Harvard Business School's Program for Leadership Development

If you’ve been in the business world for quite a while, you might be looking to advance your career through higher education. However, unlike a lot of recent college graduates, most mid-career professionals don’t want to leave their work behind for two years to get an MBA or EMBA.

Thankfully, Harvard Business School (HBS) offers an alternative for high-achieving business people looking for a world-class education: the Program for Leadership Development (PLD). As a graduate of the PLD, I have first-hand experience of the program and understand what it can do to advance your career.

If you’re interested in developing as a leader within your organization and in the greater business world, the PLD just might be what you’re looking for. Here’s my review of the program and what you can expect if you attend.

What Is Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development?

If you work in the financial sector or hold a management position in a company, you probably work with a lot of people that have gone to business school to get their MBA or EMBA. Although going back to school full-time for two years might be a good idea for a recent college graduate, it’s just not that appealing for most mid-level business professionals.

That’s where HBS’ PLD comes into the picture. As one of HBS’ Executive Education programs, the PLD is essentially Harvard’s take on a more traditional Executive MBA (or EMBA).

The PLD is specifically designed for mid-level business professionals with 10-15 years of experience in their industry that want to accelerate their careers and develop into high-performing leaders. Unlike a traditional EMBA, though, which often involves fitting a part-time education around a full-time job, the PLD allows high-achieving business people to better focus on their personal development through a series of module-based courses.

How Does The Harvard Business School PLD Work?

In contrast to traditional business school programs, like an EMBA, the HBS PLD is not based on the academic calendar. Instead, the PLD is a modular program that delivers world-class content from HBS’ top professors through four mandatory courses and one optional course.

While each session of the PLD is slightly different, the average PLD program is conducted over the span of about seven to nine months (not including the optional fifth module). During this time, students take four courses – two through distance learning and two on-campus – alongside a cohort of highly-qualified and experienced peers.

What Courses Do You Take During Harvard Business School’s PLD?

The PLD program is fully modular, which means students take one class at a time, either online or on-campus. The foundational program involves four modules, which include:

  • Foundational Skill Building. This 12-week distance learning course is designed to give students a solid foundation in standard business knowledge and terminology before they arrive on campus. During this course, students are prepared for the case studies that they will study during module 2. Additionally, students evaluate their current leadership skills and meet their HBS Executive Coach.
  • Cross-Functional Business Approach. This course is a 2-week residential class that takes place on HBS’ campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The goal of the course is for students to have a comprehensive view of the world of business and how it all works. The course introduces a variety of different strategies for business executives and gives students the tools to deal with complex topics and concepts in the business world.
  • Strategy Formulation and Implementation. This 14-week distance learning course gives students the opportunity to consolidate their learning from the on-campus module and apply their learning to their current work. Strategy Formulation and Implementation involves scheduled exercises and group sessions as well as the completion of the Economics for Managers course through HBS Online.
  • Leading Change. The final mandatory course for the PLD program, Leading Change is a two-week on-campus module. During this module, students will work to apply their new skills to their own organization by considering different management systems and a variety of leadership approaches.

Additionally, PLD graduates can opt to take a fifth module, which awards them HBS alumni status upon completion:

  • Personal Leadership. This optional module is a two-week on-campus course that allows PLD graduates to consider their own personal leadership skills and development. During the course, students work to develop critical self-awareness and emotional intelligence skills that will allow them to be more confident decision-makers and leaders for their organization.

Who Attends Harvard Business School’s PLD?

As a prestigious university, HBS attracts a diverse group of students to its programs. The PLD is no exception. However, all students in HBS’ Executive Education programs have demonstrated a high degree of achievement and success in their professional lives.

The average profile of a student at HBS’ PLD is a business person with 10 or more years of experience and is currently a manager or senior executive at their organization. Generally, PLD students work for organizations with $75+ million in revenue, though others also work at non-profits and some are established business owners.

Since participants in the PLD are expected to have about 10 years of professional experience, the average age of students in the program is around 37. However, the youngest person in my class was 29 and the oldest was 52, so there’s quite a range of ages within the cohort.

Harvard is well-known globally, so its programs tend to attract an international group of students. The PLD often has students from 25 to 35 different countries who work in a wide range of industries, from finance and government to healthcare, non-profits, and manufacturing.

What’s great about PLD is that, with such a diverse cohort of students, you really get a chance to learn as much from your classmates as you do from your professors. Since the PLD has two required on-campus courses, you also get an opportunity to develop strong relationships and connections with people in your learning group, many of whom can become lifelong friends.

How Much Does It Cost To Attend Harvard Business School’s PLD?

Higher education in the United States is not cheap. When it comes to a school like Harvard, you should also expect to pay top-dollar for your learning experience.

HBS’ PLD program fees for 2020 are $52,000, which covers tuition, books, materials, accommodation for on-campus modules, as well as most meals for your time on-campus. However, unlike the MBA program, Harvard’s Executive Education programs do not offer any sort of financial aid.

