01 Mar 2014

My HBS Eureka Moment

Alumni share their moments of inspiration—dramatic and otherwise
Re: George Lodge; John Pratt


Just Do It
Ralph Sultan (MBA 1960)

IT WAS DURING MBA CLASSES THAT I LEARNED THAT we are all capable of sustained effort, far into the night, and no problem is too complex to tackle analytically—as long as due allowance is given for uncertainty and margin of error. In short, no task is beyond doing, and this insight has stood me well in my various careers.

Hold Your Tongue
Dick MacKinnon (MBA 1962)

Listen to Dick MacKinnon describe his moment:


IN THE SPRING OF 1962, SCHOOL WAS almost over and I found myself immersed in Alan Moorehead's book The White Nile while in Professor Walter Frese's financial accounting class. I didn't even know what that day's case was but this was a supposed "safe class"—no cold-calling.

Suddenly through my haze, I heard Professor Frese say: "Well, Mr. MacKinnon, perhaps you can tell us all how General Motors prices its car lines?" Wow! I was being called on. Now, talking in class without any knowledge was an HBS art form, and I was prepared to go on at length about a subject—pricing cars at GM—of which I had no knowledge. But suddenly I felt enraged and my inner voice said, "What business does Walter have in calling on me? Doesn't he understand the rules in this class?" So I decided just to sit there with folded arms and say nothing. "I'll show him," I told myself!

Then the most amazing thing happened. I heard my voice going on about pricing cars at the Chevrolet Division of GM. What? But it wasn't me...it was Bill, my twin brother. Frazee had called on Bill, who was sitting next to me, while I had been engrossed in my book, oblivious to the proceedings. I broke out in the proverbial sweat at the thought of the consternation that would have resulted and what a fool I would have made of myself had I started talking, instead of just mutely pouting. I learned a lifelong lesson: When you don't know what to say or do, say or do nothing.

Find Your Place
Rusty McClure (MBA 1975)

AS A MARRIED MBA STUDENT, in order to afford a better apartment, I applied for and was awarded the student franchise for the delivery of thousands of newspapers on campus: room by room, to vending machines, and to executive programs. Dressed in blue jeans, a chamois shirt, track shoes, and my college jacket, I moved quickly through campus. I cannot tell you how cold Boston got in those predawn hours.

For the corporate executives, I put 100 papers on tables in their residence hall lobbies. Dressed very properly in suits, sipping coffee, quietly eating breakfast, these very professional, very reserved, and very formal executives rarely looked up or acknowledged me as I made deliveries.

In January, I received a delivery order for yet another program: The Young Presidents' Organization. There I encountered much less formally dressed people, hunched over what appeared to be the day's cases. They were crunching numbers and cramming for the work they obviously had not completed the night before. Nevertheless, among this rumpled group, grinding away, were several who looked up, saw me, and made eye contact. We exchanged nods.

Feeling more comfortable than among those corporate stiffs in the other executive programs, I volunteered an observation: "It's a little late to be working on today's cases." To which I got groans and smirks. Sizing me up, one of them asked,

"Are you a student here?"

"Yeah, second year, married. MBA."

"So, you've worked these cases?"

"For a year and a half…for a grade on a curve."

Fast-forward to the next day, when I walked in with my newspapers. They were waiting for me, grinning. One guy greeted me at the door, like the butler. Another invited me over to the table where they had a setting for me. Like the maître d', he held the chair out for me to sit.

A "waiter" offered to pour me coffee.

"Rusty (they knew my name), do you like cream in your coffee?"

Said another, "We have Danish, four kinds. Which would you prefer?"


I looked at them. "This wouldn't be about my helping you with the cases, would it?"

Each ensuing morning I would show up with the newspapers and tutor them for the day's case discussions. They would treat me like a human being, like a key member of their team, and tell me about YPO.

One evening, I told this story to my wife, Amy, and how I really liked those guys. I realized that I now had a vision for my life: I didn't want to be a high-priced suit. I didn't want to go through my life being…furniture.

I wanted to be a YPOer.

After graduation, I worked for a large family company that needed professional management assistance. Five years later, I was promoted to company president and became a member of the Young Presidents' Organization. My lifelong friends in YPO helped me to buy and ultimately sell my company; arrange for the adoption of our children; take up golf; and made many, many other life-changing contributions.

