27 May 2011
Professor Rob Kaplan Addresses MBA Oath
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Professor Rob Kaplan Photo: Michael Weymouth

On Class Day 2011 Harvard Business School hosted the nonprofit MBA Oath on campus for a public recitation of the oath by graduating students. The School has done so each of the last three years since the inaugural year of the MBA Oath. Students, their families and members of the faculty and staff attend the event.

Although the School does not officially sponsor the Oath, it owes it origins to HBS students and each year a member of the HBS faculty has offered remarks. This year, Professor Rob Kaplan (MBA '83) spoke. What follows is a transcript of his remarks.

    "Congratulations on graduating from Harvard Business School and welcome to a discussion of the MBA Oath.

    I graduated from HBS more than 25 years ago -- there was no OATH at that time and I wish there had been. Why? As Harvard MBA's, you are not only future leaders in the business and not-for-profit world, but you are also symbols of business and leadership. You will be observed, followed and, in many cases, imitated (whether you're aware of it or not). For better or worse, what you do will matter!!

    Your decisions will impact your own organizations and your own lives------- but your decisions will also have a powerful direct and indirect impact on society and parties that may seem distant from your immediate actions. What you do from today will matter!!

    Your graduation marks only the first stage in the process of learning and developing which, hopefully, will continue for the rest of your life.

    To me, more important than agreeing with the precise words, signing the Oath signifies your commitment---------from here-------to strive to do what you believe is right. No industry/career choice insulates you from having to do this and no industry choice absolves you from having to do this. This Oath signifies your willingness to continue learning and developing so that you can make the right choices as a leader.

    So, with that background, I want to discuss 5 or 6 pieces of advice I wish I had received when I was in your shoes. These come with the benefit of some experience, hindsight and having made (and observed) my share of mistakes and missed opportunities---- errors of co-mission as well as omission.

    Those who know me from class (from ALD, LEAD or LCA) will find some of these points familiar. So here goes:

      1) Think about and write down your 3 or 4 most strongly held values and beliefs. While you're at it, write down the 3 or 4 ethical boundaries that you know now you will not cross -- things you will not do under any plausible circumstances. Sound easy? May not be easy at all.

    What do I mean by strongly held "values"---------examples might include: treat people with respect; importance of family; people deserve to be coached and given a chance before they are harshly judged; people deserve a chance to improve; if you have someone over a barrel, don't take advantage of it; transparency is vitally important; business should have a positive impact on the community etc. These are examples----you may believe strongly in other values. Can you write down your most strongly held values?

    Examples of "boundaries" include: I will never lie, cheat, steal; I promise myself I would never.........Can you write boundaries you will not cross?

    This will, out of necessity, be a working document. Many business leaders and maybe many of you can't fully do this. It requires a lot of thought and reflection. Even with that, you may not be certain what you believe-------or you may change your mind. I encourage you to get a journal and work on it -- update it with new experiences -- when warranted, change it -- keep it as a working document for the next 20 years.

    WHY? You will eventually find yourself in the middle of a highly pressurized situation-------it is just a matter of time. You will likely be surrounded by strong willed peers, seniors, subordinates, and/or clients who are urging (or ordering) you to do something that you feel ethically queasy about. Alternatively, you may be reacting to a mistake you made and are trying to figure out how to deal with the damage. You may be feeling enormous anxiety. This situation, whatever it is, will likely unfold VERY quickly. You will have to react in what may seem like a split second. Most decisions we regret happen this quickly.

    If you have not thought carefully, in advance, about what you believe in and who you are – you may well wonder later how you could have made such a terrible mistake/decision. You'll realize, in hindsight, you didn't know what to do because you weren't sure what you believed. You probably needed to have "pushed back" and better controlled your own emotions and anxieties-------which would have required self-awareness and conviction about what you truly believe. Waiting to think about this when the situation is upon you is almost certainly too late!!

      2) Act like an "owner". What do I mean? Don't do something you believe is wrong even if you're ordered to do it. Learn to call "time out" and slowdown in order to carefully consider your next move. As an HBS graduate, "I was following orders" will not work -- people will believe you have the world by the tail and are highly sophisticated -- and they will not believe you need to do anything you don't want to do!!

    Fulfilling this advice may be much harder than it sounds. It means learning to be courageous enough to ask questions. It means developing the habit of deciding what you would do if you were in charge-------then have the courage to act accordingly.

    Importantly, it means being willing to admit when you don't understand or, when something doesn't make sense, or when something doesn't sound right. Learn to not pretend you understand when you don't --- you're probably not the only one who feels this way. Learning when to "push back"/slow down (stop nodding in agreement) is a skill you will need to develop. Why? Because you own what you do and, increasingly, you will own the decisions of groups in which you hold a leadership position.

      3) Develop a support group. One of the greatest dangers you will face is isolation. Isolation in that, you may not be "alone" physically but, you will be surrounded by like-minded/strong willed people and risk losing perspective. When you become more senior, this isolation will likely increase dramatically. Why? Junior people may be afraid to disagree with you or tell you things they think you don't want to hear. Maybe you will develop arrogance and give off a vibe that you don't want to hear contrary views-------that you already know the answers. You will need to develop ways to fight isolation-------walk the floors, talk to a diverse group of people, learn to ask questions, invite opinion and disagreement etc.

