01 Oct 2001
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A Janus-Faced Reflection

So, what are we going to do with the next 25 years?
Re: Jay Light
by Walter Kiechel

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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.

OK, maybe 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.

It seems 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.

If we've 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 our own.

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.

And what 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."

Reading the 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."

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