7 Lessons from Harvard Business School

I went to business school because I’d always LOVED reading business books and found myself inspired to think about future industry trends, where the world was headed, and how to solve problems within it (in other words: I was an entrepreneur, but didn’t know it yet.). I expected business school to essentially be a structured way to have amazing and productive conversations about future problem solving.

The reality turned out way different from my expectations, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Business school gave me something I didn’t know I was looking for, but very much needed: a different perspective. I learned a great deal during my time at Harvard Business School, but there are 7 lessons I prize above all others, and which I think apply well to startups.

1) There’s No Right Answer I came to business school from an engineering background, where I’d always operated under the notion, that there was one right way of doing things — a single right answer to any question or problem, only one legit method for approaching something. But business is not a hard science, and I wasn’t prepared for the mentality shift.

This was most in focus when we analyzed case studies and answered questions about them. We might’ve weighed in on which growth or retention proposal would be best in a particular case, or whether a specific repositioning decision was the best way forward. Well, my engineering brain me had me convinced there was one, shining, triumphant right answer, so I would come into class ready to adamantly argue the rationale for my answer (aka: THE answer). But, without fail, a handful of super smart classmates would share their equally justified reasons for one or more totally different answers than the one I’d been clinging to. And you know what? Each of those other answers made sense, too, once I heard them explained.

At first the idea that there wasn’t a single path forward bothered me. But then, it became reassuring. I started to see that I didn’t need to endlessly search for the “right” answer; I just needed to be able to justify a good decision and move forward.

I’ve since seen this play out with groups of high school entrepreneurs many times over. Entrepreneurial types can be unwavering and convincing about their rationale. They can also get stuck in the same “one right way” mindset I’d suffered from, then waste time arguing or hand-wringing about what that one way is. It’s more valuable to choose a well-plotted, well-thought out course and start walking, than it is to spend weeks or months trying to decide between two or three plans that all have valid reasoning behind them. Remember that you can pivot later if you’ve set your company and team up to be agile.

2) Everyone Stands For Something – Continuing my education on the “no right answer” track, I realized that business approaches and decisions are a lot more subjective than I’d anticipated. We like to think that decisions are informed largely by looking at data (numbers, for instance,  then drawing a conclusion and executing, without our own social/political/economic perspectives influencing us.

That assumption was shattered as I started to see patterns around how my peers would respond to certain questions, and the types of arguments they would make. I started to realize that everyone was looking at the same problem through a different lens. Some were looking at it from a purely capitalist/profit-maximizing perspective, others would bring a social impact viewpoint to the discussion. Everything was somewhat filtered through that particular perspective and what their larger goal, their ultimate “why” was.

Having studied hundreds of businesses, and helped budding entrepreneurs start dozens of others, I found all this to be true beyond business school. It turns out that everyone stands for something, and their decisions will align with a particular perspective whether they realize it or not.

This might sound like a bad thing, like people’s biases will undoubtedly cloud their abilities to make the very best decisions for their startups. But that’s not really the point or the problem. It’s important to understand which perspective you align with and how that plays into your larger “why”, so that you can make all of your moves from a place of authenticity and build a cohesive strategy.

So don’t be afraid to stand for something, and let that inform your decisions, because you’re doing it whether you realize it or not.

3) Don’t Compare Yourself to Others – The first few days (and even weeks or months) in a new environment like Harvard Business School, or college, or a Summer program like LaunchX can cause anxiety. In many cases, everyone has been #1 at everything in their previous environments — a big fish in their own small pond — then suddenly they are surrounded by other extremely impressive people who have also done amazing things. This leaves a lot of people feeling inadequate, potentially suffering from impostor syndrome.  

I took a great class at HBS called Authentic Leadership Development, where we did an activity I call “Resumé versus Reality”. We looked first at how we represented ourselves, or viewed each other, based on a quick first pass of resumé items (previous jobs, projects, accomplishments, skills). We noticed that it triggered a bunch of insecurities in us. Then we dug deeper only to realize that everyone else had the same internal realities: fear of failure, struggles through adversity, and insecurities around whether they were cut out to be there.

This and other experiences at HBS also taught me how to value others for their complementary skills and different perspectives. I didn’t need to have every skill imaginable, be one-woman marketing-product-biz-dev-design show. All I need to do is form good partnerships, hire smart, get mentorship from people whose skills and perspectives were different from mine, who in turn may lack some of the skills and perspectives that I bring to table. And the same is true for any entrepreneur.

4) Leadership is Not About Control – I’d held a few leadership positions before going to business school. In each case, I’d risen into them either because I was the most experienced, knowledgeable, and organized person in a group, or the most outspoken about the direction of a project. Or at least that’s how I’d seen it.

I realized at HBS that those characteristics weren’t the real reasons for my leadership; I’d been a leader by default. No one else wanted to have the additional work that came with a leadership position, so it fell to me. But that doesn’t mean it made me act like a leader.

Leadership, at its core, means having followers. It requires being passionate and having conviction of direction that allows others to be excited to be a part of your team’s and the larger company’s missions. However, it does not always entail being the foremost expert on a topic or overly rigid about what needs to be done. The notion that being a leader means being in ultimate control is a misconception to which many aspiring business, social, and political leaders fall prey.

