Kevin Sharer’s “I Can’t Believe It Works!”

Kevin Sharer
Kevin Sharer

Former Amgen CEO and HBS Professor Kevin Sharer shares his insights on lessons learned at HBS.

[stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]T[/stag_dropcap]he HBS class of 2014  is now scattered around the world, with a large contingent in San Francisco. On a rainy mid-December night six former classmates gathered in a downtown restaurant to catch up, celebrate, and reflect. Three women and three men, their work roles included private equity, consulting, venture capital, e-commerce, a start-up, and a cutting-edge health care firm. It was a joyful reunion: The food and wine flowed freely while the conversation was frank and revealing.

Mid-dinner, a visitor asked a question, “So, now that you are six months away from HBS and into your job, what did you learn at HBS that is particularly useful to you now?”

Silence.  The visitor wondered momentarily if the grads were uncharacteristically lost for words, but soon a clear consensus emerged. Four major insights  most resonated for the six: (1) We learned how to analyze problems from a general manager’s point of view; (2) We learned that giving and getting honest, caring, and constructive feedback is an invaluable tool to help us grow and lead; (3) While we are proud of our degree and the work we did to earn it, we still have much to learn and being humble and asking questions is a necessary and powerful approach, and finally; (4) HBS was a process of self-discovery; greater self-awareness allows us to be more effective contributors and leaders.

[stag_divider style=”strong”] [stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]1[/stag_dropcap]Their first lesson (General Manager skills) is pivotal.  Some might say it is the heart of the HBS experience and the mission of the school.  The grads did not mention a particular framework, technical approach, or functional discipline in isolation. Almost no problem or opportunity you will encounter will be simple or one-dimensional. Having the ability to think clearly, analyze alternatives with facts and logic, and find ways of working with others to resolve the problem or capitalize on the opportunity should be your core skill set. It is not one facet of the learning the graduates cited but the entire mosaic. The grads observed that they made progress when they stopped, reflected, and thought holistically; and they fell short when they were too quick, did not seek more information or tried to just follow the party line. So, the first conclusion is not a surprise, but only reinforces that, in their experience, HBS gave them the tools to be good situational analysts, problem solvers, and advocates of strategies to move the firm or project ahead.

[stag_divider style=”plain”] [stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]2[/stag_dropcap]The second conclusion (the value of feedback) might surprise some in its position on the list or perhaps even that it was included. The strongest proponent said his pre-HBS experience provided little truly useful feedback and gave him no real experience in giving productive feedback to others. At HBS he learned that feedback could be hard to hear but when given from those he respected, it revealed blind spots and helped him understand where he needed to grow. He now for the first time has subordinates. While it was not easy at first to make them comfortable in giving him feedback, once he did their feedback has been the most useful input he has ever received. Similarly, he encouraged a woman in the group who did not talk in meetings to share her thinking. She now consistently has the most penetrating observations and best ideas of anyone in the group. These could seem like basic 101 ideas, but when they are employed they can be the most useful. Check plus on feedback.

[stag_divider style=”plain”] [stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]3[/stag_dropcap]The third observation (authentic humility is more than a virtue) might not be on your list in the way it was expressed. We all know the work world’s stereotypical MBA: arrogant, self-centered, careerist, and praise-seeking. Surprise your new colleagues and be none of those things. The grads said, to a person, that while they were confident in their abilities, they had much to learn and their best resource was the people who were their new colleagues. HBS had helped them in this task by the RC-centric acculturation process. They were surrounded by people who knew much more than they did about many things, but were also great sources of help and learning. In a sense, they felt they were in a new RC-like environment and this helped. Proactive humility is a worthy habit. It allows you to admit you do not know something but then asks you to define how you will learn, seek help, or ask to be assigned to a project that will help you gain experience and provide a chance to use your new knowledge. Being humble and proactive is a powerful combination.

[stag_divider style=”plain”] [stag_dropcap font_size=”50px” style=”normal”]4[/stag_dropcap]Finally, HBS helped these future leaders in self-discovery. While all of the six felt they were only starting down a foggy career path, they did say that HBS helped them get pointed in the right direction.  We all want to contribute to society in a meaningful way, to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and experience a lifetime journey of learning and growth. Self-discovery and self-knowledge are a central and necessary element of achieving these high aspirations. We must know ourselves to grow, to understand how we can best contribute, and to inspire trust and respect from others. There will not likely be another set of experiences in your life to match the range of opportunities HBS provides to learn about yourself, be exposed to opportunities to grow, and be in the company of such a diverse group of highly capable, interesting, and highly aspiring and inspiring people. The six friends clearly affirmed that what they learned here was relevant, worked, and provided a foundation for lifelong growth and learning.