Lifting The Curtain On ‘Touchy Feely,’ Stanford’s — And The World’s — Most Iconic MBA Course


P&Q: How did you come to teach Interpersonal Dynamics?

Carole Robin: I was at the business school for 17 years. And that’s where I started. I started in Touchy Feely, teaching Touchy Feely. When I arrived at the GSB, they were teaching four sections of 36 students. And by the way, I am not a career academic. I’ve had like six different careers, but almost on a lark I went to see them because somebody had recommended I go see David Bradford. He said, “Hey, they’ve got this really popular class and they never have enough people to teach it and you’d be great.” So I was like, “Okay, sure, this could be my second act.” At the time I was a consultant, I was traveling all over the world. It was a nice excuse to spend at least one quarter a year in Palo Alto. And I started teaching one quarter a year and then a few years later, the school came to me and asked me if I would consider a full-time appointment. And then I became known as the “Queen of Touchy Feely.”

I left in 2017 to start my own Leaders in Tech nonprofit, which is essentially bringing the lessons of Touchy Feely and the leadership fellows program that I developed at the GSB to the Valley — to CEO founders, pre-IPO — so that maybe they would learn a little bit about how to develop culture that would be a little bit healthier, a little more inclusive. And that’s what I’ve been doing since.

When you first went to check it out, what were your first impressions? Why did you fall in love with it?

David Bradford

Well, I’ll give you an anecdote because I think it’s the best way to illustrate it. And it’s in the book, but essentially in my first career, I had gone to work for a very large company in industrial automation. It was a Fortune 500 company in 1975, and I was the first woman hired into a non-clerical job. So yes, I’m old. And I went to work as a sales engineer and over the ensuing 10 years I was very successful and eventually I ended up running a pretty big, $50 million, 13-Western-state sales and marketing organization. And I had my team at an off-site, all the guys reporting to me — because they were still guys; eventually I figured out how to fix that, but at this point they were still all guys.

And I got really excited about something that I thought we could do, and I got crickets, and I got a little more excited, and I got crickets. And I was like, “Come on you guys, what’s wrong with you? This could be really cool. We could really bust it open here, take a little risk if we try this.” And I still got crickets and then I got a little bit emotional, and one of the guys looked at me and he leaned forward and said, “Carol, oh my God, is that like water in the corner of your eye?” And then he said, “Are you going to cry?” But then he said, “Are you human after all?”

And at that point, I burst out crying. And I said, “You don’t think I’m f-ing human. Of course, I used the full expletive. And I said, “I don’t think there’s anything more important for us to talk about than that.” And I tore up our agenda and we spent the next two days talking about who we were, what mattered to us, why we were there, what we could do to help each other. And that’s when we became a team. And that’s when I became a leader.

When I got to the GSB, I thought, “This is what these kids — sorry but that’s what they were — need more than anything else. Because I found out the hard way that I had been leaving half of myself in the parking lot, which by the way had served me. Look, if I had burst out crying the first six months I was on the job, I would have never gotten to where I got. But the problem is, we overlearn — as my coauthor likes to say, a cat doesn’t sit on a hot stove twice, but it never sits on a cold stove again, either.

So I had overlearned to keep the emotions in check, to leave half of yourself at the door. And I’d gotten very good at being a hard-ass and assertive and kick-ass. And there was a part of me that actually had become more and more hidden, and becoming more and more hidden I’d become seen as less and less human — and ironically, less and less effective as a leader.

Everything I’ve read about Touchy Feely, this story makes it sound like you were the perfect person to teach this class.

Exactly. And that’s why I became known as the “Queen of Touchy Feely.” Not because I was a better teacher or because I invented it. Of course, you know MBAs have short attention spans, but also there’s no institutional memory. So for the last 15 years I was there, everybody thought I invented Touchy Feely. Which I did not, because I’m old, but not that old.

But I think to your point, the reason that I became known as the Queen of Touchy Feely is that I could connect the dots for the students and tell them, “This is why this matters, this is why it’s going to make you more effective. And in fact, when I went to work for the GSB to teach that first quarter, my intention was only to teach one quarter a year. But then I fell in love with them.

It seems that great teachers are a big part of the reason that Touchy Feely still resonates after all these years. And not just yourself but others who thought that class. If you were describing the reason for the resonance of this class over the years to someone who didn’t know anything about Touchy Feely, how would you describe it?

Great question. And first of all, thousands of students for many decades have talked about how this class changed their life. And I hear back from alums 10 years later, 15 years later, and they don’t just say, “Wow. I just got promoted. I just became a CEO. And I really credit this class” — I also get emails that say, “This class just saved my marriage. This class just helped me reconcile with my brother who I haven’t talked to for two years.” So the impact of the class is not only professional, it’s also personal. And it’s the gift that keeps on giving. So many, many students will say this was worth the whole price of admission. Even at the time they felt that way, but 10 years later, they really feel that way.

And by the way, that’s one of the reasons we ended up writing this book — the publisher who came to us and said, “How come there’s not a book?” And we said, “That’s really a hard book to write.” He said, “So are you telling me that you’re OK having this class that’s life-changing for so many thousands of MBAs for so many decades, it’s OK with you that only those that are privileged enough and lucky enough to get into GSB gets to learn this?”

So it was a difficult book to write though. I mean, it took you three and a half years.

Yeah. But actually four years — the last six months were brutal. But it took us a year just to wrap our heads around how we were going to convey what this class is like. First of all, we knew we didn’t want to write an academic book. Not for this subject. Of course, a lot of it is research-based or we couldn’t have ever taught it for all those years at the Stanford business school. But that was not where we wanted to focus. So we had to figure out how we were going to not only get the concepts across but provide something that the reader would be compelled to go do. Because you know, the power of the course is in the doing, not in having a teacher stand in the front of the room and lecture.

So what we ended up doing is, we have five pairs through which we convey the concepts by following the arc of each of their relationships. There’s a man and a woman who were colleagues at work. There’s a married couple, there’s two buddies. There’s two women who’ve known each other since college now in their forties. There’s a father and daughter and the different concepts are brought to light and to life through the story of their relationships. And then at the end of every chapter, we have a section called Deepen Your Learning which is very Touchy Feely, which is put yourself in the shoes of a Mia. What would you have done when Anya said, “Blah, blah, blah”? How would you react to Phil’s statement to you if you were Rachel? What are you learning about yourself in noticing your reactions to their reactions? And then we take it one step further and we ask the reader, “Pick someone in your life with whom you want a more meaningful, deeper, more functional relationship and go try this.” And we have these different things for them to try that build throughout the book.

Thereby putting the reader into Touchy Feely?

Exactly. In fact, the second chapter of the book is called A World-Class Course, One Chapter At a Time. And one other thing that might intrigue you is that David Bradford was my mentor and we co-wrote this book, and we had a fantastic relationship — we might call it exceptional — before we wrote the book. And before we even started writing the book, we had a huge fight.

And then, in fact, I said I’d never talk to him again. And here we were, the two Touchy Feely gurus, right? And it was all around what happened when I decided to leave the GSB — but the last chapter is the story of how our relationship went to hell in a handbasket. How I said I would never talk to him again, and how we came back from that and repaired it.


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