CASE METHOD SIMULATES LIFE AS A CEO
While the general public may connect HBS with leadership, prestige, and excellence, the Class of 2018 associate it with something else altogether: the case method. Pioneered and perfected at the school, cases prepare students to face real business problems, where they must weigh various options —along with their tradeoffs and implications. The case method is far from a solitary affair at HBS. Each class, students are expected to actively express and defend their positions in front of 90 or more peers, with part of their grade hinging on the quality of their responses.
In the process, they hone their analytical prowess, judgment and communication skills —all critical traits for leaders. They learn to think holistically, to look at issues from the viewpoints of various stakeholders ranging from business functions like finance, sales, and operations to outside parties like customers, regulators, and the media. Drawing on their experiences, they exchange ideas with peers and build on their knowledge to craft the best possible solutions. And “possible” is key here as cases also teach students about limitations. Here, there are no correct answers or simple formulaic solutions. Instead, there is just incomplete and ambiguous data that requires students to ask the right questions to peal away to the underlying issues.
In other words, cases prepare students to think like CEOs — “broadly and long-term” in the words of Lucero. According to Rohit Sudheendranath, a chemical engineer by trade who launched a luxury chocolate brand in India, HBS students will read around 500 cases over their two years. This repetition, and the mindset it develops, is the key benefit of a Harvard MBA. “The cases help students develop the habit of making decisions with limited data while evaluating and debating pros and cons to the minutest of details,” he explains. “This is what leaders do on a daily basis, and this was the strongest pull for me towards HBS.”
“I NEVER WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF IT THAT WAY”
Lucero witnessed the power of the case method first-hand by sitting in on a class taught by Anita Elberse. The case covered Beyonce’s decision to disrupt the record industry by foregoing the usual marketing and distribution channels in releasing her 2013 album. “It was a pretty well-rounded discussion on how the Queen Bey was taking greater control as the CEO of her brand as well as the pros, cons, and impact of her strategy,” he says. “At the end, Professor Elberse explained how she went about writing the case, which showed us the case method in action through an engaging example.”
The case method also fosters a collaborative spirit, where the value of learning from peers cannot be understated. “As an adult, I know that I learn best from my peers and from debate and discussions that challenge my core assumptions and views,” notes Dixon, “which forces me to widen my aperture and view problems from different angles and through different lenses.” In that sense, it often replicates how people learn in the workplace says Handlin. “I could learn from examples of what people had actually done in the past and do so in the context of the interactive and engaged groups that I had found most enriching in my work experience.”
That’s all by design, adds Leopold. “A hallmark of our case method pedagogy is that our students are teachers as well as students, as they share their thoughts and perspectives with one another and with their professors. A goal of every case method class is to have students leave the room saying to themselves:”I never would have thought of it that way.” That outcome can come only from a veritable orchestra of different voices in the class.”
CORPORATE CLIMBERS? TRY ENTREPENEURS
Of course, the Harvard curriculum isn’t just about churning out cases. It also includes a strong hands-on component, with each student completing a FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development) experience, where students trek off to destinations like Istanbul and Jakarta to launch a solution on behalf of clients like PepsiCo or Harley Davidson. Such exercises tap into an increasingly defining characteristic of HBS students: Entrepreneurial.
Along with requiring a second term course in entrepreneurship (TEM), the program includes over 30 professors focused on the area, the second largest faculty group at the school. In addition, HBS students can pick from over 30 electives related to entrepreneurship. The school also boasts the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, which sponsors everything from the New Venture Competition to an accelerator for HBS students and alumni alike. In fact, entrepreneurship, as much as general management, courses through the school’s DNA. Over half of HBS alumni eventually start their own firms, which include a third of the 100 best-funded startups over the past five years.
For Lucero, these resources are the bridge to his dream of someday opening his own business. “I have always wanted to follow my family’s example and become an entrepreneur,” he explains. “However, as major contributor to the welfare of my family, I have not been able to take this risk. HBS’s increased support for entrepreneurship, including the innovation lab and the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship, provides the perfect incubator to explore this path.”
BRINGING HUMOR TO THE CLASSROOM…WHEN APPROPRIATE, OF COURSE
While there are some HBS students hoping to convert their MBAs to passes into Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, or Google, you’ll find plenty who feel their degree is another step towards their larger mission. Lucero, for one, dreams of someday work as a social entrepreneur at a venture capital firm to provide capital to organizations devoted to social impact. More specifically, Dixon plans to take the lessons from HBS and apply them to the threats inherent to water scarcity. At the same time, Sudheendranath dreams of capitalizing on disruptive digital innovation in India. “Today’s digital revolution unlocks enormous value across the product value chain – from design, smart manufacturing, supply chain to business model innovations,” he observes.
Before then, each has a part to play in the Class of 2018. For Kimbrough, that means setting an example. “I hope that my peers find inspiration in my determination, adaptability, and commitment to seeking out new ways of thinking and bringing humor to just about every situation imaginable – ideally when appropriate.” Dixon is looking to balance being a “team player” with being someone “who helped elevate everyone’s performance.” Likewise, Lucero paraphrases Einstein in hoping that he can bring out the best in others. “I would like my peers to say that I inspired them to become people of value rather than just people of success by showing them my authentic self and enabling them to be their true selves.”
To read profiles of incoming HBS students — along with their advice on tackling the GMAT, applications, and interviews — click on the links below.