Be Prepared
Peter Kiernan (MBA 1965)

ON THE VERY FIRST DAY OF CLASS, MY section of 100 classmates entered Professor Marty Marshall's introductory Marketing course and sat down randomly in the classroom's tiered seating. To our amazement, Professor Marshall knew all of our faces and names. He had memorized them from the photos we had submitted with our applications.

Marty's bravura performance and the fact that he had gone to the trouble of learning all of our names before the first class gave us a clear indication that he was going to be prepared every day—and that we had better be prepared too. It was an inspired instance of leading by example and one that has long transcended my days at the School.

Know Your Market
Steve Frenkiel (MBA 2007)

I WAS AN ENGINEER BY BACKGROUND, and thus naturally gravitated to finance and accounting at HBS because they came easily to me. So, in RC Marketing, I was especially paying attention because I knew I had lots to learn!

One simple lesson that I certainly did not appreciate before I took Marketing centered on how to price a product. When you price a product for the consumer—whatever the product—your cost in producing the product is irrelevant. While we are often tempted to sell a product at a "reasonable margin," the more intelligent way to price a product is not based on what it cost you to produce, but what the consumer is willing to pay for it. So if your product costs you $1, but the consumer is willing to pay $10, then you sell it for $10. If your product costs $1, and the consumer is willing to pay $1.05, then you sell it for $1.05. A simple, but important "aha" moment from first-year Marketing.

Ask the Right Questions
Eliza Silvester (MBA 1996)

MY "AHA" MOMENT happened in a DMEV class with Professor George Lodge. Someone asked at the end of the class if "that was it…are we finished?" Professor Lodge smiled and said, "No, it's just the beginning. We don't teach answers in this room; if you're lucky and we do our job well, we teach you how to ask the right questions."

Set Early Goals
Ralph Dyer (MBA 1965)

WHEN I WAS ABOUT 8 OR 10 YEARS OLD, my mother and I were in a taxi riding west on Storrow Drive. The cab driver was a talkative fellow who enjoyed pointing out important places, such as MIT and then Harvard, as we drove along. I noticed a set of buildings on the left and asked what they were.The driver proudly identified the place as Harvard Business School. He said that the best and brightest young men came there from all over the world to study business.He commented that HBS guaranteed every graduate an executive job in business and that some of those men made as much as $10,000 per year. That conversation stuck with me and it was my goal from that moment to go to Harvard Business School.

Have a Long-Term Strategy
Jose M. Faustino (MBA 1963)

I WAS AMONG THE FORTUNATE MINORITY that Professor Roland Christensen selected to be in his Business Policy section. It became obvious to me that he was the best HBS professor I ever had. Near the end of our BP class, Professor Christensen asked us to take out a blank sheet and write at the top: "What I want to be after HBS." By then, I knew in my heart and mind—in that order—what I wanted to be after HBS. I wrote: "I want to be like you, a professor who inspires students to think and feel optimally, to be the best that they can be." The strategy I wrote down was to work in business for 10 years to gather enough nest egg to afford academia. Instead I got married and had two daughters, so it took nearly 20 years of saving. At age 41, I transformed myself from business executive to professor. I took a 70 percent cut in take-home pay but would do it again without hesitation.

Beware of Bias
Donald J. Chiofaro (MBA 1972)

I HAD TWO "AHA" MOMENTS during a second-year course on new ventures. They were lessons that influenced much of the thinking in my career.

The first came the day a highly respected venture capitalist visited class and talked about his endeavors. A classmate asked him if he had ever failed.

"Yes," the VC replied, "but my biggest mistake was a venture that I took a pass on. I was uncomfortable with the ethnic background of the proponents, who were proposing to start a pharmaceutical company in Mexico. I could never get comfortable, and missed a huge opportunity. The product was the birth control pill."

The lesson to me was obvious: You can't make important judgments simply based on appearances. This can be negatively and incorrectly influenced by your own short-sighted biases.

Secondly, in the same course, an entrepreneur who had started a successful firm from scratch was asked what lessons contributed to his company's success. His reply was that, first, if you want to be successful in your own business, you have to forget that you ever went to college. Next, you have to forget that you went to Harvard Business School. To be successful, you can't ever deem yourself too superior, too big, too educated, or too accomplished to do the minimal part of the business. You must be prepared to do whatever it takes.

Exceed Expectations
Bill Bogardus (MBA 1972)

DURING THE FIRST OR SECOND WEEK of his first-year managerial economics course, Professor John Pratt gave us a pop quiz. Data were presented and three questions were asked, two of which were along the lines of: When does the company stop losing money, and when does the company break even?

