What I learned at Harvard Business School

Long considered the gold standard in business education, Harvard Business School (HBS) is renowned for its innovative teaching style and world-class professors. But, if you’re interested in going to HBS, you might be wondering what actually happen there? Here’s my take on what I actually learned at HBS and whether my experience was worth the time and money.

The Program For Leadership Development: Harvard’s Take On An EMBA

Unlike many of the people who talk about what they learned at HBS, I didn’t go to Harvard for a traditional MBA. Instead, as a mid-career business professional, I enrolled in the school’s Program for Leadership Development (PLD).

What exactly is the PLD? Basically it’s an accelerated, fast-track alternative to a more traditional Executive MBA (EMBA). Although both programs are designed for high-achieving business leaders with 10-15 years in their industry, the PLD is designed to fit into the busy schedule of a successful mid-career leader. In addition, the PLD places much of its focus on developing one’s own unique leadership style.

As was explained at the start of PLD, HBS isn’t really a fan of EMBAs because it can be difficult for high-performing business executives to take one or two years off from work in the middle of their career. That’s where the PLD really shines.

The PLD is a hybrid program for mid-career executives and leaders that delivers a world-class business education through two or three on-campus modules and two distance-learning modules. Through the use of case studies, dynamic discussion, individual and group projects, as well as faculty presentations, the PLD helps executives develop the skills they need to craft their own personal leadership philosophy.

My Time At Harvard Business School’s PLD

I enrolled in the foundational PLD courses at HBS in 2008, during the start of the financial crisis. While this might seem like an odd time to enroll in an executive-level business course, it turned out to be a fantastic decision.

In a time of global turmoil and high-stress levels in the business world, having the guidance and expertise of HBS faculty was incredibly enlightening. It was helpful to hear their take on what was happening in the world and in the global economy, especially during a period of rapid change. The support and perspectives of the other students in my classes were also invaluable as we all worked toward our own professional growth in the face of an uncertain future.

A few years later, I chose to complete PLDA, the program’s optional fifth module. This final course focused on developing our self-awareness, leadership styles, and values in the business world. I chose to take this final module during a time of great personal soul searching as I was about to turn 40 and needed a fresh perspective on how I wanted to live my life moving forward.

So, what did I learn from all my time at Harvard Business School?

Here are the top ten things I took away from the PLD:

1. Great Teachers And Great Classmates Make Learning Fun

While people often think of business school as a stressful environment, when you’re surrounded by a group of driven, intelligent people, it’s hard not to be inspired. The classmates and professors I had at HBS helped craft a fantastic learning environment where we worked hard but didn’t forget how to have fun.

2. We All Need To Figure Out What Works For Us

At the end of the day, we’re all individuals, so what works best for one person might not cut it for another. While this technically wasn’t something I learned at Harvard, it was something I learned from reading the books of one of my HBS professors, the late Clayton Christensen.

His book, How Will You Measure Your Life, was truly life-changing for me, especially as I was still figuring out what kind of life I wanted to live. Ultimately, my experience at HBS, and particularly with the program’s fantastic professors, like Christensen, taught me that I need to live a life that I think is important, regardless of what others think.

3. Exceptional Negotiation Skills Make A Difference

At HBS, we were constantly pushed to consider the BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) in evaluating business strategy and negotiation. This turned out to be an invaluable skill as it made me start to consider what the other side of the negotiation needs to make a deal and what their alternatives are, should they choose not to work with my organization. If you can’t understand the other side’s position, it’s pretty difficult to strike a deal that works out well for everyone involved.

4. Successful People Still Struggle

There seems to be a misconception in the world that successful people just sail through life. The truth is that everybody struggles, and even the most successful, highest-performing individuals still have their struggles.

This major life lesson became apparent time and time again during my time at HBS. During our on-campus modules in the PLD, we often worked within our house groups and were challenged to learn more about each other. Doing so helped me realize that self-awareness of one’s own needs and an awareness of others’ challenges and successes is critical to developing as a leader.

5. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Everyone who arrives at HBS is a talented individual. However, just because your raw skills got you early success in your career doesn’t mean you’ll automatically become a fantastic leader. My time at HBS showed me that leadership is a skill that takes time and dedication to develop.