    One critical action you should take is to develop a support group comprised of people who will tell you the brutal truth --- things you may not want to hear but need to hear. Some of these support group people may be at work (they may be your subordinates as you become more senior) and some of these people will be outside your business life. These are people who care enough about you to tell you you're dead wrong. These are people who care enough about you to risk upsetting you. Start now in thinking about and creating your support group.

      4) Understand the role of pressure and how it impacts YOU. Understand that what you say you will do may not be the same as what you actually do when you get into a difficult situation. Why? Pressure. Where does pressure come from? It varies for each of us. Maybe you haven't saved your money and you're worried about paying off your fancy house or car or suit or something -- you need your job because you need the money! Alternatively, maybe your self-image is tied up in how much money you make. As a result, you don't believe that you can financially afford to do the right thing and/or stick your neck out. Other forces that may create stress for you – driving ambition, fear of failure, fear of confrontation, fear of being disliked, fear of not being loved, fear of not being good enough, fear of looking stupid, a desire to impress your HBS classmates/peers etc., etc. Heard enough?

    No matter the stage of life or career, these issues have a way of rearing their ugly heads. What to do? Working hard to be aware of what creates pressure for YOU is often 90 percent of the battle. Understand which stressors have the greatest impact on you------and how they impact your judgment, perception, and decision making. Keep a journal to write about what stresses you out or worries you.

    Why might you fail to fulfill the MBA Oath? You succumb to financial pressure, fears, insecurities, driving ambition, the need to be perfect -- coupled with isolation and an unclear sense of your values and boundaries.

    Of course, you may be saying; "This won't happen to me----maybe to one of my peers------but not me. I'm a good person. I wouldn't do something unethical. If I decide to do something, it can't be sleazy or wrong----I'm not sleazy!! Many of you may think that, if you're an honorable/ethical person, you don't need to pass the "Front page of New York Times" test. My advice------if it sounds sleazy being described on the front page of the newspaper, your intentions may not be very relevant------and maybe you're just wrong. Maybe pressure/stress coupled with isolation has caused you to lose perspective.

    Understand what stresses you out------and how it impacts your judgment and decisions. Work on building your awareness and coping strategies. Save your money, take regular vacation, keep balance in your life, develop a support group, keep a journal and develop other techniques for coping with pressure.

      5) Last point. Two sayings that have always stayed with me.

    Paraphrasing Einstein; "Not everything that counts can be counted -- not everything that can be counted, counts."

    Your prism must be much broader than pure money or metrics. Values, aspirations, ethical and moral considerations, legal ramifications, and public policy considerations must be part of the mix. The press loves winners and hates losers. It often uses metrics to decide which is which----this helps explain how our heroes of today become our villains of tomorrow.

    Record profits do not define great leaders or great organizations. Instead, great leaders and organizations are defined by adherence to ideals and principles. Profits are likely to a part---------but adherence to ideals is what sustains.

    Second saying: "How many legs does a cow have if you call its tail a leg? 4 -- Just because you call it a leg doesn't make it a leg."

    Of course, many of you are probably horrified at this point – thinking, "So this is the highbrow education you get at Harvard Business School? Yikes!"

    Leadership is about framing and asking the right questions versus having all the answers. What questions you frame matters. For example, as CEO of a company I could ask my people, "How do we increase our stock price? How can we maximize our earnings?" Alternatively, I could ask; "How can we better serve clients, build a distinctive competence and/or add greater value to our clients-----and get paid fairly for doing so?" These are two very different sets of questions based on different premises------leading two very different ways of behaving and thinking.

    Giant mistakes are usually based on flawed assumptions that should have been questioned. Many debates are based on a flawed presumption which should have been challenged at the outset. As a leader, one of your key jobs is to frame the right questions based on fundamentally sound assumptions and premises. These questions will drive the behavior of your people, culture of your firm, and ensure the sustainability of your success. Push back when you see a flawed presumption embedded in a strategy or way of thinking. "I don't understand" may be the most valuable words in business------don't be afraid to use them!

    The good news is that, at this point in your careers, you have a clean sheet of paper. The world is in front of you. You are a superb group with enormous talent.

    You are the author of your future -- and the future of the world (and your life) will depend on what you do from here. The world needs you.

    I am confident and believe in you -- this school believes in you. You've taken a fabulous first step in coming to HBS and taking this Oath. It marks the beginning of your effort to learn, understand yourself and build your skills. We hope it will help you create an ongoing community which will continue the discussion of ethical and moral challenges you will face.

    Whatever you do from today, I firmly believe that if you're true to your beliefs and principles, commit yourself to never compromising your values and integrity in the hopes of achieving success, and strive to keep learning in the effort to do what you believe is right--------- I don't know how much wealth or status you'll achieve, but I can tell you that you're going to feel like a huge success in the years ahead.

    Thank you and congratulations!!"

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 200 offers full-time​ programs leading to the MBA and doctoral degrees, as well as more than 80 open enrollment Executive Education programs and more than 60 custom programs. For more than a century, HBS faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching to educate leaders who have shaped the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.​​​​