01 Oct 2001
A Janus-Faced Reflection
So, what are we going to do with the next 25 years?by Walter KiechelTopics:
by Walter Kiechel
In each of its October issues of the recent past, the Bulletin has
run a short piece subtitled, approximately, "A Classmate's
Reflections on the Occasion of the 25th Reunion." By now it's
almost as if a genre has been created, with attendant expectations for
what this mini-essay will contain. There'll be some fond recollections
of the School ("I'll never forget Professor Pharquart, emerging
from the rhododendron-shadowed gloaming, saying to me…") and
some good-natured chaffing of classmates, intermixed with a generous-spirited
recognition of what the few and the many have accomplished. All this
accompanied by some thoughts on how the world has changed in a quarter-century,
and with it our alma mater, and the meaning of a Harvard MBA. The pieces
have typically been warm, gently tough-minded, only slightly nostalgic,
witty, and fun.
What my inexorably
maturing sensibilities react to, on the occasion of my own class's
25th, is the underlying, unspoken premise of these commentaries:
Well, that's about it for us; our race is run. We've
made our mark, and our money, climbed the ladder (or not), achieved
our peak earning years, our peak positions, and our peak influence.
From here on, it's pretty much descent from the summit. Roll
us off into retirement, on to the golf course, record our remaining
exploits in the oldest segment of Class Notes, and pass out the
canes and walkers.
this is just baby-boomer rant and denial, along the lines of "I
don't want to grow up" or "50 today is what 40
used to be," but I nurture the sneaky belief that our future
will be at least as interesting as our past. Ours was the first,
or nearly the first MBA class made up principally of the Not-Greatest
Generation, born between 1946 and 1964. We were always a generation,
I would argue, whose final, secret pride was that as individuals
we were mostly self-creating —we weren't going to take
on any of the confining, conventional roles that society had prescribed
for earlier cohorts, roles like "organization man" or
"suburban housewife." Which, of course, has made it
all the more weird to wake up to find oneself deeply enmeshed
in a large company, a parent or a dog owner, or the proprietor
of a stately home in a suspiciously green and leafy neighborhood.
But we have
followed our own paths to this latest milestone, and odds are
that our individualism will continue to prevail as we move forward.
Based on the surprises and the nonsurprises of the last 25 years,
what might we expect of our self-creating selves over the next
25? For pointers, it may help to look not just at ourselves, but
at how Harvard Business School has changed, and is changing —on-campus
trends have an interesting way of mirroring what's going
on among graduates.
unlikely that we will just walk away from the new economy, which
many in the class helped create. As Dave Frost wrote in a 1998
class note, "Have you noticed how many of us are involved
in corporate development, corporate finance, investment banking,
venture capital, or LBO investing? About 10 percent of our class."
And then there are all the civilians who started companies. By
1999, the School, ever ruminative about how it wanted to teach
general management, had introduced entrepreneurship as part of
the core MBA curriculum.
Just in time
for the unpleasantness of the last eighteen months. Still, the
changes wrought by technology, and to be wrought by biotechnology,
aren't going away. They are here to stay, just like the more
fundamental shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy
and the revolutions in capital markets that have funded the whole
process. And the ways that MBA-types participate in this continuing
evolution —not only as operating executives, but as investors,
directors, and advisors as well —seem many, varied, and not
just a young or even middle-aged person's game.
experienced the capriciousness of markets lately, we have also
as a class had a full dose of the capriciousness of corporate
power, in the form of mergers, acquisitions, reengineerings, and
downsizings. (Indeed, we probably fostered some of the caprice.)
This lack of job security may have propelled many of us —70
percent or more, if we act like immediately preceding MBA classes
— to seek our fortunes in smaller enterprises, sometimes
When we were
students, Dean Larry Fouraker emphasized the role of HBS in educating
general managers. To truly practice your general-manager skills,
the suggestion seemed, you probably needed a multifunctional organization,
preferably a large one, for which you had bottom-line responsibility
—somewhat unwieldy accouterments to pack with you into your
sixties and seventies. Kim Clark, by contrast, speaks of the School's
mission to create leaders. Compared to a big company or a division,
the platforms one can stand on to make a leaderly difference appear
altogether more numerous, flexible, and portable over the years
—a small firm, a community organization, maybe even a family.
of our leisure time, for which we should see bullish prospects?
It may seem that our careers have been on a fast track since 1976,
but our Class Notes over the last 25 years could leave the impression
that we have spent the better part of that time enjoying visits
with one another and traveling the world. Why not expand those
laudable activities? In The Autumn of the Middle Ages,
historian Johan Huizinga offers wisdom for our own autumn (many
years hence, blessedly): "The things that can make life enjoyable
remain the same. They are, now as before, reading, music, fine
arts, travel, the enjoyment of nature, sports, fashion, social
vanity (knightly orders, honorary offices, gatherings), and the
intoxication of the senses."
Class Notes would also suggest to a fair-minded observer that
the women in our class have had a tougher row to hoe than most
of the men, and maybe as a result have arrived at critical insights
five or ten years earlier. For that reason, I'll leave the
final word on the biggest opportunity that awaits us to Barbara
Nadel Keck, from her 20th Reunion book statement: "'Letting
go' is the key concept for the next third of our lives,"
she wrote, "and sometime, somewhere it means meeting yourself
face-to-face for the first time."
Class of MBA 1976, Section A