At Harvard Business School, leadership and values are inseparable.
“The teaching of ethics here is explicit, not implicit, and our Community Values of mutual respect, honesty and integrity, and personal accountability support the HBS learning environment and are at the heart of a school-wide aspiration: to make HBS a model of the highest standards essential to responsible leadership in the modern business world,” Brian C. Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer at Harvard Business School, says.
One of the ways HBS has set high standards is its infamous case method.
The case method is a way of teaching business by letting students step into the shoes of business leaders. HBS pioneered the case method and its professors write approximately 80% of cases that are used worldwide.
“This means students have the opportunity to learn first-hand from the professor’s deep research with each case organization, and the case protagonist often comes to class to comment on the discussion and share their perspective,” Kenny says.
In two years, Harvard MBA students read an average of 500 cases. The goal is to help them develop the analytical problem-solving skills applicable to any industry or focus after graduation.
“In each case, students learn to make difficult decisions in the absence of full information and are challenged by diverse perspectives,” Kenny says. “HBS students develop deep business judgment and instincts over the cases and hone their soft skills, such as active listening, disagreeing respectfully and learning how to best influence others, both in what they say and how they say it.”
Students start their first year at HBS by learning the common foundation of fundamental practices of business, including finance, marketing, leadership, entrepreneurship, operations, and strategy.
HBS strives to keep a small tight-knit experience for its students. That’s one of the reasons why all students participate in the same set of classes within their student section of 90 colleagues. “Sections of 90 students from diverse geographies, industries, functions, and personal backgrounds take their first-year classes together, learning from each other while also forming deep lifelong friendships,” Kenny says. “HBS students describe their sections as very collaborative and supportive, almost like their family on campus and after graduation.”
One of the key experiences that students partake in with their section is FIELD (Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development), a year-long, two-part course that complements case-method learning with smaller hands-on team projects, personal reflection, and global immersions. Through FIELD, student teams work in interactive workshops, held in flexible classrooms called “hives,” that reshape how students think, act, and see themselves.
With team feedback and self-reflection, FIELD encourages students to develop emotional intelligence and a better understanding of their leadership styles. By the end of their spring term, FIELD student teams are sent into global markets around the world, where they develop a new product or service concepts for global partner organizations.
In their second year, HBS MBAs take part in the elective curriculum, in which students can choose from a range of 120 elective courses. HBS allows for students to cross-register for courses at other Harvard graduate schools and even at the MIT Sloan School and the Fletcher School at Tufts University. Additionally, second-year MBAs can participate in Immersive Field Courses (IFCs), field-based electives that allow second-year MBAs to apply their learnings around the world.
Getting into HBS is no easy feat. But the B-school strives to maintain a diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — meaning anyone has a chance. The HBS MBA Class of 2020 consists of 930 students, representing 69 different countries. “These differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the diverse perspectives and life experiences our students bring to their classes from all over the world,” Kenny says.
Kenny says successful candidates tend to share three attributes: “habit of leadership,” analytical aptitude and appetite, and engaged community citizenship.
Habit of leadership relates to how candidates have demonstrated leadership potential. “We realize leadership is expressed in many forms in many contexts, so this is not a formula,” Kenny says. “We appreciate many different leadership styles but are looking for the impact an applicant has had on the organizations with which they’ve been involved.”
Analytical aptitude and appetite is all about intellectual curiosity. “We look for individuals who are intellectually curious, who enjoy engaging discussion, and who can assess, analyze, and act upon complex information,” Kenny says.
‘And engaged community citizenship relates to how involved candidates are with the community around them. “We look for students who are engaged in the world around them and will be engaged as students at HBS,” Kenny says. “We look for applicants who support their colleagues and are eager to teach as well as learn from their classmates.”
Demonstrate these three attributes and you might have a chance of becoming an HBS MBA.
When it comes to MBA rankings, Harvard Business School is a champ. Since the debut of Poets&Quants’ ranking in 2010, HBS has claimed first place six out of seven times. Only in 2014 did Stanford narrowly edge out the school for the top ranking. As a result, HBS took first place in 2016 for the second consecutive year. The only notable change in the year was its first place rank from U.S. News which had placed HBS second to Stanford a year earlier. It’s virtually impossible for Harvard to be second to any school.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that HBS is first in every single ranking. In 2016, for example, Forbes–which rates schools solely on return on investment–had Stanford ahead of HBS, while The Economist–which is a global ranking that consistently produces head-scratching results, had Harvard Business School fourth. Make no mistake: Harvard is one of the very best two or three premier MBA players. If a business school ranking fails to give Harvard its due, it’s usually the result of quirky methodology and little else. There is no business school in the U.S.–and even in the world–that can genuinely lay claim to having a better MBA program than Harvard. With the largest endowment of any business school by far, the institution’s resources are vast and so is the quality of the school’s faculty, students, and alumni. And because Harvard has been at this for so many years, its MBAs are far ahead of any others in getting and occupying powerful and influential leadership positions in one industry after another. That’s why HBS always leads rankings of B-schools with the most CEOs at the world’s top corporations.
In fact, the biggest misconception that business school rankings propagate is that Harvard is just another school on the list and its rivals are close competitors. Harvard is in a class by itself.
If you’re an applicant and are fortunate enough to be accepted by Harvard, there are legitimate reasons to turn the school down: you want a smaller, more intimate experience; you prefer a less competitive school; you want more of a mix of lectures, case studies, and experiential learning; you want to live and work in a completely different part of the country; or another school has nailed a specialty discipline that makes it a no-brainer. But you’d be making a difficult call to say no to what is, without question, the best business school in the world.