01 Mar 2010
Light Looks Back on Forty-Year HBS Careerby Roger ThompsonTopics:
Jay Light, the School’s ninth dean, retires in June after a distinguished forty-year career at HBS. As a young mission analyst at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Light applied to the MBA Program to polish his managerial skills but was persuaded instead to enter a new doctoral program offered by HBS and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. As he tells it, he walked into his first day of class in September 1966 virtually “clueless” about HBS — a condition he quickly surmounted.
Light joined the faculty in December 1969 and, with encouragement from faculty mentors, pursued his growing interests in markets and investment. During his tenure at the School he has served as chair of the Finance unit and taken on a number of key administrative roles, including director of faculty planning and director of strategic planning and new initiatives. Light became Acting Dean in August 2005 upon the departure of Kim B. Clark, and Dean in April 2006.
The School’s 2008 Centennial celebration provided a high point of Light’s five-year tenure; the global economic crisis that same year was his biggest challenge. He reflected recently on his career at HBS and what he sees for the School’s future.
Looking back over your forty-year career at HBS, what stands out?
I guess what impresses me most is how the School continually adapts to the changing world of business, but at the same time, it remains true to a relatively constant set of values. The fundamentals I experienced as a new faculty member — the engaged classroom where students actively participate in the learning process, the dedication to ideas that have power in practice, the real sense of community you feel when you step on campus — can still be found today. The School has done a great job maintaining its core values over the years.
What are some of the biggest changes you have seen?
Certainly, the mix of our student body is quite different; you can see it when you look at photos from across the decades. Today, there are a lot more women and a lot more students from abroad. Interestingly, too, we’re finding that citizenship isn’t always a good indicator of “international.” What I mean here is that more and more of our students have worked or studied or had some extended stay in a country other than where they were born, and they bring these experiences with them to Soldiers Field. This makes the dynamics of any given case discussion quite remarkable.
The faculty has changed a lot, too. It used to be that the large majority of new hires came through our doctoral programs. Today, we have faculty members with backgrounds in economics, psychology, physics, medicine, and other disciplines; they study business issues through new lenses and bring a wider range of methodologies to their research. This is a crucial aspect of what makes HBS unique; it means we can bring all these perspectives to bear on management challenges.
Finally, our classrooms encompass all the innovations the digital revolution has enabled. When I started teaching, we used slide rules. The handheld calculator was the first round of the revolution. Personal computers and the spreadsheet changed everything again. And then the Internet took us a step further. So the way we teach, particularly quantitative courses, has been changed immensely by technology. We continue to experiment with simulations and other tools we think can enhance the learning experience.
That said, the basic interaction in the classroom is just the same. A faculty member starts each class with, “What would you do?”
You’ve taught thousands of students. What’s your favorite classroom story?
For me it’s all about the very first day. I’ve told a number of people about my first class at HBS, when the legendary Ted Levitt began his marketing course by entering the room, placing his books on the desk, and declaring to a student — fortunately not me — “You may begin.” I’ve left out the second half of the story, though, which is that I continued Ted’s legacy when I joined the faculty. In fact, I worked hard to get the 8:30 a.m. class so I could be the first instructor students experienced. And I would walk in, pick out a student, and say, “You may begin.”
That is a defining moment, not just for the person who is called on, but also for the entire class. You can watch the students thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” It really sets the stage for the experience students will have at HBS, and shows them in those initial moments how challenging, how stimulating, and how engaging it’s going to be.
Among all the management lessons you tried to get across, was there one that stood out as most important?
Well, if there is an overarching lesson, it would be that there is never a final answer, and you never really know for sure. Ultimately, you’ve got to make up your mind in an ambiguous setting and move forward. Students, of course, would prefer for you to tell them the correct answer at the end of class. I never did that.
There is always an enormous amount of uncertainty and ambiguity, in cases and in real life, and you can never be quite sure what is going on. At some point you simply have to cut through the ambiguity and say, “I know enough. I’ve got to make a decision. I don’t know if it is right or wrong. But I’ve got to decide and act.” That is the heart of what separates a practical approach to business decision-making from a more theoretical approach that says, “There is a right answer, and you just have to find it.” Life isn’t like that in my experience.
Of all the cases you have taught, is there one that is most memorable?
There was a case written long before I arrived called “Clarkson Lumber” — it had different names at different times — and it was the first case I always taught in corporate finance. It’s about a company that is doing great, growing like crazy, and then it runs out of cash and just about goes bust. The very simple lesson was, “Never run out of cash.” We always kept that as the first case in finance because in some sense that was the most important lesson: “Whatever you do, don’t let your enterprise run out of cash.” Over the past three years it seems like a lot of people missed that lesson.
Looking ahead several decades, do you think the case method of instruction will remain a firmly rooted part of the HBS experience?
I hope so. Cases today don’t look much like the initial cases the School’s Bureau of Business Research published in the 1920s, and I’m sure cases at the end of the 21st century won’t look much like they do now — we’ll probably be viewing them on some sort of handheld device. But I’d guess that they’ll still be focused around real-world problems. They’ll still require faculty to guide rather than lead a discussion. And they’ll still necessitate that students put themselves into the shoes of the protagonist.
So I think the engagement around business decisions and business practices will never change.
You served as a close adviser to your predecessors for 23 years. When you became Dean, were there surprises for you nonetheless?
It wasn’t a complete surprise, but one of the interesting things was to see how information dries up when you become the head of an organization. For years I had been a close adviser and confidant of John McArthur and then of Kim Clark. And I was often involved in processes and projects in ways that were helpful to them, and that necessitated my working closely with a broad range of people at the School.
As soon as I became the decision maker, that changed. Even though I wasn’t any different, people felt less comfortable speaking their minds, as if they were talking to the institution rather than to me. So initially, at least, my ability to figure out what was really going on decreased noticeably.
How did you counteract that?
I had to work harder to get people to share their views. It happened, over time. But it didn’t come automatically, and I found myself seeking out my colleagues to get their opinions.
You recently said that you didn’t think of yourself as Dean but as a managing partner of a large community. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that?
I’ve always thought about the faculty and staff as partners in running the School. It’s a team sport. Harvard Business School isn’t a hierarchical place where the Dean gets to tell people what to do. In fact, a dean who tried that would get into a lot of trouble very quickly. Instead, it’s a collegial place where there are lots of people with a deep commitment to the institution who have a collective responsibility and ownership for what it is to become.
That is how I’ve always thought about it. I saw myself as managing the process by which the senior partners thought about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. I thought my view was important because I had been around for a while. But my view was by no means determinant. I wanted to make sure that we had a genuine partnership-oriented decision-making process.
What’s next for you?
It’s going to be a busy semester. I just got back from California, where I helped kick off the Silicon Valley IXP Immersion Experience Program with a group of MBA students interested in launching new ventures. In March, I go to China and probably India, where I’ll meet with alumni. Closer to home, there are important initiatives under way where we don’t want to lose momentum, and Commencement and reunions will be here in the blink of an eye. So things aren’t slowing down just yet. After that, I’ll continue working with various boards and advisory groups. I’ll probably do a bit more reading and sailing. And beyond that, I’ll see what other opportunities arise.
Do you have any parting advice for your successor?
It would be to continue to innovate while keeping true to the values of the institution. That, I think, is the secret to the School’s success.
— Roger Thompson