Wending My Way to Some Wisdom

Neal Zuckerman, Commentary Editor Emeritus

20 years later, an MBA Class of 2000 graduate and former Harbus Opinion Page Editor finds more to say.

Just over 20 years ago, during my two years at HBS, I was the Opinion Page Editor of the Harbus. Your current Editor-in-Chief, Upoma Dutta, during what I assume is a particularly busy school time that is yielding a temporary desert of writing talent, went to the retiree list, combed through it alphabetically, and eventually landed on me for a guest column. I, of course, consider this opportunity the greatest honor: to once again have my by-line grace the pages of this newspaper, which was a welcoming home and which continues to have nearly the same look and feel two decades later.

So, what to write about? It has been on my mind since I missed my first deadline four weeks ago.

The first idea was to resurrect one of my pieces from when I was a student and write a follow-on article. My class was on the cusp of digital adoption, so all the back issues from my tenure are in a large, unwieldy binder given as a gift to the departing Harbus staff. So to the basement I went to find the bound issues. It was incredibly fun to see the pictures of classmates with Solo cups at parties or scorpion bowls from the Kong, or to read the serious articles about on-campus happenings and the business world of the 1998-2000 dot.com boom and eventual bust. 

Unfortunately, my old pieces did not make for fertile terrain.

I found a piece on the minutiae of scheduling of exams, a report on the welcome address at the beginning of our second year, a humor piece about networking, a travel article about the discomfort of visiting South Carolina with its racist flag (a prescient piece, I may say), and my personal favorite (a piece completely unrelated to business or business school) about how men fell into two types: Superman or Batman. None of them seemed worth revisiting, with the exception of the South Carolina trip, as I took my two daughters, in late February 2020, to visit Selma and Montgomery on a long overdue civil rights tour.

The second idea was to tell you about my career journey. Well, in keeping with so much advice in teaching: do as I say, not as I do. That is not entirely fair to my past 20 years. As an Army helicopter pilot turned media executive, I am proud of the journey. From a summer internship at then-Salomon Smith Barney, to McKinsey’s media practice, to Time Warner, and now, for the past fourteen and a half years, to BCG, it has been a career mostly focused on serving the industry I love: media. I am a senior partner at BCG and the head of our firm’s global media practice. I have the privilege of serving some of the greatest media brands in the world and their leaders. I have had the benefit to have a purpose in business for the past 20 years, which I first thought of when I was a DJ for an NPR station back in the mid-1990s: to make sustainable businesses that entertain, educate, and enlighten. And, given the personalities in the media business, oh, the stories I would like to tell! 

But, frankly, my career tale is but one of the roughly thousand journeys of my classmates. I do not think it is more interesting than others and there are women and men of the class of 2000 who have achieved much more financially, influenced far more professionally, or built businesses far more valuably. That I followed a “beaten path,” as I observed was my natural tendency in my second-year Career Foundations class (taught by the great Monica Higgins who is now at the Ed School), demonstrates that HBS is a training ground for both trail followers and trailblazers.

The third idea—suggested by my older daughter, a freshman at UChicago—was to tell about my service outside of BCG. To talk about how I continue to serve, long after the military, on governmental and not-for-profit boards. Yes, I am on the boards of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of the State of New York (a $17B entity that runs the subways, buses, trains, and bridges and which has a nearly $10B deficit due to Covid-19) and National Public Radio (NPR) in Washington DC, which has done an incredible job covering the political and health crises of 2020. But again, this is nothing different than the choices made by my classmates who serve on all types of boards of directors including for-profit companies or in government service itself, from a score of private schools, to Amtrak, to the Nature Conservancy, to the federal government and the City of Chicago, to Fedex, Shake Shack and Kimberly Clark.

So, I landed where it all started. On my classmates and, in particular, my section (E). Not because I could not think of anything to say, but because of the fact that, even 20 years after graduation, I am still struck by how inspiring and influential the people at HBS are to me. Besides marrying my wife and having our kids, HBS was the best decision I ever made. You may have more in common with your HBS classmates over your lifetime than you have with your high-school or college classmates. You will see each other in business, you will—I hope like us—continue to carouse (Section E 2000 still has an annual ski trip to Park City which I cherish), and you may even build businesses and families together. 

I wish you all the best, especially under these trying times. I can imagine that the social aspects of HBS are difficult to build remotely. Covid-19 is pernicious not only because it steals health but also because it steals time. And my two years at HBS were two of the most precious in my life.

I will leave you with some pithy advice, which may be too breezy for some. I take inspiration from Michael Pollan, a food and environmental writer and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who said, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Here it is: have a purpose; make some money; stay close to your classmates; try to have fun.


Neal Zuckerman (MBA ’00) is a Senior Partner and Head of Global Media Practice at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Before joining BCG in 2006, he was an executive director in Time Warner’s strategic planning group, and before that an associate at McKinsey. Prior to HBS, he was a captain in the US Army, having graduated from West Point in 1992. He was the Commentary Editor for the Harbus during his time at HBS.