The Best MBA Cultures: Harvard & Stanford

Harvard Business School 2018 graduation ceremony

ALUMNI AND 2ND-YEARS FULLY ONBOARD

The success of any culture is premised on its gatekeepers. At Stanford, the culture carrier role falls heavily on alumni and 2nd-years. The alumni, notably, have high expectations for students and applicants alike when it comes to behavior and contributing to the GSB community. “Every constituency is aware of the culture, how special it is and its expectations,” Feinberg asserts. “That’s why they came here in the first place.”

The 2nd-Years essentially act as the cultural glue. They hold institutional knowledge and offer hands-on support and guidance to new students. This is particularly true with programming and extracurricular activities. For example, 2nd-Year Fellows take the reins in the required Leadership Labs, where they act as role models as well as ensuring their charges hold themselves accountable and support their peers.

Harvard Business School’s Triston Francis

“This overlapping generation structure is extremely powerful,” Feinberg adds. “The alums have gone through this and know its value. Our students want to pass it on to the next generation and the faculty and administration recognize the value and preserve it.”

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER?

Triston Francis served as the Co-President of HBS’ Class of 2019. Ideally, he’d like to return to the school as an organizational behavior professor. That path certainly appears promising. He has already partnered with Leslie Perlow, the senior associate dean for research, to develop a decision-making course and Jan Rivkin, the senior associate dean, to write a case involving a nonprofit. When he reflects on the Harvard Business School culture, the first word that comes to mind is “openness.” By that, he means that classmates aren’t afraid to share who they are. More than that, they possess what he calls “an appetite” to really get to know their peers.

One example that Francis cites is the dinners he would host with his roommate as first-years. For him, these dinners were a means to encourage classmates to open up in an informal setting.

We would begin these dinners by reading the personal statement that we wrote to get into HBS,” Francis recalls. “Initially, we thought that people might see that as a little bit of a crazy idea because these are very personal documents. In some cases, these are people sharing the most difficult aspects of life. What we found was that people were really excited about it as a way of breaking through the ice and getting to know one another. So my roommate and I ended up hosting about 100 classmates over the course of our first year to help everyone get to know each other.”

‘NO COMPLACENCY HERE’

One of these dinners was where he met Sana Mohammed, the Class of 2019’s other Co-President. As a student, she worked on a mental wellness startup, whose solutions would include personal journal feedback and small group support to build self-awareness and community. Such side projects, often designed to tackle the ‘big’ issues, are common at HBS. That may be one reason why Mohammed lists “Ambition” as one of HBS’ cultural touchstones.

Harvard Business School’s Sana Mohammed

However, Mohammed’s “ambition” or “intellectual curiosity” echoes what Annie Robertson Hockey defined as “passion” at Stanford. In a recent retail course, Mohammed noticed that her classmates were highly engaged in a Target case study, despite outsiders believing that MBAs don’t need to try anymore by the second semester of their second year. More than that, they were bringing their passions to life in their free time.

“Everyone I know is working on something,” she observes. “They may be working on a startup or an individual project or taking as many classes as they can. They are doing something that is keeping them intellectually engaged and driving them. That, in itself, is so unique. It is very easy for people to be complacent, but I don’t see any complacency here.”

PARTICIPATION IS WHAT THE EXPERIENCE IS ALL ABOUT

For Triston Francis, openness equates to courage. That courage includes a student willingness to step into the spotlight and share what they know. “The way that people learn at Harvard Business School is largely through their peers and classroom discussions,” he argues. “If you have this incredible life experience, that’s fantastic. “If you’re not going to be comfortable sharing that in the classroom, then that amazing perspective goes to waste because no one actually knows…When people are willing to be bold and courageous in sharing their perspectives or an unpopular view, that is what the classroom discussion thrives on.”

Francis is an example of this. This winter, he participated in a case study involving JetBlue. Like the company’s founder, David Neeleman, Francis is dyslexic. During the case, he revealed the struggles he has faced in his career due to his condition – a risky and uncomfortable disclosure to say the least. His classmates’ response, however, didn’t disappoint him.

Harvard Business School students between class. HBS photo

“After class, I probably had 10-15 classmates come up and tell me they really appreciated my willingness to talk about something that was admittedly very difficult. When I was raising my hand to participate, I was kind of hesitant at first. I had to remind myself that this is what the experience is about.”

A STUDENT WHO DOESN’T FIT IN PRESENTS AN OPPORTUNITY

Alas, speaking up is a contact sport at HBS, which thrives on parsing and debating ideas. In fact, Francis notes, 50% of grades are predicated on participation, ensuring students are fully engaged with the threat of cold calls looming. While their hearts might race when they raise their hands and stake their positions, HBS students enjoy an unexpected safety net: the faculty themselves.

“I met one-on-one with my professors to get their insights on how to chime in on their classes,” Francis adds. “One of my favorite aspects about HBS is the professors and their desire to help you get acclimated and succeed. I’ve found them to be extremely committed to the teaching and coaching part of their job. For people who might have a difficult time in participating, there is a lot of coaching and support that you’ll get early on here.”

A disinterested student would also serve as a red flag at Stanford GSB. However, such students represent an opportunity to Yossi Feinberg. “It is an opportunity for the community to figure out why it is happening and what we can do better. It is an opportunity for the person to grow. If there is something that concerns me, it is that we are living in a world that is much more contentious: more sound-bite, Twitter-driven triggering communications. This is almost the opposite of what Stanford stands for. What we usually see is that it always takes time – but eventually, our students really get it.”