How Do I Apply For Harvard Business School’s PLD?

While applying for a traditional EMBA is similar to applying to any graduate school program, applying for the PLD at HBS is a bit different. Since the program is geared toward mid-career professionals, applying involves an online application, which will give you space to discuss your background, your experience, and your future goals.

Additionally, to apply for the PLD, you will need to submit a letter of reference from a coworker or someone else who knows you and your work quite well. However, you will not have to submit test scores, like the GRE or GMAT to apply for the PLD.

My Experience With Harvard Business School’s PLD

If you’re considering applying for the PLD, you probably want some insight into what the program is like before you commit a lot of time, money, and effort into your business education. As a graduate of the PLD (I was in PLD7), I can happily say that my experience with the program was incredible and it made an immediate impact on my life and my work.

I took the first four modules of the PLD in the early stages of the program in 2008/2009, in the midst of the financial crisis. While this might seem like a bit of an odd time to enroll in higher education, particularly in business, the PLD offered me the unique chance to get insight and support from my world-class professors and peers.

I later came back to HBS to take the optional fifth module, Personal Leadership, during a time of change and personal soul searching. I was nearing my 40th birthday and was looking back at my life, wondering what sort of life I wanted to live in the future.

Both the four foundational modules and the optional fifth module provided me with invaluable insight into myself, both personally and professionally. Here are some of my key thoughts about the PLD:

Commitment Level Of The PLD

The vast majority of students in the PLD are highly motivated and take the coursework very seriously. However, there were a few students that looked at the program like a holiday and contributed relatively little to the course. Needless to say, they likely got substantially less out of the PLD than I did.

How To Prepare For The PLD

Attending the PLD is just like being back in university, so it’s important that you prepare for the on-campus modules before you arrive. In fact, I took a week-long holiday just to go through all of the cases and the supplementary reading before the on-campus module so I could maximize my learning potential.

PLD Workload At HBS

When you’re on-campus, you should be ready to have class six and a half days every week. Class and other project meetings generally run from 7 AM to 8 or 9 PM each day during the residential modules. Sure, some of my classmates used any free time they had to go shopping and sightseeing, but if you’re looking to learn and grow, digging into the coursework is going to do more for you in the long run than souvenirs.

Keep in mind that while the model of doing work first, then discussing it in a group before discussing it in class is awesome, it only works if you do the work yourself. To get the most out of this program, you need to do your own reading and thinking so you can contribute to the group.

On-Campus Living AT HBS

The PLD offers you the unique opportunity to stay on-campus during your residential courses. This allows the program to be a truly immersive experience and you get to eat most of your meals together. These shared mealtimes help strengthen your relationships and provide more opportunities for learning.

But, try not to eat too much, if you can. Do you remember the Freshman 15 from your college years? Yeah, it turns out this applies to executive education, too. Two weeks of buffet eating and a lot of sitting means it’s easy to put on 5 pounds or more while on campus!

Also, don’t forget to keep some time available for socializing. Sure, you’re there to learn, but take the time to really get to know your classmates. Don’t forget to head over the bridge and enjoy a beer in Harvard Square. You’ll be amazed by the challenges your classmates face around the world.

What You Learn At The PLD

The professors at HBS and in the PLD are truly world-class and the program never feels boring or cookie-cutter. I found that some of the course content was immediately applicable to my work, though some of it took a few years to really show their value. Here are some of the things that you’ll learn while at PLD:

  • Self-Awareness. The PLD is designed to help you grow as a leader, so be prepared to learn a whole lot about yourself during your courses. HBS understands the need for personal growth and self-awareness as business professionals and they even assign you a personal coach for modules 1 through 4.
  • Personal Growth. In module 5, the entire coursework focuses on you as an individual and how you want to grow as you move forward in your career. This final module helped me think about what is important and valuable to me and ultimately changed my life.
  • Change-Making Skills. Although a lot of the coursework focuses on being a better leader in your business, you’ll also learn how to implement change. This can be incredibly tricky in some organizations and can be the most difficult part of solving problems in business, so it’s a fantastic skill to walk away with.
  • Everyone Has a Story. The professors at HBS want to inspire and move you, so you’ll hear some incredibly compelling stories during your course work. Your fellow students are also special individuals and will often share some pretty heavy stuff about their background and their work.

Applying PLD Learning To Your Work

I was fortunate that I was COO of a rapidly growing consulting firm, and could implement what I was learning almost immediately. This had a huge impact on learning, as it allowed me to see how what I learned could work in our unique circumstances. In my case, not everything I implemented worked as planned.

