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Harvard's hard lessons

January 20, 2009 12:00 IST
"Do you need to get back to rigorous studies?" asked Patricia. "I am getting rusty, and this programme is for people with 20 years of experience," I replied, hoping she would donate some savings to finance my re-education. She did not.

Anyway, I landed at Harvard, with 150 other managers, directors, army commanders, bureaucrats, from 55 countries, to school for eight weeks.

The first surprise: Young clergyman John Harvard, whose name the university bears, did not donate much money; he bequeathed £779 (50 per cent of his estate), but 400 books! Thus, the Harvard monogram proclaims, "Books Tell The Truth!"

The second surprise: Harvard is a monastery! Wake up at 5.30 am, exercise; breakfast at 7 am, classes from 8 am to 4 or 5 pm. Dinner at 6.30 pm. Then, living-group homework between 8 and 11 pm. Later, return to your room to revise the next day's case studies.

Certainly the professors were brilliant. Professor Yoffie taught us to encompass the strategy of mega corporations like Microsoft in one simple line. Professor Furhan guided us through labyrinths of international finance.

Dean Light and Nobel laureate Robert Merton explicated the causes leading to the financial meltdown.  Professor Vietor reduced complex country budgets to ordinary balance sheets. "Identifying a consumer need is the seed of successful businesses," said professor Quelch.  Professor Nabil unraveled the mysteries of hedge funds.

To sleep five hours was a pure vision. Weekends involved incremental classes, meetings, working-dinners. Professor Tushman used case studies on Nike, Airbus and Wal-Mart to usher reality in class. We read cases during mealtimes, in taxis, and even at the barbers'! It was an intravenous injection of concentrated knowledge.

Professor Kotter lectured a day on leadership, and counseled that though we may learn 7,000 new ideas at the course, on return we should focus on just two. His ultimate warning was: "If I meet you at some airport, five years hence, I will only ask you, 'What are you doing in your life?'"

That was the pivotal lesson: What are we doing with our lives? Do we matter in the lives of the poor, weak, embattled? Marketing, finance and production teach us to sell shampoo, shoe polish, shaving cream. But is that our principal goal in life? How do we build a better community, and become leaders who make a difference?

Five weeks and 2,500 pages later, my eyes were red and swollen. I would sneak out and take long walks in the lush, manicured lawns of the campus, dodging darting squirrels and turkeys. It was fall time, dry brown leaves fluttered in the cold, freezing breeze. I ruminated on why some companies turned monolithic, others atrophied.

We pondered how our lives could have been, had we come to Harvard earlier. Harvard is a factory, producing presidents for countries and corporations — John Kennedy, Bill Gates, Rahul Bajaj, to name a few. Harvard is flush with endowments of $38.7 billion in the treasury. Its mahogany classrooms, carpets, art, living rooms, symposium halls would rate it a seven-star school.

In eight weeks, 150 students from multifarious continents stayed interwoven into a stout community. We willingly gave up preferred pleasures to keep the team bonded. The minds exercised, but the hearts ruled. We knew we could lean on each other, anytime, anywhere.

Eight weeks and 900 hours of hard academic labour forged us into caring friends and alumni. I fantasised: cluster/insulate leaders like Obama, Brown, Bin-Laden, Manmohan, Zardari, Ahmadinejad, Peres, under a roof for two months to hammer out a "Peace Plan World 2009".  The Harvard Advanced Management module of work might deliver.

Folklore builds institutions. The myth around this progra­mme is that, on completion, 60 per cent of the participants change jobs and 20 per cent change partners.

On my return, Patricia queried, "Have you been transformed? Are you promoted? What are your plans?"

I replied, "My plan is to sleep. I suffer from 'acute sleep-deficiency'. Then, I will labour five years to return my bank loan of $70,000 for my management pilgrimage."

"Professor Kotter will be desperately disappointed in you," she ruled. Perhaps.

Rajendra K Aneja is the chief executive officer of a food company in Dubai.

Rajendra K Aneja