Five Reasons Why Youngme Moon Should Be The Next Dean Of Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School’s Youngme Moon

Since 1908, when Harvard Business School established the first MBA program, the institution has been led by ten different deans, from Edwin Francis Gay to Nitin Nohria. Not surprisingly, all of them were men. In fact, all but one, Indian-born Nohria, have been white. Some of these leaders, particularly Wallace Donham, John McArthur and Nohria, have truly made a meaningful difference to the institution. They have helped to shape the school and business education overall in immensely positive ways to business and society. Others are simply forgettable.

With Nohria’s announcement last month that he will be stepping down from the deanship at the end of the current academic year, Harvard University has the opportunity to name a new dean to lead the world’s most influential and powerful business school into a new and likely turbulent era.

It is a fortunate consequence that HBS has yet another inside candidate who not only deserves the right to be taken seriously as the 11th dean of the school. Youngme Moon, 55, the much admired marketing professor and HBS leader, absolutely deserves the job. Truth is, it is very likely that there has never been a single person more uniquely qualified to lead Harvard Business School—and that includes all ten of the men who have served as its dean.


The Korean-born Moon is the first Asian-American woman to earn tenure at HBS. Her research work has established her as one of the more influential players on the future of strategy, competition, and brands. She was also the first woman to run the school’s flagship MBA program and the first to gain the title of senior associate dean for innovation and strategy. An iconoclastic leader, she was not shy to point out early on the flaws in Harvard’s male-dominated culture. On her personal website, Moon once boldly noted that Harvard “is an institution that was built on the backs of alpha males and even today the place seems to chew up junior faculty just for the fun of seeing how far it can spit them back out.”

Such directness might have banished her to the doghouse in earlier years. But Nohria conceded that when he announced her appointment to head up the MBA program, “A lot of people looked at me and said ‘really?’ It’s very, very hard to win the best teacher of the year award once at Harvard Business School. To win it repeatedly is an extraordinary accomplishment. I would ask students ‘who created a magical experience for you at Harvard Business School?’ Repeatedly, Youngme would come up.”

She also should be the first to come up in the earliest conversations of the newly appointed search committee to find Nohria’s successor. And with her 22 years of experience as a professor and leader at Harvard Business School, she now should have the honor of being the first woman to be dean.

Here are five reasons why Moon is really the only choice to become the next leader of Harvard Business School.

1) She is that incredibly rare academic gifted with both eloquence and charm. Moon is the person you want at your dinner table. Not merely brainy, she has an unlimited capacity for reasonableness and for empathy. She is thoughtful and remarkably articulate on any number of topics either within her sphere of research or outside it. Despite her formidable intelligence, there’s not an ounce of pretense or arrogance to her. If you want to glimpse how genuine and authentic Moon is, just listen to the weekly podcast she co-hosts with fellow HBS superstars Mihir Desai and Felix Oberholzer-Gee. In these weekly episodes,  she smartly tackles both high brow and popular culture issues with witty and thoughtful aplomb.

Her credentials are impeccable: Before joining the faculty at Harvard Business School in 1998 on the lowest rung of the academic ladder as an assistant professor, she taught for a year at rival MIT Sloan. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. from Stanford University and her B.A. from Yale University. More importantly, she has leveraged her academic bonafides into real achievements both in and outside the classroom. Her research on the digital economy, branding innovation, strategy and culture is nearly without peer. A master of case study teaching, Moon has received the HBS Student Association Faculty Award for teaching excellence seven times. Her case studies on companies from Starbucks to Uber have sold more than two million copies, extending her influence far beyond the borders of the Boston campus. She has distinguished herself as a true leader in her two senior associate dean assignments under Nohria.

And unlike so many academics, Moon has very practical experience as a board member at global consumer goods giant Unilever, e-commerce Asian player Rakuten and such young highly successful companies Warby Parker and Sweetgreen, a casual fast food chain.

2) Moon is an innovative change agent at a time when leading an organization through change is clearly one of the most important considerations for leadership today. As senior associate dean for the MBA program, she helped to push through the most significant and innovative changes in the school’s MBA curriculum ever, including revisions that lessened the school’s dependence on its previously sacrosanct case method of teaching, the dominant pedagogy at HBS since the mid-1920s.

It was Moon who launched the school’s FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership) curriculum in early 2012 that sent some 900 MBA students, roughly 20 professors and 40 staff members around the world as part of a new and highly ambitious week-long global immersion experience. The sheer boldness of the change was stunning: It required 152 six-student teams of Harvard MBAs to board airplanes bound for a dozen far-flung cities in 10 foreign countries and work with one of 140 organizations to create a new product or service for a developing market (see HBS Preps 900 MBAs For A Massive Global Invasion). To this day, FIELD remains one of the signature experiences of Harvard’s MBA program.

The changes, however, went well beyond the global immersion. At first, the new curriculum also required students to create and launch a new business enterprise in a newly created Innovation Lab and a major expansion of experiential learning courses in the new elective curriculum just as case method courses would decline (see The Reinvention Of Harvard Business School).

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