A pretty easy quiz. Then Professor Pratt said that we would go over it in class. He revealed the correct answers to questions 1, 2, and 3 and I got all three answers right.(I remember feeling a little smug.)

Professor Pratt announced that those three correct answers would earn a C. Then he asked who in the section had worked out the answers to two more questions: When did the company start making a profit and when did the company recoup its investment?

Answering one of these extra questions correctly got you a B, answering both got you an A. Unfair to ask who got those answers since he didn't list them as questions! Doing only what you were asked to do earned just a C or average grade.

I learned an important lesson that day: Doing only what you are asked to do is not enough to be successful. I have always remembered that point and have tried to use that lesson throughout my life.

See Every Side
Jacqueline Beato (MBA 2009)

THE GREATEST LESSON I took from the case study method at HBS is that opposing viewpoints are all based on different experiences; understanding those experiences is what helps people come together and derive comprehensive solutions. This really clicked when we had a case on child labor.

This, to me, was a clearly abhorrent situation. Why would it be OK to have 10-year-old children chained while stitching soccer balls? While everyone in the class agreed that the "slave-like" conditions in some of the case examples were unacceptable, there was another side to this story. One of my classmates mentioned how in their country some families can't afford food, and that sometimes the only option is to have their kids start working early. In these cases the kids want to work, do not typically have educational options, and are not always exploited.

I had never considered this side of child labor. I had immediately thought of the reporting I had seen on the bad (and unfortunately common) cases of child labor, where kids are held in abusive situations while they worked. And that's when I realized that this previously black-and-white issue did have some grey. Eradication of child labor would require a comprehensive look at poverty and options for education. This made me rethink some of my other hard-line stances, and has forced me to ask questions when I find people with opposing viewpoints so that I can understand the "why" behind their thoughts. This has made me a better leader, as I am able to bridge the gap in cases where common ground would seem uncommon.

Take a Chance
Michael Kubin (MBA 1973)

Listen to Michael Kubin describe his moment:


MY MOMENT TOOK PLACE in the basement of Gallatin Hall, in the dark and very messy Harbus office. It was in March of my second year, approaching the end of my tenure as editor of the B-School student newspaper. It had been a long year of filling pages with local news stories and features, and I suddenly felt that—aha!—a change of pace was required.

So I made up a story about HBS seceding from Harvard University, complete with a front-page picture of Dean Fouraker, along with his official statement explaining the reasons for secession. Not surprisingly the reasons had to do with money—the B-School was much more profitable than the rest of the University, and wanted to hang on to its wealth instead of sharing it. Seemed pretty plausible. Also the B-School name would change to the George F. Baker Business School.

At the bottom of the page I put a box saying "Diplomas: If second-year students want their diplomas to say 'Harvard' instead of 'Baker' they need to fill out a form at the registrar's office." I was later told that quite a few people showed up looking for those forms, to the annoyance of the people working in that office. The story ran on April 1. That experience eventually led me to write other humor pieces, one of which made it into The New Yorker.

Make the Hard Call
Jim Leslie (MBA 1969)

Listen to Jim Leslie describe his moment:


IN HIS MARKETING COURSE, Professor Walt Salmon tended to call on people to begin case discussions who did not regularly contribute in class. One day, he called on someone who never spoke to open a case voluntarily. The fellow, who happened to be seated next to an aisle, said something to the effect that "I spent a good deal of time reading and studying this case last night and finally concluded that there was not enough information available for me to make a decision." Whereupon Professor Salmon ran up the steps towards the student, stopped, and coming face-to-face with him said in a loud voice, "But you gotta!" One definition of business is decision-making under uncertainty. If you are a manager, you have to decide. This image has stuck with me throughout my career and always came to mind when I was faced with a difficult decision.

Add your "aha" story in the comments below.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1960, Section C
Class of MBA 1962, Section D
Class of MBA 1975, Section A
Class of MBA 1965, Section D
Class of MBA 2007, Section C
Class of MBA 1996, Section B
Class of MBA 1965, Section D
Class of MBA 1963, Section B
Class of MBA 1972, Section E
Class of MBA 1972, Section E
Class of MBA 2009, Section H
follow @JacquelineBeato
Class of MBA 1973, Section F
follow @CapitanVideo
Class of MBA 1969, Section C

Post a Comment