The timing couldn’t have been worse, or perhaps better, for Harvard Business School’s (HBS) “Centennial Global Business Summit,” a three-day conference Oct. 12-14.
The global reverberations of the U.S. economic crisis, an impending election, and a public eager for a new chief executive to lead the United States through its financial turmoil meant there was much to discuss as world business leaders gathered at the HBS campus to reflect on the history of the School, its future, and the future of business.
The conference was the finale of a year of events to coincide with the School’s founding, which included a celebration on April 8 (100 years to the day after the Harvard Corporation approved the creation of the new school), a new case study on HBS, a centennial Web site, working papers and colloquia, and an exhibit at the school’s Baker Library | Bloomberg Center that traces the creation of the HBS campus.
Ironically the birth of HBS coincided with another economic scare, the banking panic of 1907, which saw major trust companies founder and banks retract loans under an increasingly debt-laden economy. Only a combined intervention from banking magnate J.P. Morgan and the government saved the day.
Charlie Rose, journalist and host of “The Charlie Rose Show,” opened the summit with a panel titled “Leadership for the 21st Century.” The roundtable discussion included five HBS alumni who were the recipients of the 2008 HBS Alumni Achievement Award.
When asked by Rose how they perceived the current financial crisis, the panelists’ answers were varied and detailed.
Meg Whitman M.B.A. ’79, former president and CEO of eBay Inc., argued that the American people hadn’t been fully included in the discussion.
“People need to be enfranchised into the solutions. I think a better job needs to be done explaining to the American people and people of other industrialized nations about what caused this, how we found ourselves in this situation, and how we are going to get ourselves out of it,” she said, adding, “We need more explanation and we need more leadership across the board.”
John Doerr M.B.A. ’76, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, advocated for a green approach, one that would lead to more job creation and help the foundering economy.
“Those investments we make in green living [and green technology],” he said, “are the best opportunity for creating new jobs, for the economy moving forward.”
Later, he warned the crowd about the potential environmental crisis on the horizon.
“America has been borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Middle East and then burning it, throwing it up in the atmosphere. … That has got to stop, and it’s got to stop in the next decade or we are going to have a carbon crisis that is going to make this financial crisis look like a walk in the park.”
On the question of leadership, Jeffrey R. Immelt M.B.A. ’82, General Electric chairman and CEO, said decisiveness, accountability, transparency, and unity all play critical roles — as well as a strong sense of self.
“In some ways it’s an intense journey into yourself. It’s about how much you want to learn; it’s about how much you want to give; it’s about personal change and just being willing to kind of renew yourself almost every day,” said the CEO, who admitted to taking every criticism personally, but also cited a happy resilience.
“I go to bed at night and … say, ‘Gosh, I’m such a failure,’ and I get up the next morning, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Hello, handsome!’”
Effective communication and strength of character make great leaders, said Doerr.
“Someone once said to me, ‘John, integrity is a binary state, either you have it or you don’t. It’s like holding your integrity in your hands, grains of sand, and if you ever once spread your fingers apart, it’s gone forever.’”
President Drew Faust addressed the 2,000 participants on the second day of the event in a high-tech tent that consumed the lawn in front of Baker Library. The structure — with its own HVAC system, four Jumbotrons, and a stage with an iridescent blue backdrop — took two weeks to assemble.
Faust invoked the words of former HBS Dean Wallace B. Donham who had delivered a talk during the School’s 25th anniversary celebration titled “The Failure of Business Leadership and the Responsibility of Universities.” The year was 1933, the midst of the Great Depression.
She recalled Donham’s belief about the importance of providing American business leaders with a vision that would transcend the confines of “economic self-interest.”
“The guiding purpose of business education, in his view,” she said, “was to provide a new class of leaders with specialized knowledge … but also [provide] the breadth of vision to make business a force for good.”
To further her point, Faust cited the parable of the three stonecutters — one who works to make a living, the second to be the best, and the third to create a cathedral. It’s the University’s role, in tandem with its Schools like HBS, noted Faust, to foster a broader vision for its future leaders, a sense of interconnectedness, one like that of the third stonecutter who, she said, understood “a lifetime of work may make only a small contribution to a structure that unites past and future, connects humans across generations, and joins their efforts to purposes they see as far greater than themselves.
“The third stonecutter,” she added, “ reminds us that the individual is not enough, that we want to make a difference in and for the world — as it is today and as it will be in future.”
Other breakout sessions during the event covered a wide range of subjects and included panels on globalization, the environment, entrepreneurship, and energy resources.
In his introductory remarks on the second day of discussions, HBS Dean Jay O. Light noted how far the School has come. He remarked on a black-and-white picture of a class from the 1970s up on the screens that featured a lone woman sitting at the edge of the frame. The next shot: a photo of a recent M.B.A. classroom with an eclectic mix of men and women.
“[Today] it’s much more diverse than anyone can possibly imagine,” Light said.
In a talk with James I. Cash Jr., James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration Emeritus, Bill Gates ’77, founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — which annually contributes billions to combat diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS, as well as global poverty and hunger — encouraged the alumni to use innovation to make a difference.
“My view is that every company should take say, 5 percent of their deep innovators, their research group, and really get them to see the needs that the poorest have.”