06 Dec 2018

Cold Call Horror Stories

Alumni relive the School's most terrifying tradition


During Fall Reunions, the podcast team set up our microphones in Spangler Hall and asked alumni to tell us about those terrifying moments when—as is tradition at HBS—they got Cold Called by a professor. And while there were a number of alums who excitedly told us about how they managed to avoid this—some of them for their entire tenure—we’ve collected some of our favorite stories from those who actually faced the experience, and lived to tell the tale.


My name is Mark Thomas and I was part of the AMP 185 cohort. Perhaps to put it into context, I actually am an associate dean in a French business school and I teach strategy. So when I came to the courses here back in 2013, classes were fantastic, but I remember the very first class I had in strategy—because I taught the subject—seemed relatively easy to me. Bad mistake. My very first class in strategy, I just joined the class. I kind of zoned out just for a moment. Cynthia Montgomery is talking and suddenly I’m back and she’s actually standing next to me and she says, “Mark, what do you think? Do you think they should increase or decrease?” Now I’ve zoned out and I’ve lost the plot on where we’re going in the case. I’ve got two choices now. I can either say, sorry I wasn’t listening, or I wasn’t paying attention. Or, I’ve got a 50-50 choice. I go for the 50-50 choice. I say, “Oh, I think they should increase,” and then I hear the entire class go, “Oh no!”

Because I’d given the stupidest answer possible and I still tell my students today when I’m teaching them, I say, okay, if you think you’ve come up with a bad answer or a stupid answer, don’t worry about it because I’ve done worse than you and I’ve done far worse than you, so just take it easy.

Anne Beitel, MBA 1993. I was not prepared for a case and the professor did a little kind of opening set of statements about it and then she turned to me and said, “And in a few minutes, Anne, I’d like you to get us started,” and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t today.” And she said, “Oh, actually I was calling on Anna behind you.”

Al Hauf, class year is 1973. I think it was the first year—we had all those cases every night. And I’d figured out what I couldn’t do was do all of them every night. So I decided which ones I wouldn’t do. I think it was a human resources class and they called on me to open up the case. I said, “I’m going to have to pass because I didn’t read the case.” And the class was just falling down on the floor laughing. It was a one-page case. The one case I didn’t read. And to this day when I come back for the reunions, they all remember it too, in the section.

Steve Coleman, MBA 1993. In the second-year mandatory class on management. I can’t remember the topic. We had a class with Joe Bower, and one of the things that Joe did to get to know the second-year students in the section, was he would have a lunch every week with half a dozen or so of the students from the class. My lunch with him was scheduled for late in the semester. And it turned out my wife was pregnant at the time and was already a week and a half late when we went for this lunch. My sectionmates all knew this—we’d been together for over a year—so everybody knew the situation. So we’re sitting at lunch and we’re talking about how it was going with the pregnancy and “Steve, how are you doing with studies?” And I said “I haven’t read a case in two weeks.” I said “Every time I sit down and try to read one, I can’t get past the first paragraph. It’s just such a distraction, I haven’t done anything.” And the next day, I showed up in class and Joe walked in two minutes late and he looked up and he cold called me. And I just put my hands up in the air and I said, “I pass,” and the class booed. There was a lot of hissing and it turned out, he came up to me a couple of days later and apologized and he said he wanted to warm call me. The case was about an industry I’d worked in, and he knew that, and he thought this was an opportunity to get me to say something to bring me in. And because he came in late, he didn’t get the chance to warm call. So he just did it anyway. And it was pretty funny. It was pretty funny.

Katherine Randolph, 1993, Section H. My cold call story was being cold called by Michael Porter, the day that we did the Five Forces. Now as backstory, I got into Harvard Business School as the total diversity admit after working in the art field for five years, and felt that I was wrongly admitted, knew nothing, and I was going to hit the screen within the first six weeks. And this was about probably week four. I was still kind of getting my bearings, feeling like maybe I had a chance to survive, but struggling to read the cases, do the analysis and all of that. And the day that we had that case, I think I had not properly prepared because I did something foolish the previous evening. I was rowing crew, and maybe it worked out and like just didn’t really read the case, and I thought it’ll be fine. So Michael Porter, this legendary professor with his piercing blue eyes walks around at the beginning of the class and I think I skimmed the Coke and Pepsi case, maybe.

