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Career Success
OCT 24, 2005

Learning from Harvard: Managing a Top Business School

By Yoshito Hori
Copyright GLOBIS

At the end of last year over lunch at the Tokyo Club with Shinsei Bank President Thierry Porté, I was invited to join the Alumni Board of Harvard Business School. This is a very prestigious groupーpast members have included Mr. Kenzaburo Mogi of Kikkoman and Thierry Porté. Members serve a three-year term and must travel to Boston three times a year. They are also encouraged to take part in the annual Global Leadership Forum.

All costs are borne by the individual, so it means a major commitment in both time and money.

I finished lunch telling him that I was interested and that I would consult the GLOBIS Board. That same day, I sent an email to the members of the GLOBIS Board Meeting (GBM) as well as to the company Executive Committee (EC).

The GBM consists of two external directors and one external auditor, which means I’m the only internal member. We get together once a month, but email is used when a top executive is called upon to commit a significant amount of time elsewhere or when a quick decision is required for an important issue.

Incidentally, the EC meeting is held every Monday. This group discusses important decisions related to the entire GLOBIS Group.

My interest in joining the HBS Alumni Board was not so much for the prestige, but for what I felt I could learn. GLOBIS is aiming to be the No. 1 business school in Asia. Along the way, we also see the potential of becoming a graduate university. GMS also runs an Alumni Board. I was eager to join and learn how it worked. What are the current issues for HBS, and what is the strategy? How is the organization constituted?

How do they make use of their alumni network? I wanted to explore these issues and swap ideas with the dean and the alumni representative of HBS. I told the GBM and EC that I wanted my participation on this alumni board to be viewed as part of my job, and, therefore, the costs of travel and member fees would be the covered by company.

The GBM agreed and told me to go and learn as much as I could, so I immediately obtained application forms from HBS and wrote my essay. After a series of telephone interviews, I received official approval from the Alumni Board in June and became a member.

The first board meeting was scheduled for October 20 to 22. Luckily, this coincided with a career forum being held in Boston from October 21 to 23. GLOBIS has been participating in this forum since last year.

I was reluctant to leave Tokyo and my newborn fifth child, but work is work, so it can’t be helped. I left Tokyo on October 20 and traveled to Boston via Chicago. I felt the spirit of autumn from the trees along the Charles River and enjoyed the view of setup for the Head of the Charles Regatta (boat race) taking place that coming weekend. At the hotel near HBS, I checked in and took a quick look at my email before heading out for the reception. I always try to be the first to arrive at these events in order to speak with as many people as possible.

The guests were a truly international mix. Other Asian representatives came from Shanghai and Pakistan. Europe was represented by the UK, France, Ireland, and Greece. From South America, representatives had come from Brazil and Chile. I also met men from Australia and Africa.

The Alumni Board consists of 36 members, with 12 members elected every year. A mentor program started this year, as well, to help with the transition for new members. My mentor acquired his PhD from the HBS doctoral program and is currently serving as vice dean at the business school of Emory University in Atlanta. He has had a really interesting career, starting as a musician and making his living as a professional guitarist for seven or eight years. He then studied at MIT and earned his PhD at HBS. Since then, he’s been continuing along an academic path. I enjoyed getting to know him at the cocktail party after the meeting.

The next morning, I strolled along the Charles River to the HBS campus and arrived early at the campus venue. Since I graduated, HBS has aggressively embarked on new construction, but as everything reflects a Victorian architectural style, a common feel is retained across the campus. The Board met in a fan-shaped classroom with a tiered seating. It didn’t have the air of a conferenceーI felt like I was back at school.

The first session was a dialogue with the deanーthe provisional dean, actually, as Mr. Kim Clark had just retired after nine years at the helm. The provisional dean perched himself on the edge of a desk and started to talk. Even though I was taught by American professors, I’ve never gotten used to the casual manners. It’s simply unthinkable for a Japanese person to sit on top of a desk.

As though he were addressing friends, the provisional dean spoke about a wide range of topics: current issues, time management, the process for selecting a new dean, and HBS’s priorities. However, it was certainly a provisional point of view. He didn’t discuss his own vision, and it felt like he was simply being practical, following an established course. 

Next was an orientation session in which we newbies were told what the HBS Alumni Board does. For the first time, I grasped the principles, articles and history of the Alumni Board.

I always speak out at these kinds of gatherings to show my presence. There was something I really wanted to ask, and so I raised my hand and stated my question: “What is the stance of the HBS Alumni Board? Is it a governing entity, a forum for deliberating the direction of the university, or a channel of communication between the alumni and the university?”

GLOBIS also has an Alumni Board, so this was an important point of comparison for us.

