the machinery of the factory. They are contaminating the product, and management was obviously deeply concerned about the problem. The news trucks have gathered outside. The CEO comes. That is an amazing voice to bring to our course on Leadership and Corporate Accountability.

Another example is a standard McKinsey & Co. engineer who had flown in for an interview from the West Coast. I asked him what he had done on the flight coming out? He said, ‘I love to listen to Supreme Court arguments and can now tell the voices of the judges on the Supreme Court from each other.’ I asked if he ever wanted to be a lawyer? He said, ‘no, this is just cool to me.’ I thought that is an interesting person who is curious, and curious goes a long way. He could come from an over-represented background like McKinsey but I know he’s going to be on it and interested in the case he has never heard of in the industry he doesn’t care about. We don’t approach every candidate the same way.

Who stood out this past cycle?

You always remember the people who show consideration and kindness to others when we’re not looking. We had someone who was visually impaired come for an interview and I think he may have overestimated how independent he could be in terms of navigating an unfamiliar campus. And there was another candidate who was here for an interview and who went out of his way to help him. You know that person must be completely freaked out on the day of his interview but he was eager to help a person he had never met before. And we weren’t watching—we were watching like parents who watch with the eyes in the back of our heads. There are lots of opportunities like that.

What was the toughest call you had to make this past admission cycle?

The calls are tough when you are seeing really strong personal qualities and possibly nascent leadership talent and you are not sure the analytical foundation is there and you worry about putting them at risk in the classroom. That is a very expensive place for a person to fail, though fail is a bad word. At the end of the day, this is a school and people have to be able to do the analytics. Not everyone has to be an Excel monkey and build models, but you do have to be numerate and not phobic about numbers. When you don’t see evidence to do the guts of the work here, you realize you are putting this person at risk unnecessarily. There are many other great schools out there that may not ask what we are asking.

When you sit down to interview a candidate, do you ever imagine who they could be 10 or 20 years ago? Do you actually look for a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs?

No, not necessarily. I try not to get grandiose in my speculations because I went here and I have seen people as students who I would not have predicted would be high impact.

One of the things HBS has done in recent years is made an extraordinary investment in entrepreneurship. How do changes in the MBA curriculum like this cause changes in admissions?

I think that entrepreneurship is not an industry group in a way that finance or consulting is. It is more of an attitude that cuts across everything. This is more of a societal change that you are catching in the Kevin Roose book (“Young Money”) about kids wanting to be on the West Coast doing coding versus finance on the East Coast. They might have been literally the same clone of a person in different times. He follows some finance kids straight from college on Wall Street right after the meltdown. And he has been writing about the herd mentality of going to a West Coast school and pursuing a startup. He is implying that those are the same people. Wanting to start a business or thinking you want to start a business is in many ways foundational in terms of how young people see themselves.

So you are not looking for a certain percentage of those likely to start a business in crafting a new class?

No. There are people who have been entrepreneurs already and it’s pretty high, maybe a little more than 20% by the time they enter the class. There are people who are at big companies now who want to be entrepreneurial, and there are people who think they want to work for big companies and then start their own companies. So everything is just much more organic and swirling than static in putting yourself in a category.