He’s looking over on the other side, and I sat in the power deck: eye level with all the professors and trying to play the game of ‘Do you look into their eyes with confidence? And they say no, she’s prepared. We won’t cold call her’, or do you look furtively at your notes? So he’s looking on the other side of the class and I’m sure he’s making the body moves like he’s going to cold call somebody else, and he whips around and catches me straight in the eye and he says, “Katherine, why don’t you open?” I gathered my thoughts, took my breath. Of course, my heart was leaping out of my throat at the time. And I said, “Well, the case is about Coke and Pepsi”—and I thought, okay, at least we got that right—“and the Five Forces.” And I felt like panic welling up inside of me.

But what happened was, there were a wave of notes from my classmates started coming from all over the rows to me. Like this hidden wave, underneath the desks, like in a boat. The boat is rocking with the waves of all the notes coming my way, like crumpled up pieces of paper, and my section mates sitting next to me are like unfolding them and putting them in the right order, handing them to me. And, after like 10 seconds or what seemed like an hour of stalling, suddenly I had the answers to everything I possibly knew—and I was saved. And so, I didn’t get a three in that class—although I wasn’t sure until I got my grades—and I realized that the companionship and the comradery of the section which was gonna save me and save anybody and that initial fear of hitting the screen wasn’t a way to really weed people out, but just to make sure they did the work or helped each other. And from then on we kind of had a strategy of how to help each other make sure that nobody got all the threes and that we all survived.

Scott Schulman, HBS Class of ’88. Early, my first year at HBS, I walked into class one morning and was cold called to open a marketing case, which I’ll never forget—it was called Raymond Mushroom—and I made my way through it and was thrilled that it was over. It was my first cold call I ever got at HBS. And then we had our three-minute break before our next class, and I walk into the next class and the professor says, “Scott Schulman, will you open the case.” So I then opened the next case in the course that at that point was called POM—Production and Operations Management—and the section gave me a round of applause because it never happened before that the same person was called to open twice in a day.

So of course I was completely wiped out. We went to lunch, we come back to the afternoon course, which is Organizational Behavior and the professor walks in and says, “Scott, will you open the case today?” And that one, I learned after, was a setup—that everyone thought, wouldn’t it be hilarious if the third time he also gets to open the cold call. And I think the third time, it was sort of an abbreviated version, after the hysteria subsided and everyone stopped laughing and applauding, but it was fun! That was the only time I was ever called to open anything at HBS, was three times on the same day.

Jim Robinson, class year 1988. This is first year, I think it might’ve been something like Competition and Strategy, and it was kind of an open session where the case was on branding, and this company was actually trying to brand lobsters. And I guess for a while they were pretty successful—they had their own submarine to go down and check the lobster brands. So the professor set this up in a way so he chose two classmates: another classmate and myself. And asked the first classmate a great setup question, what’s your thoughts on a branded lobster versus a non-branded lobster? And the guy just stepped into it and just basically said there’s no difference. It went on for probably about five or seven minutes and blew the entire case up. My background was sales. So the professor said, “Okay, Jim, what’s your response to what Mike has done?” It really, there was no response. So I paused for a second. Everyone was looking at me and I just said to him, “How about a free ride in a submarine?” And the place went nuts, and that was my cold call horror story.

Page Knudsen Cowles, 1983. Second year, I was very conscientious—I did my work. And my mother came to visit, and it was a class where we had a visiting professor. And for the first and only time, I didn’t read the case because I thought he’s never going to call on me, because my mother’s with me. So I’m sitting there—“Page, since your mother’s here, why don’t you open the case?” Oh my God! And my friend who is in my study group happened to be sitting next to me. He passes over the notes. I fumbled through, and I said to my mom afterwards, “That was not me at my finest moment, Mom, but you were my insurance.”

Bill Hernandez, Class of ’73, Section J, a course called Decision Analysis. We were the special subsection, so other classes called it Managerial Economics and the professor is Paul Marshall, one of the best professors I think the School has ever had. I had done very well in the course. We had the written analysis of case. Did real well. He asked if he could reprint it as an example of how to handle the case. I go to class, I tear apart a case and just do fantastic on it. So I thought, next class I’ll read the case, but I’m not gonna do any work because I’ll prepare for the other classes that day. So I walk in the class, and H. Ross Perot was asked to be a guest to hear the discussion and decision analysis. I see him sitting there, and Paul looks at me, near the top, and he goes, “Bill, will you start the case.”

So I stumbled around, and made a couple comments and then he quickly moved on, and my roommate sitting next to me said, “If Perot wasn’t here and you gave that answer, he would’ve ripped you a new one.” And I said, “I know.” And the horror part about it is, not that I was embarrassed—I did real well in the course—but that I let down a really great guy, it was something he was trying to showcase. And it’s always stuck with me ever since. That’s something that I always got to tell my kids and remind them and my grandkids about: if somebody puts their faith in you, you can’t let them down.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.


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