I received my answer: “We don’t intervene in decision-making, and we can’t govern. We represent the alumni, share what is happening at the university with them, and have some influence over the direction of the university.”

So if they didn’t govern, I asked, who did?

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers.

After lunch, Professor James L. Heskett led a case discussion. Heskett is a giant in service management, and everyone at GLOBIS has read and learned from his book, The Service Profit Chain, to improve the service capacity at GLOBIS.

Everyone on the Board had read a column by Heskett before coming to the session, and we used it as a case study for exchanging ideas. One very interesting case was “Will MBAs become unnecessary?”

This question was posed while quoting from an article written for the “Harvard Business Review” by the Dean of Yale School of Management. In that article, the question was,”Have business schools relinquished their primary duty as professional institutions for nurturing business managers and made an MBA too academic?”

The duties of most university professors are divided into the academic research and teaching. At other universities, writing a case is not highly valued, and the quality of teaching is not really talked about. After all, education at these schools is completely centered on a thesis, and you aren’t appreciated until you have written one. Conversely, at HBS, both writing case studies and the quality of your teaching are evaluated. The key point of evaluation is whether you are turning out capable students.

HBS places a very high level of priority on teaching. Therefore, its criteria for evaluating teachers are different from other universities, and it is difficult for teachers to have any career beyond HBS. Even if you’re a good teacher and write good case studies, you may not have written a thesis. This will lead to a failure of recognition at other schools.

Nevertheless, Heskett made it clear that HBS would continue to emphasize teaching. “Other universities may play down the role of teaching, but raising teaching standards will take us a lot of time. As a professional school, we see the field of teaching as having the utmost importance.”

This experience at HBS validated our thinking at GLOBIS. I reaffirmed that we would continue to prioritize teaching. Our benchmark for self-evaluation would be how many leaders of change and creativity we successfully manage to turn out.

The final session that day was a debate, split into various committee groups. I was in charge of events commemorating the 100th anniversary, which HBS would celebrate in 2008. I enthusiastically volunteered to participate from the planning stage.

The next morning, the professor in charge of the HBS External Relations Office made a presentation. Over the last four to five years, HBS had unbelievably amassed about 65 billion yen in donations, completely surpassing the 50 billion yen target. No other university could ever compete with this. The economic clout enables HBS to operate entirely in the black!

I learned the following week during an interview with the Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business that even at Stanford, over 50% of the dean’s time is spent fundraising. Only half of the revenue comes from student feesーthe other half comes from donations. Half of the donations come from the management of funds, and the rest comes from gifts.

Furthermore, as many as 85 people work in the External Relations Office at HBS. The office deals with a range of activities, from fundraising to alumni relations and regional alumni clubs.

The next session focused on how IT is utilized at HBS. This was also a masterpiece. It began with a presentation by the staff member in charge of the E-Library, the electronic services arm of the Baker Library. The speaker was originally from Microsoft and held a master’s degree in library science.

Afterwards, there was a session that explained how IT is used to support teaching. This included utilization of e-learning, as well as an introduction to the multi-media transformation of case studies.

The focus on teaching at HBS was once again thoroughly on display. Typically, professors would balk at creating this kind of content, but at HBS, content development is highly valued.

We examined a fascinating case study review of the most recent Discovery shuttle tragedy. It began with a recording of the communications between the Discovery and the Kennedy Space Center. Several minutes in, the Discovery penetrated the atmosphere and exploded. The entire crew lost their lives.

In this case study, students were assigned different roles within NASA to try to determine the cause of the disaster. Each student had a role, and information was limited. They did have access to video footage in which an actual NASA staff member talked about the problems they were aware of. Each student analyzed the cause of the disaster in their own way, based solely on the information possessed by the person whose role they had been assigned.

This led to a role play session to learn about group dynamics.

Apparently, HBS has developed more than 80 cases like this that combine video and audio components.

With regard to e-learning, students are required to study a minimum of four modules before enrolling, such as accounting, finance, and the science of decision-making. Each module takes seven to eight hours. I was left with the impression that GLOBIS is ahead of the game when it comes to e-learning.

After this session, I got into a taxi and headed for the Boston Career Forum. GLOBIS has a recruitment booth there, and this year we also secured a speaking engagement. Three people from GLOBIS attended: Ms. Okajima and Ms. Saito from GLOBIS Management Bank (GMB) and Mr. Yoshida from HR.

On arriving, without really having sufficient time to prepare, I gave a speech directed at students studying abroad, inviting them to join me in building the No. 1 business school in Asia. It seemed many students were very interested in venture capital.

I then returned to HBS by taxi to participate in the last lunch meeting, which included an update on the committee discussions that had taken place while I was gone, as well as the schedule of future events.

The next Alumni Board meeting would be next year in January.