In the end, even if you’re a star in the business world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll make a great executive. Rather, we should all consider whether or not we want to develop as true leaders or if we want to take a different career path moving forward.

6. You Don’t Have To Do It All Yourself

Many high-performers, especially in the business world, are used to doing things on their own. Often, this is because we’re afraid to ask for help or we’re concerned that doing so will make us seem vulnerable, weak, and perhaps unable to do the job.

At HBS, however, we’re frequently asked to work in groups, a setting where asking for help is paramount to success. A big part of the program is about gaining comfort with yourself so that you can feel confident in asking for help from others in a time of need.

7. People Are Too Specialized

These days, people are becoming more and more specialized in their skills and expertise. While this can mean that we’re able to advance more within our own specific niche, it often means that we are less aware of the world around us – something I saw many times during my tenure at HBS.

As a leader, particularly in the world of business, we need to have both a specialized understanding of our area of expertise, as well as a broad understanding of the roles of the people we work with. Without this understanding, it can be difficult to negotiate effectively or act as a leader within your organization.

8. Successful Business People Often Compromise

All too often in the business world, we have to make compromises with our personal lives to advance in our careers. While everyone at HBS is dedicated to their professional development, our professors constantly reminded us of how important it is to live a life we actually want to live.

Usually, this involves setting priorities for how we want to set our time. More often than not, successful business people put their work at the top of their priorities list. These people rarely get to see their friends or their family because they work 80 hour weeks or travel 200+ days each year.

This type of mindset was common among many of my HBS classmates. However, it brought me back to lesson number two: We all need to figure out what works for us so we can live the lives we love. In the end, setting priorities and making compromises for the right reasons are critical to a happy, successful business career.

9. Don’t Compromise Your Ethics

While the world of business is often about compromise and negotiation, one thing that was stressed at HBS is to clearly understand your ethics and how you want to live your life, and don’t compromise your ethics for anybody or any company. Throughout the PLD program, there was a lot of focus on humility and doing the right thing in our professional lives. We are all humans first and business people second, and this is something we all need to remember in our work.

10. You’re Going To Be Wrong… A Lot

When we get to the point in our careers that we start to take on management and executive positions, we lose a lot of the oversight and feedback that we got as employees. However, it’s important to remember that just because we, as a leader, did something doesn’t mean we did it well, nor does it mean that it was the right thing to do.

At HBS, most of the course work relies on case studies, where we read through a case and come up with our own thoughts on how a situation was handled. Then, when we get to the group discussion, many of our thoughts and ideas are challenged in a way that would likely never happen if we were the manager in charge of an organization.

These group discussions helped me realize how much we miss as business executives. A program like the PLD is a rare chance in your development as a professional to see where you made mistakes and how you can grow from them. HBS reminded me that we’re all fallible, but it’s how you learn from past experiences that counts.

HBS: An Valuable Education

Ultimately, my time at HBS was an extremely valuable experience. While it might seem difficult to quantify how a business school program can affect its students, the benefits of HBS in my life are quite clear.

These days, I work from home, which allows me to prioritize time with my family. I also choose to work in an industry that I love and I am more aware of myself and my abilities as a leader. If all of that wasn’t enough, I also now have the experience I need to get a headstart on my competitors and to thrive in my work.

Top Questions About Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School is a world-leader in business education. Naturally, people often have a lot of questions about the school and its programs. Here are some of my answers to your most common questions about HBS:

How To Get Into Harvard Business School?

If you’re considering HBS for your business education, you should know that there are two separate tracks for entry: the degree program or one of the executive education programs.

MBA Degree Program

Your first option is to apply for the MBA degree program, which is two years of full-time graduate school. Doing so is much like applying to any graduate school and it requires university transcripts, GMAT or GRE test scores, personal essays, and two letters of recommendation.

Executive Education Programs

Alternatively, you can opt to apply for one of HBS’ four main executive education programs. Your options are the Program for Leadership Development (PLD), the General Management Program (GMP), the Owner/Presidential Management Program (OMP), and the Advanced Management Program (AMP).

