01 Feb 1998
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Women at the Top

Leaders gain—and demonstrate—strength at new HBS Exec Ed program
by Marguerite Rigoglioso and Susan Young

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They came from as far away as Nigeria and as close as Harvard Square, from industries ranging from banking to television. They were entrepreneurs who headed their own companies, senior executives at major corporations, and leaders of nonprofits. For four days last November, some fifty of the world's most influential women business executives gathered at Soldiers Field for Women Leading Business: An Executive Forum, the first-ever HBS Executive Education program developed for businesswomen. Anchored in the School's leading-edge research, the new program was designed to enable participants to explore a wide range of contemporary business issues and top management concerns.

Beyond that, the program was aimed at giving these leaders the opportunity to reap the benefits of spending time with other top-level women executives. In a world where a mere 10 percent of the more than 13,000 corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies are women, such an opportunity is indeed rare for female executives, most of whom have always worked in male-dominated workplaces. "While they're able to perform very well in predominantly male environments," says HBS assistant professor Myra M. Hart, cochair of the new program, "women executives long for the same kind of camaraderie and exchange that men can find with their peers in more informal settings."

Among those in attendance was Jessie d'E. Bourneuf (MBA '75), then president of the King Size Catalogue Company, a men's clothing mail- order firm in nearby Hingham, Massachusetts, that she helped create and successfully led over the past eight years. Bourneuf came to HBS eager to gain exposure to developments in the broader business environment and possibly a new career direction.

Traveling a bit farther was May Chien Busch (MBA '85), who flew in from New York City, where she is a managing director at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. Her goals were to get the latest perspectives on management theory and practice and to take advantage of the informal networking she knew would take place during the course of the program.

A third participant, Jean Broom, came from halfway around the world. The vice president of human resources for the cosmetics giant EstŽe Lauder International, Inc., she had just completed an assignment consulting on staff issues with the company's senior managers in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Although she was struggling with the global business executive's most common ailment-jet lag-she was determined to glean as much as possible from this high-powered gathering of management experts and peer leaders.

At 4 p.m. sharp on Sunday, November 9, Bourneuf, Busch, Broom, and their many new "colleagues" were catapulted into the world of the HBS classroom, a dynamic environment where faculty display their talent not only for presenting new ideas and breathing fresh life into traditional academics, but also for drawing out the wisdom and experience of everyone present. Kicking off the program was HBS associate professor Nancy F. Koehn, with a presentation titled "Managing Change in the Third Industrial Revolution." Koehn galvanized the gathering with an interactive lecture and slide presentation that drew lessons from business history and focused particularly on the examples of 18th-century spinning engineer Samuel Slater, 19th-century textile mogul Francis Cabot Lowell, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, and technology titan Bill Gates.

"It was a great way to start the program, because it gave us a background and context for what's happening in business today," says Broom, who, prior to entering the cosmetics industry, worked for fourteen years in human resources at Chemical Bank in New York. For her part, Busch, who has been with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter since graduating from HBS, observed a salient business lesson unfolding across centuries. "What I found particularly germane," she says, "was Koehn's notion that when you are the first to enter a market, it's important to build continually on that first-mover advantage. In my field, investment banking, you can't coast, not even for a minute. You constantly have to come up with the next idea."

Koehn's opening presentation was followed by a reception and dinner, at which participants had the chance to get acquainted. "The fact that we were all women meant that we felt freer to express ourselves and speak candidly about who we are," says Bourneuf. "As a result, we started to get to know each other on a deep level fairly quickly."

The next day saw the program's first case discussion, led by Linda A. Hill, Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration. Using the case of BMG music-industry executive Rudolf Gassner (38th PMD), Hill instigated a provocative exchange on how leadership style can both help and hinder a company's larger goals. "At one point, Linda showed a videotape of Rudi in which he said, 'If you can't use your own personal style, you'll end up in a mental hospital.' I think that phrase resonated with us all because it's a big issue for many women," comments Bourneuf.

Leonard A. Schlesinger, George Fisher Baker, Jr., Professor of Business Administration, gave the second case presentation on First Direct, a "virtual" bank in England that has built tremendous market share by providing services via telephone. MBA Class of 1960 Professor of Business Administration Rosabeth Moss Kanter led the afternoon session with a lecture titled "The Frontiers of Management," in which she stressed the importance of continuous innovation and of developing employees' skills in creating organizational competence.

