The Best MBA Cultures: Harvard & Stanford

Harvard vs. Stanford.

Talk about a rivalry. Each business school conjures up certain images. HBS brings East Coast swagger. The GSB embodies laid back cool. The contrast doesn’t stop there. It is Colonial Prudence vs. Gold Rush Urgency; Incumbent Might vs. Technological Innovation; and Hard-Edged Realism vs. Starry-Eyed Idealism. Both programs are deeply Socratic. At Harvard, MBAs prepare for leadership by dissecting cases, posing questions, and defending ideas. Stanford’s culture is more confessional, a ‘know thyself’ exploration that culminates in intimacy and community. They are twin shoots from the same root stock, each stretching in the opposite directions towards the same purpose.


That’s not how the public perceives these programs. Harvard Business School, for one, is burdened by stereotypes. Just ask Sana Mohammed, a spring HBS grad who is currently interning for the Sheryl Sandberg & Dave Goldberg Family Foundation (in Palo Alto, no less). Moving from Houston to Boston in 2017, Mohammed carried a certain impression, one molded by politicians and comics alike, about the school’s culture. For her, the experience turned out to be the opposite.

“I had expected the environment to be pretty cold and cutthroat,” she told P&Q in a spring interview. “People wouldn’t be that friendly or supportive. I almost didn’t consider HBS for that reason. My experience has been that that’s not true. I would say that people here are very open and friendly – and very willing to help other people.”

The Harvard Business School campus

Over the past two years, she has come to use a starkly different term to describe her classmates: Collaborative. “What is the incentive to share outside of your grade,” she asks. “It is the fact that you want to help your classmates and add value to the conversation. There is also the matter of the way that recruiting works. When you’re recruiting for consulting, people volunteer to do cases with each other. Even if they are interviewing for an internship, people are generally helping each other by saying, ‘I used to work at McKinsey: I’d be happy to connect you.’ Someone who has this orientation will really enjoy this school.”


The Stanford Graduate School of Business inspires its fair share of myths, too. You’ll hear it is a place for tech entrepreneurs, for example, owing (no doubt) to be seated in the shadow of Silicon Valley. That view is immaterial to Yossi Feinberg, the school’s senior associate dean for academic affairs. A 21-year veteran of the program, Feinberg is focused on the bigger picture: watching over a student-grown culture that develops leaders by rewarding authenticity.

“Our culture is something that you can immerse yourself in completely and bring your whole self into it,” Feinberg explains. “The interpretation of that is the willingness to be vulnerable and let the community help you become the person you can be…That is one of the things that I love about Stanford: You see how students all come together in this dynamic process. The culture was not built in a day and it is definitely not coming from the top. It really takes everyone to create the culture together. It is a lot of work for everyone to constantly maintain it.”

What exactly is culture? Think of it as beliefs that shape behaviors. Ideally, they are the virtues that are prized; the norms that set the rules of engagement; the ideals that members strive to meet; the stories that guide and inspire; and the long-term vision that a community pursues. Together, these aspects connect members and bring out their best. The real test of culture, however, is whether a community stays within these parameters and follows through on their practices. In other words, how well do communities buy into and live up to the values that they enshrine in their mission statements?


Each year, The Economist surveys current students and the most recent graduates on this promise – and its execution. On a scale of 1-to-5 (with 5 being the highest mark), the top performer in culture was the University of California-Berkeley Haas School at 4.70 in the 2018 survey. A purpose-driven program whose culture is predicated on four defining principles, Haas tied with Stanford GSB for the highest score in culture the year before (and was profiled by P&Q in 2017 after notching the highest culture score). IESE Business School and the University of Virginia, which were profiled in 2018 for Best Faculty and Favorite Program, trailed Haas closely at 4.66 and 4.65, with Harvard Business School and Dartmouth Tuck rounding out the five-highest average tied at 4.58.

Stanford GSB’s Knight Management Center

Overall, business schools fared well among respondents when it came to culture. The lowest score came to 4.0 (Washington Olin) – still well above average. That said, the 2018 student survey includes a red flag: just 11 of the 31 top MBA programs reviewed by P&Q improved their score over the previous year. This includes Stanford GSB, which slipped by .07 of a point. One silver lining: three programs – Washington Foster, Notre Dame Mendoza, and Cornell Johnson – enjoyed a bump of .10 of a point or better from their students in the past year.

Looking back over the past four years, however, it is clear that students are issuing a clear warning about culture. 17 schools endured a drop of .10 or more over that period. This includes IE Business School. Once one of the highest-ranked MBA programs for culture, IE’s score fell from 4.69 to 4.20 over the past four surveys. Yale SOM (-.28), Columbia Business School (-.26), and Indiana Kelley (-.23) also experienced drops during that same time. This growing dissatisfaction even extends to the upper echelons, as Stanford GSB (-.14), UC Berkeley Haas (-.13), and Virginia Darden (-.11) all encountered lower marks from students.


Despite these dips, Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School have traditionally set the bar for inclusive yet demanding cultures. What are their secrets? Annie Robertson Hockey, a consultant in Bain & Company’s San Francisco office, can truly speak for Stanford. She earned her MBA from the GSB in 2018 along with a BA (Psychology) there six years earlier. During these stints, she was struck by how well admissions recruiters could size up what makes prospective students. Looking back, Robertson Hockey believes one key to the school’s culture – undergraduate and graduate – revolves around an intangible: Passion.

“Stanford is excellent at finding people who have extreme passion and bringing them to campus to challenge them, to fuel that passion and channel it into industries, companies, and jobs that can make the world better,” she explains. “They’re also putting them into a situation where they can meet other people who are on working on those same things, which is magical. What you find is that people who have an extreme passion for something non-academic are able to bring that into their professional lives. That’s where true innovation and true disruption happen because that’s where people think outside the box. They can envision a future that is not necessarily constrained by the way things are done now but the way things should be done.”

Stanford GSB students kicking back

Like Harvard, Stanford uses collaborative learning to foster community. That’s the underpinning for much of the classroom work there. However, the intention behind this differs. Like many MBA programs, team exposes Stanford MBAs to intercultural differences where they can practice their ‘soft’ skills. Beyond that, collaboration makes students more receptive. At the GSB, the goal is for students to drop their guard, so they can be more vulnerable and learn from each other.


“When you think about collaborative culture,” Feinberg notes, “one of the best ways it expresses itself is when people are open about their weaknesses. [That way], the collaboration and the community can support them in the learning process to become the people that they can be.”

For Feinberg, the Stanford culture is an elusive element – hard to define but you know it when you see it. However, there are a few ingredients that define it. One, he says, is integrity – or what he calls “the starting point.” Another is leadership potential, though not in the way that people might normally expect.

“We’re not screening out people who might not fit the culture now,” Feinberg explains. “Our role is to educate. So if you have someone with this amazing leadership potential, we don’t expect them to be fully-formed or fully-ready in every dimension. That’s part of our added value. We want people who have amazing potential and who are receptive to what we are doing.”

  • Economist survey results found on Page 5. 

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