Being a good leader is more about being a visionary, setting objectives, and bringing out the best in others. A good leader understands they don’t know it all, and welcomes contributions from their team when it comes to how decisions are made and what direction is taken. The best leaders are better at supporting their teams than controlling them.

5) There’s No Going Back – An odd thing happened as business school was wrapping up: many of my classmates wanted a do-over. They said they wished they could go back and redo the business school experience, feeling as though they would have gotten much more out of it had they started it at that new moment in time.  

Isn’t that often how it goes? We go into something — maybe because we truly want to, maybe because we think it’s what we should do, maybe because we just need to do something — not quite ready. We might flounder or second-guess at the start. Maybe we don’t give it our best right away, thinking we’ll devote more attention down the road. Then we struggle to catch up or keep up. Before we know it, it’s the end of the program, bootcamp, or accelerator, and we feel like we’ve only just gotten a grip on everything. At that point, we wish we could start from the beginning, to do better, to get more out of the experience.

But there are no do-overs. And when you start is when you start. Once you’ve committed to something, be fully in it.. Go into every experience ready to make the most of it, even if you feel like you might not be ready. Because, ready or not, there you are! Do what you can with what you do have at your disposal. Take risks, ask for help, form relationships with those around you. You’ll get more out of the experience by diving in than you would by spending your time worrying that you’re not prepared enough.

And when it’s over, try to focus on the things you did get out of it, instead of the things you missed. Realize that the knowledge or connections you have now put you in a position to branch out and grow further. Just because an intensive or a grad program or conference is over doesn’t mean you have to stop growing and learning. In fact, those experiences should be springboards into more exploration and refinement of ideas, concepts, and plans for taking your startup to the next level.

6) Take Calculated Risks – One of the best ways to get the most out of an experience is to take some calculated risks. Especially in a program like business school or LaunchX, where the goal is to expand, it’s important to nudge yourself outside of your comfort zone. Otherwise, you end up exactly the same at the end as you were at the beginning, and that’d be a waste of time, energy, and maybe money.

It’s equally vital to know what you’re getting yourself into. Before you leap, weigh the pros and cons, and try to gauge the wider potential outcomes — both positive and negative. Do your research. If either the potential reward seems unlikely or the likely negative could be devastating, don’t do it. On the other hand, if you’ve given careful thought and scrutiny to the options and feel you’re not risking a ton, but stand to gain some great benefits, strongly consider doing it.

Keep in mind that taking risks just for the thrill of it is ill-advised in business. Despite the way the media might paint all entrepreneurs as wild, unabashed risk-takers, the best business leaders and visionaries are more like risk-mitigators. They know how to take the right risks. Yes, it’s still a gamble, but much less of one.

7) Remember the 80/20 Rule – I’ve written about this before, because it’s so crucial. We like to think that returns are directly correlated with what we put into something. As a result, we often think that in order to run a successful business we need to devote the same amount of time to every priority or aspect of the endeavor.

The truth is that 80% of the value of anything you do will come from 20% of the time/effort you put into it. This applies to coursework, extracurricular activities, social life, and lots of other things, not just business. It’s therefore important to prioritize your time and pack the most into the tasks you take on.

On the flip side, it’s also true that 80% of your problems will come from 20% of your product or service’s defects. Take software bugs and customer service calls as an example. All software has bugs (probably more than you realize). But not every bug will result in the same amount of user trouble. In most case, a small percentage of bugs will be responsible for the majority of disruptions and contact to customer support, whereas they can be dozens of bugs that only ever impact a handful of users and therefore aren’t as disruptive or problematic.

In social media marketing, 80% of your returns will likely come from 20% of your efforts. Your company may be running campaigns on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Google+, spreading your resources and spending evenly across all 5. But you’re usually going to get way more return from one or two of those platforms than the others combined. Depending on your business type, Facebook may be the place that gives you 80% of your leads, even though it’s only taking 20% of your resources.

When it comes to customer service, you’ll find that the majority of your difficulties come from a very small percentage of your customers. The vast majority of your customers will never contact you about anything, or will only come to you once or twice with minor questions or concerns that get resolved, then everyone moves on. But there are going to be frequent flyers who require four or five times the contact that most do, and on which your reps and managers will spend that much extra time.

So why does this matter?

It’s not possible to give 100% in every aspect of a business. There are limited number of hours in the day, and overexertion leads to burnout, and then nothing gets done. Plus funds are almost never infinite. So, before you decide you need to devote the next 5 hours to developing the perfect email campaign to aim at users who’ve dropped off, take a look at the metrics for the last such campaign you ran. What were the returns? Did you get back 10% of your targets? 5%? 2%? If the number is low, then it’s probably not worth 5 hours of your time. You can spend that same time expanding on a campaign or initiative that you know will have higher returns.

Without these invaluable lessons, I don’t think I could’ve been as successful at starting and running LaunchX, or any of the other projects I’ve undertaken since getting my MBA. They’ve really helped me hone the entrepreneurial mindset needed for success, and I couldn’t be happier than I am sharing it with bright youngsters looking to grow into their own as future makers, innovators, and leaders.

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