"I was struck by Kanter's point that innovation truly requires courage," says Busch, who, as head of Morgan Stanley's continuously offered products group, experiences the daily challenge of having to look for new ways to market and position products such as medium-term notes and commercial paper. "So often in business, especially when things get stressful," she says, "it's easier to do what has already worked. But it's innovation that keeps you ahead of the pack."

The theme of courage was brought to the fore in the next presentation, "Keeping Creativity Alive," in which MBA Class of 1954 Professor of Business Administration Teresa M. Amabile, cochair of the Women Leading Business program, asserted that maintaining a vibrant organization requires cultivating an environment that supports risk taking. Asking participants to recall situations in which their organizations succeeded and failed at being creative, Amabile then invited the women to share their stories in small groups.

Bourneuf's group included Jane Drabble, director of education for the British Broadcasting Corporation. "Jane talked about the night Princess Diana was killed," recalls Bourneuf, "and how different parts of the BBC, which has lately gone through a major reorganization and downsizing, came together in the face of this terrible crisis, forgot their differences, and produced many days of memorable programming. It was a story that made your spine tingle.

"I suddenly looked around the room," adds Bourneuf, "and thought, you know, the other people here also have amazing stories to share. What a rich group we have!"

By the second afternoon, participants in the Women Leading Business program were beginning to develop a genuine rapport that was reflected in the camaraderie they shared with some one hundred current women MBA students who joined them for a late-afternoon networking session. At dinner that evening, Dean Kim B. Clark talked about the School's efforts in areas such as entrepreneurial studies, information technology, and the recruiting of more women students to the MBA Program.

Day three's sessions offered a mix of business analysis and personal reflection. In the first presentation, Cynthia A. Montgomery, John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration, argued that if a multibusiness company is to be truly effective, its corporate-level strategy must make the company's whole greater than the sum of its parts. Professor Janice H. Hammond followed with a discussion of supply-channel management in the apparel industry. The afternoon featured a presentation by William A. Sahlman, Dimitri V. d'Arbeloff - MBA Class of 1955 Professor of Business Administration, titled "Deals-Lessons I Have LearnedÉ Confessions of an Angel Investor," in which he illuminated the process and psychology of dealmaking both inside and outside the corporate environment.

Participants then took part in an interactive workshop on developing an effective professional network, led by HBS associate professor Herminia M. Ibarra. As part of the session, each participant made a list of the people who comprise her "network" (i.e., those she calls upon for career and job-related advice) and then plotted the network visually according to criteria such as which network members were superiors, subordinates, or peers and which were from inside or outside her company. "It was very revealing," says Bourneuf. "You began to see where you had skews or gaps. For example, it became obvious that if everyone in your network knows everyone else, your base is too narrow."

A late-afternoon panel followed featuring MBA Class of 1957 Professor of Business Administration Richard S. Tedlow and his wife, Joyce, a psychiatrist, and Thomas K. McCraw, Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, and his wife, Susan, an attorney, all of whom spoke about how personal events such as death and illness have affected their careers. "I was amazed at how candidly they talked about their lives and how honest the men were in stating their view that it is harder for women in the business world, be they executives, faculty members, or even students," says Busch.

On the last day of the program, William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration Dorothy A. Leonard began with an informative lecture on new product development. Michael E. Porter, C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, concluded the four-day program with a fast-paced lecture on his current research in the area of strategy. "I found particularly useful his idea that companies have to make tradeoffs. They must decide what customer needs they will and won't serve," says Busch. "Also intriguing was the notion that you've got to go beyond mere 'operational effectiveness' and create your own unique competitive position, an idea that is especially pertinent in a climate where 'best practice' has become the buzzword."

Back in their respective offices, where overflowing in-boxes, back-to-back meetings, and the impromptu international trip are the order of the day, Busch, Bourneuf, and Broom reflected on their four-day sabbatical in the quiet halls of academe. Busch points to the intellectual strength of the program, noting that it built solidly on what she learned at HBS more than a decade ago. "Now that I'm a line manager," she says, "I can take the management strategies and techniques that the faculty presented and apply them immediately."

