Where Culture Really Matters: Berkeley’s Haas School

The new $60 million Connie & Kevin Chou Hall on UC-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business

EMPLOYEE INTERVIEWS: ‘I WAS ASKED WHICH PRINCIPLE I MOST RESONATE WITH’

Culture questions have even become a critical part of screening employe candidates at the school. A little over a year ago, when Leslie Schibsted was being interviewed for a Haas job as assistant dean for development and alumni relations, the principles came up during the session. “I was asked which of the four defining principles do you most resonate with? I said question the status quo because as a young woman I didn’t necessarily feel empowered to do that.”

Hired for the assistant deanship at Haas, she ended up on the search panel for the school’s new chief financial officer and is now asking the same question of all the candidates. “The culture provides a framework around which we build our relationships with one and other,” she says. “It informs how we message with external stakeholders. In some ways, it is a softer no asshole stand that we’ve taken which is very refreshing. Everyone here has internalized it so much that we joke about it and make fun of each other. It has really become the touchstone of how we see our work at Haas. I have never experienced anything like it it higher education.”

The school is also using the principles in its fundraising efforts, having established a new culture fund that can be used by Lyons successor to strengthen the culture at Haas through the recruitment and retention of faculty. Launched last fall, nearly $2 million has been raised, largely through major gifts from the school’s board which has stated its unequivocal support for the four defining principles. In fact, the board has made a commitment to do a review one year into the next dean’s term to see how the school is keeping the principles strong.

‘THE PRINCIPLES MANIFEST THEMSELVES IN SMALL THINGS DAY TO DAY’

Haas Business School Dean Rich Lyons

And as Haas’ own surveys have found, the principles are playing a role in allowing the school to win more admitted candidates from rival institutions. When students were recently asked to pick one reason that tipped the scale on why they chose Haas over other options, the defining principles were selected three times more than the school’s brand reputation or its Bay Area location near Silicon Valley.

“They were pretty essential in my decision to go to Haas,” says Mark Angel, who graduated from Haas in May and returned to Deloitte as a consultant. “It made me realize this was the place where I wanted to spend two years. They are essential to the Haas experience. They are woven into the classes, but it also manifests itself in small things day to day. People are constantly thinking of others and going beyond oneself. I interviewed for Nike and was the last interview of the day. One of my friends was the first and I woke up to a text from him, and he said, ‘Here are some of the things they asked me about.’ It was unprompted, but it shows how we live these principles all the time. Nothing is perfect. You don’t hear about them in every course, but if they were incorporated into classes more than they already are it might feel artificial.”

Not surprisingly, the most difficult challenge was getting the principles reinforced in the classroom. “When you start telling faculty to teach their class a certain way, you are getting into difficult territory,” concedes Lyons. “It might make no sense to put this in a finance class but we made lists of actions they could engage in and welcomed them to do these things. We introduced a class called Question the Status Quo that encourages students to toss out alternative scenarios. We borrowed from a tool kit used by the Israeli Army called red teaming.”

‘SOME OF THE MOST OUTSPOKEN CRITICS HAVE COME AROUND’

When Chatman teaches the case study she and Lyons has written on the initiative, she has found some interesting reactions. “The students saw the lack of faculty support in the case, and they thought Dean Lyons was too easy on the faculty which I agree with. They think he could have done more to encourage us to incorporate these norms into our own interactions among each other and our course priorities.”

Lyons got it. He has taught the case to the school’s adjunct professors, citing a list of seven things they can do in their classes to reinforce the school’s culture. “I said I would appreciate it if you could think about what you could do,” says Lyons. “Make some reference in your syllabus, connect a case in your class to one of these ideas. When you facilitiate a discussion, can you use this phrase or that. The audit we’ve done showed progress, but we still have room for improvement. Having all of our faculty reading that case is part of the change mangement process.”

Little by little, the school’s tenure-protected faculty are embracing the idea. “Some of the most outspoken skeptics have actually come around,” adds Chatman. “Some have spent time in industry and have seen the importance of it. Others have seen the impact on our students, how much they talk about it and identify with it.”

THE ‘COME-TO-JESUS LUNCH’

Some of the hard core MBA courses at Haas now incorporate the principles. In Davis’ stat course, for example, he lectures on Michael Lewis’ Moneyball on the first day of class. “That is the quintessential story about questioning the status quo,” says Davis. “The people in baseball defending the old way of doing things think they are in the club and are outraged when Billy Beane (of the Oakland Athletics) questions the validity of scouts. These defining principles have increased the number of people who want to come to Haas but it has also helped us to get the right MBA students for us. They care about the world beyond themselves.”

The central remaining question: When Lyons leaves the deanship in three weeks, will the defining principles of the Haas culture endure. Is what Lyons has achieved more a matter of sharpening the school’s brand or the genuine manifestation of a strong culture? Oddly, those are still legitimate questions in an academic institution where entrenched faculty have outsized power. In Lyons-Chapman’s case study, Professor Andrew Rose is portrayed as a still skeptical academic. “I think the defining principles will live on for at least a year or two,” he says, matter of factly. “I hope they live on for a long time. But I don’t know. Deans want to do something different. That’s how they leave their imprints. Since we’re not going to build a new building anytime soon, I would imagine the next dean would want to do a new strategic plan. If the defining principles went away, two important constituencies would be less happy (students and alumni) and that’s not a good thing.”

For the past year, however, the dean has been doing everything possible to insure that the principles transcend his leadership transition. “If the defining principles aren’t embedded in the fabric of the school, it would be way too easy for a new dean to put them aside and do something different,” says Chatman. “We had a come-to-Jesus lunch where we recognized that the acid test of how good a job you’ve done is whether you have made a lasting impact. I think Rich has.”

BERKELEY’S NEW CHANCELLOR CITED THE PRINCIPLES AT HER INVESTITURE 

Among other things, Lyons has named multiple culture champions at Haas. The school’s advisory board has stated its allegiance to the principles. They were added to the job specs for Lyons’ successor. The new university chancellor, Carol Christ, gave a very loud shout out to the principles at her investitute in December in front of the entire Berkeley community. And, of course, Lyons made sure that when the new Haas courtyard was completed last year, the principles were carved in stone in the walkways and more recently into the sides of the building.

Even Lyons and Chatman have been surprised at how deeply ingrained the principles have become. “I didn’t think in our wildest dreams that we could do anything here,” admits Chatman. “But he really did focus on the differentating part of it. In this next generation of faculty, there is a real belief that these are valuable aspects of our culture and that it is different and distinctive and characteristic of Berkeley.”

One thing is certain, despite any lingering skepticism. The principles have become a critical part of the formidable legacy that Lyons will leave behind when he departs his office for the last time at month’s end.

DON’T MISS: RICH LYONS TO DEPART HAAS DEANSHIP or MEET THE CLASS OF 2019 AT BERKELEY’S HAAS SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

About The Author

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.