THE BLOG

7 Intangible Lessons From My First Year at Harvard Business School

06/04/2015 03:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016
Sparsh Agarwal

There is much debate on the value of the MBA and the future of management education. Even two of the best minds at Harvard Business School, Prof. Michael Porter and Prof. Clay Christensen disagree on this (see NYT article "Business School Disrupted").

Regardless of what the future looks like, to be relevant, schools have to provide learning beyond the academic curriculum -- since arguably one can acquire "skills" like doing DCF's etc. for free from resources like the Khan Academy. It's the soft skills/intangibles that have shaped my experience at HBS so far (though I do, at times, wish we spent more time on hard skills). This is by no means exclusive to business school -- just general life and leadership lessons I focused on more closely, in continuation of my reflection earlier this year.

1. Team launch and open feedback are critical to success.

One of the more tangible things we learnt in our LEAD course was the concept of team launch. A successful launch involves having an explicit dialog about team goals, roles and responsibilities, conflict resolution mechanisms, decision-making process (by consensus or leaders veto) and measurable success criteria, at the outset when a team is formed. Research (HBS case) suggests that this is one of the most critical components of building high performance teams.

While this sounds like common sense advice, think about the last time you had an explicit conversation before starting off in a new team -- whether it be at work or a non-work setting (such as organizing a conference). We had the chance to practice team launch in multiple settings all year, and while all of these projects did not necessarily "succeed", I did find tremendous value in this process -- especially in aligning a team and setting clear expectations. Another important aspect of teaming was having open and honest feedback sessions at regular intervals. Giving and receiving feedback (both critical and appreciative) has been one of the toughest things I am continuing to learn here at business school.

2. Plan ahead (and adapt)

I am a spontaneous person by nature and my personal and career trajectory has been through a combination of taking quick decisions, making the best out of any given situation and at times through sheer good luck. This strategy of relying on perseverance and good luck does have its limitations though. Come August, we will start our second and final year, and with it will come pressures to navigate the hyper competitive world of MBA recruiting. If you think life is set just by the virtue of getting into HBS, you are in for a surprise -- there is a lot more (mostly self-inflicted) pressure to get into the 'right' job post MBA, though most (including me) don't really know what is "right" for them.

A great way to think about this is through a combination of deliberate and emergent strategies, which Professor Christensen lays out in his book How Will You Measure Your Life?. HBS has forced me to think more deeply about where I want to see myself 5-10 years ahead and work backwards to form a deliberate strategy -- whether it comes to selecting EC (elective curriculum) courses or in deciding on a summer internship. This has been a lot harder than it sounds and continues to require a fair bit of introspection.

3. Passionate debates are great, but keep emotions at bay.

Some of the best classes we've had this year have been those where someone in class had a strong point of view and passionately articulated it -- think of topics like politics, terrorist attacks, income inequality, racial and religious prejudice etc. It makes for a great debate is when smart and genuinely well-intentioned people disagree with each other, whether it be due on economic, legal, moral or philosophical reasons. However, it is quite difficult (yet of immense importance) to keep negative emotions (getting visibly angry, being dismissive etc.) at bay -- especially if we want our audience to listen and empathize. In addition, arguments backed by data are in general far more credible and likely to win over an audience than those based solely on intuition (unless you happen to be Steve Jobs).

4. There are infinite paths to "make a difference" in the world.

HBS states its mission "to educate leaders who make a difference in the world". It is surprising how one genuinely starts believing in this rather lofty goal, hearing it repeated over and over again. Having grown up in a family of doctors, I have a strong regard for the medical profession. In fact, one of the reasons I left my job was that at times my work felt trivial when compared to a surgeon saving lives every day. In the last one year, I have been friends with my peers interested in a wide spectrum of careers -- from private equity finance, hedge funds, non-profits, music, technology, medicine etc., each of whom have incredible potential and genuinely want to make a difference. I have come to realize "making a difference" means different things to different people and there are infinite paths to do the same. Determination and a strong moral compass is what one needs to make a difference in the world, regardless of industry. And you don't need to go to HBS for it.

5. Having a diverse group of friends is the best way to remove biases.

HBS admissions puts incredible amounts of effort into making sure every class is as diverse as possible -- whether it be people from different nationalities, sexual orientation, race, color, religious beliefs etc. I find this to be one of the most enriching part of my HBS experience and it continues to help me get rid of some of my own biases.

6. Take time to reflect

In the span of 8 months, we went through about 200 cases and at it times it did feel overwhelming. It is really easy to get caught up in the hectic daily schedule at school without really reflecting upon what it is we were learning. While ideally I would have liked to spend some time every week thinking through key takeaways, writing this blog (and going through case notes before exams even though grades don't matter) is my own way of reflecting. In retrospect, we did learn a fair bit academically. My classmate @EllenChisa penned down an excellent post on the things we learnt from individual courses in the required curriculum.

7. Help your friends and be generous with praise.

Above all, the MBA experience has been about personal development and part of that is helping our peers through their own development and in navigating through challenges. The reason I got through to HBS was due to the tremendous support and guidance from my friends, family and mentors.

At HBS, I have been fortunate to find friends who are ready to help me in whatever way they can (for example, I am currently facing a difficult situation with housing for the second year and a classmate has been super gracious in helping me out -- its incredible and I won't ever forget that). In turn, I strive to be as helpful as I can to any member of the HBS community. Finally, its easy to feel insecure when surrounded by so many talented peers, and at times we all need a healthy dose of encouragement. I learnt to be more generous with praise -- it doesn't cost us anything but can mean a lot to the person receiving it.

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Disclaimer: Thoughts in this post are solely my personal reflections. Would love to hear your thoughts/comments on the same.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.