What I Learned As A Harvard MBA

Aravind Krishnan was among the MBA graduates at Harvard Business School’s commencement this year

It was my dream to study at Harvard Business School (HBS) from the time I became an undergraduate student at IIT Madras. The fact is that I didn’t even know what HBS was before that. The desire to study in the Harvard’s hallowed classrooms was so intense that I viewed it as an end in itself, as opposed to seeing it as a means to building a successful career.

In pursuit of this goal, I made several deliberate professional and personal choices over the course of 8 years. My decision-making was heavily indexed towards whether a particular choice would increase my odds of getting admitted into Harvard’s MBA program, not a very intelligent way of making career choices I realize. Post all the planning and preparation, I was admitted into HBS on Dec. 10, 2014. That is the day I received the much vaunted ‘YES’ from Dee Leopold, then managing director of admissions and financial aid. More than 29 months later, I graduated from HBS on May 25, 2017. This is a good time to reflect on whether the eight years of preparation were worth the two years I spent here.

I took 20 different classes and participated in over 500 case discussions while at HBS. While I would love to share with the world how to value a distressed asset or the appropriate amount of leverage that needs to be taken by a company, this post will serve to glean out certain generalizable takeaways from my learnings inside and outside the classroom at HBS.

  1. The Socratic Method of case discussion is an immensely effective pedagogical tool for management education — The primary reason for HBS being my top choice is the fact that HBS almost exclusively relies on the case method for its in-classroom learning. My conviction in the case method has been vindicated by my academic experience here. I believe I have learned more from a single class at HBS than my 5 cumulative years of undergraduate and graduate studies of Engineering. One source of the divergence is of course my personal interest level, but a large portion of it can be attributed to the method of teaching. The case method is effective in learning management due to the following reasons — (a) it puts you in the shoes of the CEO or manager who has to make a decision in the face of ambiguity, with incomplete or inadequate information, (b) it trains you to always have a point of view regardless of your level of expertise on the subject/topic (this lesson can prove detrimental if overused as I learned during my stint as a consultant), (c) your learning is aided by the collective wisdom of 90 bright and passionate students with diverse experiences (d) the more you put in, the more you get out, meaning the case method is one of the few pedagogical methods were you inadvertently learn more by preparing more. I loved my classes at HBS and I used to look forward to each one of them.
  2. Stay humble, stay thankful — We are trained to reflect quite a bit at HBS. One takeaway from one of several meditations was how lucky I have been to study at HBS. And it was not just one lucky moment, it was a culmination of several lucky moments throughout my life, including being born to educated and supportive parents, a strong support structure throughout my education, excellent teachers, good days during critical examinations and interviews and an extremely supportive partner. If one of these moments/elements had gone awry, I wouldn’t have been at HBS. Such a reflective process is helpful, since it makes you realize that there are several extraneous factors which contributed to making you. It is an extremely humbling thought, which forces one to be thankful to everyone and everything which helped you along the way. It teaches you how important it is to give back and pay it forward. The HBS experience is all the more humbling as we get to meet real leaders who have made differences in people’s lives among peers and alumni, leading to the realization how small one’s accomplishments are, compared to others’.
  3. There is no substitute for diversity; diverse teams perform better — My experience was enriched further by virtue of the fact that my class comprised students from 70 different countries. A typical HBS classroom is a melting pot of students from diverse cultures, communities, professional backgrounds and thought processes. Imagine learning about leadership from a Marine Corps captain who led his troops into battle or entrepreneurship from someone who built a $100M business or mining business from a Chilean copper mining entrepreneur. Such a diversity of thought enhanced the learning experience multi-fold as I learned to view and approach problems in ways I had never done before. A highlight at HBS was the opportunity I got to work as the CFO of the student government. The executive board which I was a part of, was truly diverse, but the clincher was that both the co-presidents (my bosses) were incredible women leaders. This provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get over several of my unconscious biases.
  4. Networking is an indispensable skill in business — The business skill which I lacked the most was clearly, networking. Being deliberate about meeting strangers in a crowded room or picking up the phone and cold-calling CEOs was not my forte, especially since these skills are culturally alien to Indians. HBS pushed me to build this muscle as I took up roles and projects (I did a deal sourcing project for a PE firm which involved a lot of cold-calling CEOs) which helped me develop this skill.
  5. Leadership needs to have a coherent set of values — It is imperative for a leader to have a strong sense of accountability to all stakeholders, shareholders, employees, customers, society and the environment. In today’s world where capitalism is accused of facing moral bankruptcy, it is all the more essential for business leaders to have a strong moral compass and lead with empathy, honor and probity.
  6. Institutional gaps need to be filled in emerging markets for business and the economy to flourish — Emerging markets like India lack strong institutions, systems and effective laws which are taken for granted in developed economies. These institutional voids often need to be filled by business, but over the long-term strong institutions, like a prompt and efficacious legal system, a working tax regime and functioning financial markets, need to be built in developing countries.
  7. Private enterprise is a powerful agent which can solve several problems faced by humanity — Two courses at HBS significantly changed my world-view and perspective on the role of business, Business at the Base of the Pyramid (BBoP) and Role of Government in Market Economies (RoGME). These courses shed light on the power of market forces to bring real change in the world. Markets, with the right kind of regulatory support, can help solve the biggest problems we face today from poverty to hunger to universal healthcare delivery and sustainability. This perspective has also provided me with a renewed purpose in life, which brings us to the last lesson.
  8. With privilege comes responsibility — HBS’s mission is to ‘educate leaders who make a difference in the world’. As one of section-mates eloquently articulated in class, with the privilege of having studied at HBS, comes a responsibility and moral obligation to live the HBS mission. An MBA degree from HBS empowers us to be in positions of immense power and influence, from which we can have tremendous impact. Making a difference in the world can mean different things for different people. The sphere of influence could be family, an organization, one’s community, state, nation, country or the world. I believe the onus is on us to expand the sphere of influence progressively over time.

HBS has truly changed the arc of my and my family’s lives. HBS is where Deepti (my wife) and I became parents. HBS has given me the courage and conviction to have a higher purpose in life. These lessons from HBS mixed with my inherent sense of nationalistic love, convinced me that this higher purpose lay in India. It is more personally fulfilling to live the HBS mission in my homeland starting with the communities and country I grew up in. I hope I can live up to this great institution’s mission and make a difference in every community I am a part of.

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Author Aravind Krishnan

Aravind Krishnan graduated from the Harvard Business School this year as a Baker Scholar in the top 5% of his class. He works in private equity for the Blacksone Group


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