HBS Prof, Former CEO Campaign For Major Political Reset

Katherine Gehl speaking at the Commonwealth Club on March 29. James Meinerth photo

So, what can B-schools do? If anyone can answer that question, it’s Michael Porter, an economist, researcher, author, adviser, speaker, and teacher who has spent a lifetime career at Harvard Business School. Porter is the author of the Five Forces concept for understanding competitive forces and maximizing profitability, one of the economic theories he has turned to the field of politics — a career “pivot” he says is as surprising to him as anyone.

That pivot began about five years ago, Porter says, when he began serving as co-chair of the U.S. Competitiveness Project at HBS. In that role he began to see that the political system is a major constraint in restoring economic prosperity and addressing many of the nation’s other problems. Now, working with Gehl and others to understand the causes of the problem and — more importantly — do something about it has become his mission.

“The first thing I would tell you is, Harvard has been incredibly supportive of this work,” Porter tells Poets&Quants. “And it’s complicated. It’s a pivot for me, but it’s also dangerous. It’s potentially divisive. People get mad, and so we always say this is about politics, we’re not political, we’re not for the sides, but even saying that some people get very upset. And Harvard has allowed us to do this work, they’ve encouraged it. We speak actually now at every Harvard Business School reunion. And we will continue to speak at every reunion until we go through the whole set of classes. And we’ve had an enormous support from the university.

“So I think that this is a long game, and how do you get organized to play a long game?”

UNIVERSALLY POSITIVE RECEPTION FOR THEIR IDEAS ON REFORM

Porter says in that long game, business — and by extension, business schools — must take a new tack.

“Business actually has been sucked into this game,” he says. “And they’re feeling pressure to do lobbying, they’re feeling pressure to actually encourage their employees to vote for candidates that they think are better for the company. They’re putting company money into elections. They are even sending notes to their employees about who they should vote for. And so business, I think, is seeing it in defensive terms: They have to play because otherwise they’ll get left out by the guys who do play.

“We think that it’s time for business to take a different stakes. That is one of our big challenges going forward: How do we engage businesses? Because that’s where we, I particularly, have credibility — with business.”

Porter and Gehl have spoken across the country. The reception they have received has encouraged them.

“Frankly, I had no idea what reception this work would get,” Porter says. “Because there are so many people that get passionate about ‘my party’ and they just can’t imagine a world where they wouldn’t support this party doing what they’ve been doing. I think what we’re seeing is almost everybody has a different view of how things really work. So again, we have to start with what results we are actually getting. And you can love your party, but if you look at the results we’re actually getting, how can we want to continue that?

“I think it’s putting these pieces together and helping people understand this is all rational, it was all created, it was not an accident. And most people have no idea that these are self-created rules, there’s no checks and balances and nobody reviewing the rules. And again, because the way the system’s structured, it’s hard. It’s even hard to figure out how to change these rules, and we are writing a lot about that and Katherine in particular is deeply involved in that all across the country.”

Adds Gehl: “It’s been a phenomenally positive reception, universally. Now, there is a self-selection of people who decide to come to the presentation and hear about competition and how politics is failing America. They’re obviously buying into putting their minds to something and then they like it. But one very interesting point is that we will make this presentation and sometimes we go as long as two hours and never say ‘Trump.'”

‘THIS IS THE CONVERSATION THAT NEEDS TO BE HAD’

Elisabeth Davis, dean of the University of San Francisco School of Management, introduced Gehl and Porter at the Commonwealth Club and also shared her thoughts on the role of business schools in reforming the political system of the United States.

“This could be a big opportunity for business to stand up and play a major role,” Davis said. “From an educational standpoint, what Katherine and Michael had to say really emphasizes that one of our priorities in the business school must be to have this conversation, because business has a major role to play in the decision making. And if we aren’t having the conversation about government and how business can stand up and have a voice in that process, then we’ve missed the point.

“Business schools are educators. These are the next generation of leaders. So if we aren’t having that dialogue and really having the conversation in the business school, it’s too late if we wait. We really need to be doing that now and elevating the conversation right in the classroom.”

Adds Gehl, who has an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management: “Business schools should be inviting in speakers because we have to be having this dialogue. This is the conversation that needs to be had. One of the things I’ve said in this speech was that we were very committed to not simply adding to the depressing commentary about politics.”

Michael Porter. James Meinerth photo

DON’T MISS MORE EVIDENCE THAT POLITICS ARE KEEPING STUDENTS FROM U.S. B-SCHOOLS and MORE MBAs ARE GOING INTO POLITICS