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HBX Business Blog

The Three Most Important Things I Learned at Harvard Business School... and the Three Things I Didn’t

Posted by Patrick Mullane on October 18, 2016 at 2:55 PM


Attending the MBA program at HBS was a truly transformative experience for me. And I firmly believe that the case method of study coupled with world-class faculty makes the program one of the best educational experiences an aspiring leader could participate in. Below, I share just a few of the lessons I learned at HBS and some that took a bit longer to learn after I had left the program and spent time as a business leader.

What I learned at HBS...

1. It’s okay to be lucky, it’s okay to be smart, it’s not okay to be lucky and think you are smart.

This is one that speaks to hubris. Don’t be a victim of it. Effort matters. Intelligence matters. Perseverance matters. But there is always an element of luck. Don’t think you’ve had it? I know you have. If you hadn’t, you could read this … you won what Warren Buffet calls the “ovarian lottery.” You were born somewhere and raised in a way that allowed you to learn to read. That’s something, isn’t it? 

2. Companies only go out of business because they run out of cash.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet the vagaries of accounting, and particularly the calculation of net income, can trick you. Cash pays vendors. It pays employees (tried to buy groceries on a promise of payment?). It pays for everything. Don’t forget it. 

3. Culture eats strategy for lunch.

Said another way, you can have the best strategy in the world, but if you don’t have the right culture, you might as well use your strategy document as an anchor for a boat. Culture drives execution. It drives resilience. It drives unity of purpose. So, how do you get the right culture? See number one in the list of things I didn’t learn while at HBS.

And what I didn't...

1. Get the people right and everything else is easy

No lesson has been more stark to me than the importance of getting the people side of things right. And while HBS touched on this throughout my MBA studies, it was never as clear as it could be after 20 years in general management. People matter that much. And not just because of the skills they bring to the table but because of the culture they help build. A secondary lesson: never, ever be afraid to hire somebody better than you. Use the Tom Sawyer method of hiring: find somebody who can paint the fence better than you.

2. Never hire somebody at a manager level or above that has not terminated an employee at some point in their career

Perhaps this is an addendum to the first item above, but I felt it warranted it’s own place on the list.  It’s an uncomfortable reality but people don’t always work out. The question is what you do about it. While working to improve performance through consistent and respectful feedback is always a first choice, sometimes you reach the end of the road and have to let the under-performer go. Experience doing this is part of becoming a leader. I learned this lesson the hard way. I once hired a senior executive who had said during the interview process that he had never had to terminate an employee after a thirty-year career as a general manager in a manufacturing company where he managed no less than thirty people. When the organization he ran in my company needed to have some personnel changes made, he simply shuffled people around, changing their responsibilities, trying to delay the inevitable. Unfortunately, his inability to act led to me letting him go. 

3. Sharing as much as possible is always better than sharing only what you think is necessary.

It’s a maxim of human nature: in the absence of information, humans will fill in the blanks based on their own experiences. In doing so, you can be certain they will get it wrong. So why not fill in the blanks for them? I have learned that doing so is almost always preferable to the alternative. Obviously, some things cannot be provided to employees. But if you made a list of everything that legally and ethically can be shared and things that just can’t, you’d be surprised at how much would show up on the first list… and how much on that list you have arbitrarily decided not to share. Information truly is power. Help your employees feel powerful by being as open as possible whenever you can.


About the Author

Patrick Mullane is the Executive Director of HBX and is responsible for managing HBX’s growth and long-term success. A military veteran and alumnus of Harvard Business School, Patrick is passionate about finding ways to use technology to enhance the mission of the School - to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.