One idea she has found particularly useful is Cynthia Montgomery's notion of the importance of coordinating each business unit's goals in a large organization to the firm's overall strategy. "In my unit, debt capital markets, we're at a lot of decision points right now," Busch explains. "So I've taken back Cynthia's ideas and reemphasized the importance of focusing on the entire firm's goals in guiding our specific tactics and approaches."

Bourneuf says she not only found the classroom learning valuable but was also struck by the powerful networks that were created among the participants. "I was inspired by the stories and successes and by my colleagues' diverse approaches to management and career development," she says. "I feel like I could call on anyone who was there for help with the next phase of my career. The program clearly exceeded my expectations." Broom echoes Bourneuf's sentiments, commenting, "It was a wonderful group of people, many of whom will stay in touch with each other."

Program cochairs Myra Hart and Teresa Amabile, as well as the faculty who participated, are similarly pleased with the effort. "These women were uniformly bright, articulate, and thoughtful," says Amabile. "Their input created a real synergy in the classroom."

"Everyone who taught this year asked if they could do it again next year, and many faculty who didn't teach in it have expressed interest in doing so in the future," says Hart, who is already at work on a similar program for next fall. She is also helping this year's participants to maintain their fledgling network by setting up a "chatroom" on the Internet, where they can electronically "meet" and "talk." Finally, she is investigating the possibility of conducting a longitudinal study on this pilot group to chart their progress and learn from it. "By all accounts, it was an even bigger success than we had anticipated," Hart concludes.

Creating a Powerful Program

In 1996, when Sarofim-Rock Professor of Business Administration Howard H. Stevenson remarked to Assistant Professor Myra Hart that it was time the School offered a special program for women executives, Hart, an entrepreneur with a strong interest in women's issues, seized the opportunity. A cofounder of Staples, the office supply giant, Hart is a director of the School's field studies program, teaches Entrepreneurial Management and Starting New Ventures, and is a member of several executive women's organizations. After doing some preliminary research and interviewing women executives who attended a program held at the School in the early 1980s, Hart enlisted the help of HBS professor Teresa Amabile, an expert in creativity and motivation and a director of Research at the School. The pair began meeting with faculty, talking to alumni, and calling on women executives in order to plan the new program, Women Leading Business: An Executive Forum.

"We knew we didn't want it to be a 'glass-ceiling' course," Hart explained in an interview last November following the program's successful debut. "We were targeting women who had already achieved substantial success. Our goal was to bring business leaders together to explore management topics with HBS faculty while also learning from each other's experiences."

The pair determined that the program should not address traditional "women's issues"; rather, it should be a course about business issues that happened to have exclusively women participants. The best way to reach all participants, they concluded, was to offer an array of teaching styles-case studies, interactive lectures, panel discussions-led by both men and women. It was crucial that participants have time outside class to get to know one another, so they decided to offer late dinners where participants could linger and talk to each other and faculty members without the pressure of having to rush off to complete a homework assignment.

Hart and Amabile realized from the outset that the program's strength would derive from HBS's competitive advantage: its faculty. They knew that if they could tap some of the world-famous experts at Soldiers Field to teach in a four-day seminar that addressed cutting-edge topics in management, they would have a powerful program. They drafted a wish list of HBS faculty they wanted to enlist in the program-teachers who were particularly adept in the classroom, whose research could be presented in a meaningful way in just eighty minutes, and who were looking at issues relevant to tomorrow's workplace. "We were amazed," said Amabile of the faculty response. "We expected many would turn us down, because they already had so many commitments. But they all said yes. They rearranged their schedules, telling us, 'I want to be a part of this!'"

With the program and faculty (which was 60 percent female) in place, Hart and Amabile set out to recruit participants. Drawing from lists of appropriate HBS alumnae, female leaders of companies with annual revenues of $100 million or more, and various executive organizations for women, they soon had more than one hundred applicants for just sixty spaces. Those selected to participate came from five continents, including Africa, North and South America, and Europe, and about one-fourth were HBS alumnae.

After the program's four intense days, the participants-who had arrived with enthusiasm, experience, and interest-departed even more energized by their newfound insights, inspirations, and friendships. "There was an incredibly high level of intellectual stimulation during the program. The emotional bonding also added to the learning experience," noted Amabile a week after the course concluded. "The positive feedback from faculty and participants was overwhelming. This course reinforced for me the tremendous power that women have."

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