Leaders & Innovators at Work & at Ease
In the course of their outstanding professional careers, this year’s five recipients of the Alumni Achievement Award — the School’s highest honor — have had an enormous impact on the world of business. A surprising key to their success? Understanding the importance of maintaining a rewarding private life. These honorees, like their predecessors, are often in the limelight by virtue of their notable accomplishments and high-level positions in the private and public sectors. Curious about the personalities behind the famous names, we sat down with John Doerr, Jeff Immelt, Anand Mahindra, Meg Whitman, and James Wolfensohn to get a sense of their lives away from the corner office.
James Wolfensohn (MBA ’59)
James Wolfensohn’s achievements in business, public policy, philanthropy, and the arts include ten years as president of the World Bank, a key role in the Middle East peace process, managing turnarounds of Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and three decades of leadership in international finance. He and two of his children recently launched Wolfensohn & Company, LLC, a private investment firm and adviser to corporations and governments doing business in emerging economies.
What is the last country you visited, and what did you do there?
I travel a lot, so this answer will be outdated. I recently gave a talk at the University of Ghana on the need for African countries to develop a unified economic agenda.
What is the biggest challenge facing the global community?
In the next fifty years, the current global economic and population balance will be turned on its head. Today’s rich countries will need to adjust to a significant drop in their share of the world’s income. As Africa’s share of the world’s population increases, there will be 2 billion people on the planet who are living in extreme poverty. You can’t have stability in the world with such widespread deprivation.
Where do you get most of your news about the world?
I read the Financial Times and scan the New York Times every day. These days I read them more online because it’s so convenient, especially when I am in transit.
Is there a talent that you wish you had?
There are many. I’d like to have been a long-distance runner. I wish I could read more quickly and retain every word.
What makes you the proudest in your career to date?
My two terms at the World Bank gave me the greatest chance I could ever have had to help people, and I am proud of what my colleagues and I accomplished. On a more modest scale, I am hugely gratified that my three children have joined me in some of my endeavors. Seeing their sense of service and commitment to addressing tough societal challenges gives me the greatest amount of pride today.
What books have you read lately?
Alan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World; Michael Beschloss’s [MBA ’80] book on Lyndon Johnson, which is fantastic; and even some John le Carré.
You began studying the cello in midlife and played well enough to perform at Carnegie Hall. Do you still play, and what kind of music do you favor?
At best, I was an adequate musician, and that was only when I could steal time to practice. I love playing, though, especially chamber music. Haydn, Mozart, and Schumann are all favorites.
Meg Whitman (MBA ’79)
When Meg Whitman joined a fledgling online auction start-up in 1998, not many people outside of serious collectors of Beanie Babies had heard of eBay. After ten years under her leadership, the company now has 16,000 employees in 39 countries, it owns PayPal and Skype, and has 246 million registered users. Revenues last year exceeded $7 billion. eBay’s remarkable impact on society and com-merce is hard to ignore. Whitman, who stepped down from the helm in March, now serves as national cochair of John McCain’s presidential campaign.
Tell us about your experience at HBS.
I was 21, and the sum total of my work experience was two summer internships. It was a very steep learning curve, but I persevered. HBS gave me an invaluable foundation to build my career.
Before joining eBay, you bounced around a lot. Why?
In part because opportunities presented themselves and in part because I have traded off careers with my husband, who is a neurosurgeon. After I was at P&G for two years, he got a post in San Francisco, so I took a job at Bain. When Disney offered me a job, the kids and I moved to LA, and he commuted. Then he got an offer in Boston, so I agreed to move, and that’s when I took a job at Stride Rite. By the time eBay came along, I was at Hasbro in Rhode Island. Fortunately, my husband was game to move back to California.
What was your first reaction when a recruiter asked you to consider interviewing at eBay?
No way. I’ve never heard of this company. I’m not moving my husband and two children across the country for a job at a no-name Internet start-up.
What changed your mind?
I spent the day at eBay. I learned that users were deeply dedicated to the site, which had a compound monthly growth rate of 70 percent. It was a marketing exec’s dream. What I saw then is still true today: eBay enables users to trade with other people without regard to time and distance. It makes inefficient markets efficient.
What kind of communications devices do you use?
I may be the last person on earth who does not have a BlackBerry. I prefer to do e-mail on my laptop, using Skype for IM, voice, and video calls. I always carry my cellphone.
What qualities do you think leaders today need?
Leaders need to be courageous and fearless. They need to be fast because the time they have to get things done is shrinking. In addition to being fast, they need to be right.
Is there anything that might surprise HBS alumni about you?
I spend some of my time on weekends doing simple chores. It’s amazing how much thinking you can get done while power-washing a fence.
Jeff Immelt (MBA ’82)
When he succeeded Jack Welch as chairman and CEO of General Electric, just days before 9/11, Jeff Immelt had already built an impressive nineteen-year career at GE in its plastics, appliance, and medical systems divisions. With revenues in 2007 of $173 billion and more than 300,000 global employees, GE has seen significant change under Immelt, including acquisitions in energy, aviation, water treatment, and health care. Over half of GE’s revenues came from abroad last year, reinforcing its standing as a truly global company.
You’ve said, “I’m a real GE person.” What does that mean?
I’ve spent my whole career here, in many different jobs, so I know the people, the culture — it’s just part of my DNA. My father also worked for GE, and I think that gives me an affinity for the frontline managers: When I was growing up, I had no idea who the CEO of GE was, but I knew who my dad’s boss was because it affected his outlook. It taught me that those folks are the most important people in the company.
How do you start your day?
