Feeling More Optimism in the Mix

Sr. Lecturer Trevor Fetter

In his column for the Harbus, Professor Trevor Fetter shares his view on the optimism within the mixed feelings brought by the new year.

The new year brings a new deadline for your columnist whose assignment is to bring a “mature voice” to these pages. As I consulted with the Editor-in-Chief about what might resonate, we ruminated on the notion that students are returning from the break with mixed feelings: a sense of hope for a return to normal, a sense of fatigue brought on by so much screen time, and that sense for both first- and second-year students that a major part of the Harvard Business School MBA experience will soon be over without it happening the way they envisioned.

The mix of my own feelings has improved considerably since that early January e-mail exchange, and I am now quite optimistic about 2021. It is a vast understatement to say the year got off to a very disturbing start, but by the afternoon of the US presidential inauguration I felt that a considerable measure of anxiety had been lifted from the nation and the planet. Less volatility. Less noise. More competence. With the virus raging and mutating, in our collective streaming queue we need less horror, less drama and more non-fiction. I think that is what we will get, and it is cause enough for me to be optimistic about what is ahead.

The transfer of leadership in the US was occurring halfway through the Short Intensive Program on The Life and Role of the CEO that professors Hubert Joly, Gary Loveman, and I were running. As Professor Loveman told the students at the beginning, it is one of the only courses at HBS about a job. That job, of course, is one involving leadership, competence, and (for those who succeed in it) character—traits that at HBS we discuss and “unpack” constantly. (Which leads to an idea for another column: with all the unpacking we have to do around here, who is doing the packing in the first place? Why do they keep packing when it is obvious how urgently we need to unpack?)

Before the program started, we asked students to submit anonymous answers to a few short questions. Do you want to become a CEO? Why? What are the benefits? What fears, if any, do you have about the job? 

I did not know what to expect, because although I had been involved in some way with the SIP for several years, we had never asked the students these questions before. The students knew a lot about the CEO job already from their work experience, general observation, and cases, but what was motivating them? What concerns did they have?

On the first question, “do you want to be a CEO”, not surprisingly in a course about the CEO job, only 10 percent answered “no” or “unsure.” 

The answers we received to the other questions were much more interesting.  The leading reasons for being a CEO were not what they might have been in the mid-1980s when the three instructors were the ages of the students.  Today’s MBA students want to be CEOs to set strategy and vision, lead others, have a job with a wide scope, take responsibility, shape the future, and make an impact. The benefits they see in having the job include financial rewards and prestige, but as a byproduct of making a positive impact and implementing a strategy and vision for their organizations.  Other objectives that were mentioned frequently were shaping culture, influencing the lives of others, managing various stakeholders, developing talent, building an organization and driving change. We shared these responses with our CEO guests. Without exception, they found the students’ answers thoughtful, enlightened, and affirming.

Responses to the question about what fears they have about the job revealed a high level of introspection and well-founded concerns about leadership and responsibility in general. The most frequently expressed fears and concerns were poor work-life balance, ability to cope with the burdens of having massive responsibility, the risk of failing to make a positive impact, the possibility that the role would strain or destroy family and personal relationships, public criticism, and the all-consuming nature of the role. A few students expressed it succinctly: “fear of losing myself.”  The categories of fears could be classified as time-driven and responsibility-driven stress and pressure, the risk of failure, the potential for humiliation, and the corrosive potential of power. These concerns reflect a high level of self-awareness, especially the one about “losing oneself”. The SIP faculty expressed a view that if one pursues leadership positions for the purpose of accumulating power, fame, and money, the risks are very high. On the other hand, if one stays true to one’s stated aspirations of shaping an organization for the purpose of having a positive impact, is it not worth taking these risks? 

These themes of impact and risk lead one toward further and deeper reflection. Nothing will be more helpful in enabling you to make sound choices about your career than to have a clear sense of your goals (and the reasons behind them), your fears, and your values. Imagine what it is like to achieve a position that comes with the responsibility you have always wanted. Being clear on why you wanted that responsibility in the first place, and what risks you thought would come with it, will help you meet those responsibilities and mitigate the risks you envisioned. One experienced CEO advised our students to remember that at most one is likely to be CEO for 10% to 20% of their career. You will need to find satisfaction in the other 80% to 90%. 

This search for purpose and maximizing potential has been challenged by the current circumstances, which brings us back to those mixed feelings for the new year. Day-to-day we are still socially distanced. We are physically and mentally farther than we would like from our classmates, our colleagues, our family and our friends. Human interaction is by appointment—the calendar invite. We are overly reliant on our computers to communicate, stuck behind screens and in front of webcams far more than is healthy. We set alarms so we are not late to Zoom classes and meetings. (Take that as a hint.) Nearly a year into this way of living, virtually nothing is normal in the way it should be. A family friend said that she never realized before Covid how much her favorite activities consisted of eating in restaurants, shopping in non-essential stores, and touching her face.

And yet I see plenty of reason for optimism. I was inspired by what our students said about why they want to assume positions of leadership and their grasp of the personal downside risk. I am also relieved and hopeful as a result of the transition in leadership in this country. I am optimistic about the effectiveness of the vaccines and our mastery of the science that will enable us to adapt quickly to new health threats. A new movement and momentum for social and racial justice, spawned from tragedy, has gained real traction. The world’s largest shareholders are pushing companies to show meaningful progress in diversity and their impact on the climate. I could go on; the point is there is a lot to be grateful for.

And again, here at Soldiers Field, you are returning from the winter break to do important work: gaining skills and competence to become leaders who make a difference in the world. I know I speak for many “mature voices” on campus in saying that I am optimistic about the future in large part because of you. So, let’s get back to it: the important work of teaching and learning. That’s why we are here.

Trevor Fetter (MBA ’86) is a Sr. Lecturer in General Management at Harvard Business School. He teaches FRC, LCA, and the SIP: The Life and Role of the CEO. Before joining HBS, he was Chairman and CEO of Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a Fortune 150 company. Earlier in his career, he was CFO of the movie studio MGM and an investment banker. In addition to teaching at HBS, he serves on corporate and non-profit boards and advises several early stage healthcare companies.