Each of these programs is slightly different and is designed to help students gain specific learning outcomes. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Program for Leadership Development (PLD): The PLD is a sort of fast-track version of an EMBA and focuses on leadership skills for the mid-career business professional. Applying to the PLD involves an online application that discusses your background and career thus far, as well as your professional goals. You will also need a letter of reference, but no test scores are required for your application.
  • General Management Program (GMP): The GMP is designed for senior-level executives that have between 15 and 20 years of work experience but want to expand their knowledge base to better steer their organization. Applying to the PLD involves an online application where you will answer questions about your experience, the organization you work for, and your goals for the future. The program also requires a letter of reference from a colleague or someone else that’s familiar with your work.
  • Owner/Presidential Management (OMP): The OMP is specifically geared toward business owners and founders that have at least 10 years of professional experience but want to develop their entrepreneurial leadership skills. Unique to HBS, the OMP does not have any formal requirements, particularly for education, as they are looking for people with demonstrated professional achievement. Applications to the OMP require an online form where you will tell the admissions team about your professional background and your organization.
  • Advanced Management Program (AMP): The AMP is a program for senior-level business executives that are just one or two levels below the CEO in a large organization, especially those with at least 20 years of work experience that want to grow as leaders. Like the OMP, the AMP has no formal requirements and applying involves statements about your work history as well as a recommendation from someone who knows you and your work very well.

How Hard Is It To Get Into Harvard Business School?

As one of the foremost business schools in the world, it is not easy to get into HBS. All of HBS’ programs are highly selective, whether you’re looking to complete an MBA or join one of their Executive Education courses.

While there’s no formula for success when applying to HBS, in general, the MBA program is geared toward entry-level professionals who show a lot of potential for growth in the world of business. Since applicants to the MBA generally don’t have much work experience in business, a lot of the application focuses on one’s undergraduate education, test scores, personal essays, and other life experience.

For the Executive Education Programs, the application focuses mostly on one’s achievements in the world of business, though, like the MBA, there is no secret to a successful application. Since the application process is so competitive, everyone that ends up at HBS is intelligent, talented, and engaged in their program.

Where Is Harvard Business School?

Harvard University, which includes HBS, is located just outside of the city of Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, HBS is located just across the Charles River, opposite the main Harvard Campus. You can check out the layout of Harvard University on this map.

How Much Is Harvard Business School?

Higher education in the United States is not cheap and when you go to an Ivy League institution like Harvard, you can expect to pay top dollar for your educational experience. In 2020, the cost of attendance for an MBA at HBS is approximately $111,102, which includes $73,440 for tuition and $37,662 for general living expenses.

When it comes to the Executive Education programs, the cost of attendance can vary. Here are the 2020 tuition fees for each of the Executive Education programs at HBS:

  • Program for Leadership Development: $52,000 (26 days on-campus over 7 months)
  • General Management Program: $72,000 (45 days on-campus over 4 months)
  • Owner/Presidential Management Program: $44,000 (20 days on-campus over 1 month)
  • Advanced Management Program: $82,000 (40 days on-campus over 6 months)

The program fees for Harvard’s Executive Education courses cover tuition, books, materials, accommodation for on-campus modules, and most meals while on campus. However, while approximately 50% of MBA students at HBS are eligible for some form of need-based financial aid, there isn’t really much tuition assistance available for the executive education programs.

While the sticker price of a Harvard Business School education can certainly be shocking, though, I truly believe that the cost of attendance, especially for the Executive Education programs is worth it. What you can learn at HBS will quickly pay off for your organization, so it’s certainly worth the investment.

Ultimate Impact of attending Harvard Business School?

Attending HBS literally changed my life. It made provided me with raw skills that made me a better leader as well as skills that enabled my company to become a better company. I wouldn’t be a founder of a successful start-up now without the tools HBS gave me.

What really surprised me was how much HBS worked to get me to focus on myself. How did I want to live my life? What was I personally going to stand for? Where did work fit in all of this? I wouldn’t be the father, husband and man I am now without the impact of the professors and my living groups at HBS.

While HBS was a large investment in time and money, it has already repaid itself several times over.

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