My Tips To Make The Most Of Harvard Business School’s PLD

Getting accepted to the PLD is just the start of your learning adventure. If you’re truly committed to the process, you’ll need to work hard to grow as a leader and a professional within your organization and industry. Here are some of my top tips to make the most out of your time in the PLD:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Read all of the cases and the other learning materials well in advance. This will give you time to think about your answers and responses before you get to class. Then, it’s important that you are open to feedback about what you got wrong in your analysis and why.
  2. Don’t expect free time. The on-campus modules are immersive, so you’ll have little, if any, time to go shopping or to meet friends in the area. You’re at Harvard to learn, so dedicate 100% to the program.
  3. Take a walk every day. You’ll spend a lot of time in class, doing a lot of critical thinking. Take an hour-long walk along the Charles River each day and use the time to catch up on phone calls or talk to your family. Your brain needs a break sometimes and we can always benefit from exercise. On Sundays, you can even do a full day of walking around Boston for some more fresh air.
  4. Enjoy yourself. Get yourself some pizza at Pinocchio’s near Harvard Square. You won’t regret it. You should also go to Legal Seafood one night to get some fresh lobster. It’s fantastic.
  5. Don’t forget to socialize. You’re at HBS for the classwork, but your course mates are some incredible people. You’ll likely head out for drinks most nights, which is a great time to socialize and network with others.
  6. Think about your future. While you’re on campus, spend some time thinking about how you want to effect meaningful change in your organization upon your return. Personally, during my program, I developed a plan of how I could use my learning from the PLD to improve my business.

Harvard Business School’s PLD Frequently Asked Questions

Here are my answers to some of the most common questions about the PLD:

What Is A PLD Degree?

The Program for Leadership Development is not a degree. In fact, HBS purposefully designed the PLD as a non-degree program so that it would best fit the schedule of a successful, busy leader in an organization.

The PLD is meant to be comparable to an EMBA but is better suited to meet the needs and schedule constraints of a busy professional who doesn’t necessarily need an MBA credential for their career.

Does Harvard Offer An Executive MBA?

No, HBS does not offer an Executive MBA. Instead, they have a collection of Executive Education programs, four of which can earn you the status of an HBS alumni. These programs include:

Each of these programs is designed for business leaders at different stages of their careers. Out of the four programs, the PLD is the one that’s most similar to a “fast-track” EMBA. But, Harvard recognizes that leaders don’t necessarily need credentials, so they focus more on providing world-class education and less on offering specific degree programs.

Should I Get An MBA, EMBA, or PLD?

Going back to school to further your career is a major choice. So, it’s a good idea to check out a few different programs and degree options to see which one is best for your needs. These are the main differences between an MBA, EMBA, and the PLD:

1. Value Of MBA, EMBA, and PLD

In the world of business, an actual degree, such as an MBA or EMBA is quite highly valued. Indeed, having an MBA or EMBA from a prestigious university can make a difference if you’re looking to apply for a new job or you’re keen on a promotion at a major company.

However, just because the PLD isn’t an academic degree doesn’t mean it’s going to be overlooked as valuable experience. It’s just important to keep in mind that you might have to explain what the PLD is and why it’s fantastic to people that are less familiar with the program.

2. Return On Investment

This is where the PLD really shines. While going back to school to get an MBA or EMBA requires up to two years of full-time study, the PLD is completely manageable for a busy leader. Sure, you have to invest a decent amount of money in the program, but at least you don’t have to quit your job, as you do with an MBA, or struggle to get everything done, as you would in an EMBA program.

The PLD is designed to fit around a busy professional schedule, so it becomes a part of your routine. On the other hand, MBAs and EMBAs are quite disruptive to your work life. Many of the EMBA graduates I’ve spoken to found that they couldn’t really devote as much time as they wanted to their studies.

3. Knowledge Gained

Since an MBA is a longer program, you’re probably going to learn more in terms of total “knowledge gained” than you would during the PLD. However, you can think of the PLD as more of a roadmap than a complete atlas. It shows you what’s out there, but you need to be willing and interested in learning more to really get depth in the material that you’re most interested in.

After my program, I read about 20 different books to help me develop more as a leader. Eventually, I decided to go to London Business School for a Sloan Fellowship, so I could invest even more time learning about my specific interests.

When it comes to knowledge gained, an EMBA seems to be the least valuable option as it provides you with a lot of breadth and depth but minimal time to pursue your interests. If you take the PLD, you’ll get a lot of breath and then it’s up to you to follow up and learn more after the program.

4. Harvard Business School Networking

The PLD program is young when compared to traditional MBA programs, however, Harvard does hold annual networking events for PLD grads. While I personally made some good friends during the program that I even traveled with, over a decade later, I don’t really keep in touch with many of my classmates.

Unfortunately, most MBA grads don’t look at graduates of Executive Education programs as their peers and we don’t do too much networking as a result of the program. So, if you’re looking for a deep network, you’d probably be better off with a traditional MBA program.

Thanks for reading, if you have a question or want to learn more, please connect with me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/richard-campbell-yyc/