Usually on an elliptical trainer while watching CNBC, reading the Wall Street Journal, and listening to ’70s rock on my iPod.
If you weren’t in business, what would you be doing?
Probably teaching. I like people, and I like communicating.
Is there a particular talent that you wish you had?
I wish I had an ear for foreign languages. And I’m not a very good dancer.
What was your first job?
In college I was a warehouseman at Ford. I would push a cart around and collect instrument panels and bumpers and stuff like that so they could be shipped out to the local car dealers.
Is there any place you haven’t been that you’d like to visit?
Sub-Saharan Africa. GE now has a presence in countries like Angola, Nigeria, and Tanzania. I like being able to identify personally with every place we do business.
If you had one do-over, what would it be?
Only one? At GE, I wish I’d sold our insurance business the day I got here. On the personal side, I wish I’d had the chance to work and live with my wife and daughter outside the United States.
What is most often forgotten in the everyday busyness of life?
There is a beauty in the routine that you forget at your own peril. Twice a month I sit with 20 or 25 salespeople, then I meet with 250 customers. GE would probably be just fine if I didn’t do any of that, but I think that’s what keeps me focused and aware of what’s going on.
Anand Mahindra (MBA ’81)
Dubbed a Renaissance man by the Harvard Business Review, Anand Mahindra is vice chairman and managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. (M&M), a Mumbai-based “confederation” of almost 100 companies with revenues of $6.6 billion and 60,000 employees. A film major at Harvard College, Mahindra has won rave reviews for his efforts to restructure and diversify the giant family firm and turn it into a global enterprise.
How do you see the role of business now and in the future?
Consumers are demanding a new template for corporations. They are not satisfied with glossy reports on sustainability and corporate philanthropy; they want CEOs and business leaders who will walk the talk on environmental harmony and social responsibility.
What do you think about the future relationship between India and China?
There is a grudging acknowledgment on both sides that we stand to lose far too much if we are goaded into an adversarial relationship. Combining our strengths will be profitable, both politically and economically.
What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
When I first joined M&M Ltd., I had to dismiss some very senior executives who had clearly been violating the ethical values of the group. It was the most agonizing and stressful period in my career thus far.
What are your thoughts on the future of global business?
The current global slowdown will change the nature of business in lasting ways. First, we’ll be driven to create technologies and operations that are resistant to spikes in fossil fuel prices. Second, despite an initial flurry of protectionism and inward-looking politics, it will become clear that the best way to lessen the severity of worldwide recessions is to increase the volume of interdependent trade among nations.
Which of M&M’s products are you most proud of?
Our design of the Scorpio hybrid, India’s first indigenous hybrid vehicle. We hope to have it available in U.S. showrooms before long!
What keeps you up at night?
Oil at well over $100 per gallon and customers who don’t believe we’ve delivered on our product or service promises.
How do you find time for your family?
My wife, Anuradha, is uncompromising when it comes to my giving priority to family and friends. Thanks to her coaching, I’ve learned how to switch off my “crackberry” and how to say no to requests for meetings.
How do you relax?
Not surprisingly, I enjoy movies, and I use the wondrous invention of home DVD to catch up on world cinema. I collect antique maps of India from the days of the British Raj and am also finding time to indulge in still photography and play the occasional game of tennis.
What’s your favorite place to vacation or visit?
A coffee plantation in the southern Indian district of Coorg, which was established by my parents in the sixties and is now run by my sister.
John Doerr (MBA ’76)
With hits that include Intuit, Amazon, and Google, venture capitalist John Doerr is the embodiment of Silicon Valley success. An engineer who worked in marketing at Intel after earning his MBA, Doerr joined the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in 1980. KPCB’s focus on technology and life sciences, while dramatically changing the landscape of both fields, has also contributed to creation of over 340,000 jobs. Currently Doerr’s passion for the environment is helping to drive the green tech revolution, and he is a leader in the education-reform movement as well. Doerr and his wife, Ann, have two daughters.
How are things different at KPCB than when you started almost thirty years ago?
The size, scale, and scope of our investments have increased significantly. However, we remain a service organization helping entrepreneurs with disruptive technologies that create or transform business. KPCB has always focused on biotech and information technologies. Today we’ve added energy technologies as a third leg of the stool; we’re currently investing $1.2 billion in green technologies.
What makes an entrepreneur successful?
Great entrepreneurs do more than anyone thinks is possible with less than anyone thinks is possible.
Whom do you admire?
I’ve been really fortunate to work with many great leaders — business entrepreneurs like Andy Grove, Jeff Bezos, and Jim Barksdale and social entrepreneurs like Al Gore, Bono, and Muhammad Yunus.
You have said that green tech will be bigger than the Internet.
Green technology is both an area that we must invest in for the sake of our planet and it is the largest economic opportunity of the 21st century. Comparing green tech with the Internet, green tech ventures require more capital, a longer time to develop, and policy is paramount. The worldwide energy market is $6 trillion, much larger than the information technology market.
How do you balance work and family?
All the partners at Kleiner Perkins agree on these values and their priority: (1) family; (2) partners; (3) entrepreneurs and CEOs; (4) new ventures; and (5) community service. Over the years I’ve become a better time manager. I am committed to being home twenty nights a month for dinner with my family.
How do you get your news?
My homepage is Google News, which scans 3,400 news sources for key topics that I follow. I also get online and print versions of the major newspapers.
What talent do you wish you had?
What are you most proud of?
In business, finding and recruiting Eric Schmidt to run Google. In public policy, helping pass two California initiatives, one funding $3 billion in stem cell research and the other resulting in $23 billion for public schools. The biggest source of personal pride is my family.