The Best MBA Cultures: Harvard & Stanford

Stanford GSB students crossing “the street.” GSB photo

SMALLER IS BETTER

That’s not to say the GSB is all “Kumbaya” where everyone agrees with each other. It’s quite the opposite, Feinberg insists. This spring, for example, Feinberg sat in on a Career Club, where leaders would devote hours-upon-hours to helping students looking to transition industries or functions. Not surprisingly, they had differing views on the programming needed to best help these students. The arguments were passionate to say the least, says Feinberg. Still, the leaders never lost sight of the goal…or their friendship with each other.

“We have a culture where people can be different, think different, express different views – and at the same time still have this amazing respect for each other.”

Of course, Feinberg admits, this spirit of trust and accommodation also stems from Stanford GSB’s size. At roughly 840 students, it boasts less than half the students who attend Harvard Business School. That works to its advantage.

Yossi Feinberg

“We have a school that is so diverse and small that every community naturally coalesces, Feinberg adds.  Be it background or geography, we have a huge diversity and little of the traditional silos. Every community needs to reach out for critical mass for anything they want to do. Socially, academically, or co-curricular, our size just forces constant communication and reaching agreement across the class.”

COMING TOGETHER TO CELEBRATE A TRANSFORMATION

Every culture by transmitted by rituals, rites of passage that exhibit a community’s shared commitment to their values. The Stanford GSB culture is filled with events that bring together every segment of the community. Such events include the GSB Show, a variety revue of singing, dancing, and (of course) skits skewering GSB leaders and sacred cows. Another tradition is TALK, a Monday night staple where first-years step up to share their stories and reflect on the impact and meaning behind their toughest decisions.

“It attracts the whole class – and a lot of 2nd-Years too,” Feinberg notes. “The students share how they became who they become…along with their aspirations and what matters most to them and why in a truly open way. The whole community comes together to go support that person being authentic, vulnerable, and inspiring.”

Another hallmark of the Stanford GSB experience is the Interpersonal Communications course, popularly known as “Touchy Feely.” Despite being an elective, the course attracts nearly 400 students a year. In a nutshell, Touchy Feely is designed to help students better understand their tendencies and develop soft skills through intensive role-playing, coaching, and reflection. The course also contains a ceremonial aspect, a retreat that ends with students celebrating their emergence on the other side.

“Within the course, there is this process of individuals recognizing the community,” Feinberg explains, “a crossing together and acknowledging this transition through experience that they as a community shared together. This is a classic culture ritual where people might cross a bridge at a certain point to join a community.”

EXPECT TO DELIVER LOTS OF PRESENTATIONS

Stanford GSB’s Annie Robertson Hockey

For Annie Robertson Hockey, Low Key Notes was the hallmark of her time as a Stanford MBA student. Over a quarter, students develop a presentation on a topic where they’re passionate. Aided by a coach, students write and memorize their speech. Aside from sharpening their public speaking skills, Low Key Notes also enables students to learn about experiences that many had never considered before

“I went to Low Key Notes in my 2nd-Year and we heard about everything from what is life like for the hearing disabled to the importance of recycling to how to think about dating – just this wide range of topics,” Robertson Hockey points out. “Every single time, the class was so overgrown that we had to add two excess inventory classrooms because literally every person would go to these talks.”

Yossi Feinberg is another fan of Low Key Notes, with some presentations making him “teary.” That’s because he knows how stepping forward impacts students as their careers progress. “It allows people to have a safe open space. It forges them into the leaders that they become later. They are going to organizations where they have to set the culture. You can see that personal growth happening through this community experience.”

In fact, Feinberg adds, many GSB courses culminate with a presentation – and that’s not by accident. It is designed deliberately to reinforce Stanford’s most cherished value. “Essentially, you are constantly in front of peers – in some sense exposed. There, you can show them the best of who you are. This happens so many times over two years. It is not a one-shot experience. This constant repetition of teaching your classmates forces you to be authentic.”

ENDING CLASS WITH APPLAUSE

Harvard Business School also preserves events and rituals that steer and unify MBA classes. Like Stanford, mutual respect regulates all of them. One baseline, says Sana Mohammed, is being on time. This shows respect for classmates and faculty alike, she emphasizes, and is treated as a “big deal” at HBS. So too is attending every class – and speaking up when you have something valuable to add. The classrooms also enforce a “No Tech” policy, as sending texts or surfing the net is considered disrespectful to the learning experience as well.

“Dean Nohria told us that you develop as much from listening as you do from speaking,” Mohammed stresses. “That is a really important part of the case method: Listening to your classmates.”

HBS reapplication strategy

Springtime at Harvard University

Another tradition? Students clap at the end of every class. “It is a way of showing that we appreciate this class and the professor and everyone else’s time,” Mohammed adds. “We clap when we have guests and we stand up and clap when people bring their family members or partners to class. That shows a level of respect in itself.”

A SCHOOL THAT CAN FEEL HUGE AND INTIMATE

For Triston Francis, the section experience is a defining element of the HBS culture. Each class is broken into 10 sections of 93 students each. During the first semester core, each student is placed in the same seat and the same room alongside his or her section-mates. On the surface, this lock-step approach seemingly inhibits building relationships. In reality, sections produce the opposite effect.

“Every single day, all 930 students are discussing the same case,” Francis explains. “There is an element of, even if you’re not in the same section of 93 and I have dinner with them, I still know what they covered for that day. It leads to that common language that allows you to accelerate the way you bond.”

At the same time, the section structure simulates a small school feel in the program. “If people are worried about getting lost in a big school, you do have a smaller community in your section…along with the resources of a major university,” Mohammed adds.