Dean Srikant Datar’s 2022 Commencement Remarks

Dean Srikant Datar addresses the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2022 during the Schools 112th Commencement.

Members of the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2022; our esteemed Alumni Achievement Award recipients; families, friends, and loved ones; faculty and staff of Harvard Business School: welcome. I am delighted to be here with you. Despite and perhaps because we endured limitations, hardship, and loss over the past few years, it feels all the sweeter to be together today, in person, to celebrate your academic achievements, and to unite as a community to mark what is truly a joyous time. So, before we begin let's enjoy a collective “whoop” and round of applause.

HBS Class of 2022, you will always be special to me, and I will always remember you for your amazing qualities.

  • You were resilient. After all, not even COVID could stop you from coming to HBS. Resilience will give you greater confidence to attempt things that are difficult, and to take on challenges because they help you grow.

  • You were flexible. Once here, you managed rising and falling case counts, testing, Crimson Clear, and ever-evolving guidance. Flexibility will help you adapt to changing conditions and break fixed ways of thinking.

  • You were resourceful. You maneuvered through hybrid classes and made the most of your time at HBS as you supported one another in extraordinary ways. You will need to be resourceful to embrace new opportunities that come your way.

I believe that as you look back at your HBS experience a few years from now, you will remember not what you lost, but what you gained: important skills of resilience, flexibility, and resourcefulness, as well as the many friendships you forged.

As I reflect on this past year, I will remember you for the undiminished passion and exceptional creativity you brought to your HBS experience, as well as your humor, kindness, and generosity of spirit. And my colleagues and I will always admire you and be grateful for your partnership and patience.

I have been thinking about what advice I might share with you today. I have had the opportunity to get to know many of you, including at wonderful events like the HBS Show (thanks to the producers for my walk-on role!), the Heard on the Street a cappella performance, and the EKTA dance competition; in discussions with the Student Association leadership; or at end-of-semester parties in the Dean’s House Garden that you were all so curious to see. I've also spoken with every faculty member at the School, hosted my first Board of Dean’s Advisors meeting, met with staff groups large and small, and engaged with many thousands of alumni.

These conversations have shaped how I think about the opportunities and challenges facing the world today, and thus Harvard Business School, and they have spurred two important new initiatives: the Digital, Data, and Design Institute at Harvard, and the Institute for the Study of Business in Global Society. Their purpose is to accelerate what Harvard Business School does best: develop new management ideas with power in practice by connecting with leading organizations so we might bring that learning into our classrooms. They reflect and respond to what I see as twin forces influencing organizations and societies globally, and phenomena you will need to understand as leaders.

Organizations in a wide range of industries are prioritizing digital transformation and driving enterprise-wide digitization. As a result, data science and Artificial Intelligence increasingly are becoming required capabilities, driving operating model performance and enabling growth like never before. Moreover, the design of new business models—or, for incumbent firms, the ability to transform business model design—will be vital to success in the future.

Yet even as we adopt, adapt, and leverage new digital capabilities, we cannot lose sight of the way they will affect work, workers, and the workplace. For all the potential benefits of digital transformation, we have seen its downsides, too: how it can enable profiling, overstep bounds of privacy, or be used to cause harm.

Other factors necessitate this consideration as well—from the pandemic and the Great Reset, to persistent income inequality, to climate change. Technology and people, then, must always be thought of as intertwined and interconnected.

As an optimist, I see this as a moment of great opportunity. Business has been an engine of prosperity in countries around the globe, lifting millions out of poverty and bringing vital services and products to markets and people in ways that have enhanced their lives. Capitalism remains a system that—at its best—serves the best interests of society and spurs innovation. Even as we face challenges, I believe business can and will play a leadership role in devising solutions to the environmental, social, and governance problems that feel so urgent now.

And this is where your role will be vital, and so I’d like to speak to you about three qualities that are crucial for leaders today: the extent to which you are able to enthuseenable, and empower others, and how you create an environment in which every individual in your organization can flourish. My former board colleague Vineet Nayar describes it as putting employees first so they can be the best that they can be. Let me say a few words about each.

What does it mean to enthuse an organization? You can think of it as how you inspire, guide, and influence others; I’ve also heard it called leading with purpose. How can you ensure that work provides meaning and fulfillment for everyone in your organization? How might you operate your organization with a shared goal—a mission statement, a set of values, and clearly defined priorities that mobilize and motivate?

An example in my life of someone who has done this masterfully is Ratan Tata, an alum and the namesake of our Tata Hall. My own education was supported by the Dorabji Tata Trust and the only job I had before starting my PhD was with the Tata organization. I learned many lessons about work and leadership during that part of my career. Yet what remains most vivid in my mind was the sense of purpose and inspiration I felt working at the firm. Then, as it does today, the Tata Group prides itself on being a values-driven organization. In 1892, Jamsetji Tata, the founder, set up the JN Tata Endowment to give back to society; since that time, five additional trusts have been established. They support causes such as health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and education. As a young person, this visible investment—where more than two-thirds of the company's profits were directed to the trusts—served to inspire me every day.

Of course, this is not the only way to enthuse an organization. Creating and fostering a culture of experimentation, or of inclusion, can also be powerful, as is giving employees a feeling of kinship and opportunities to put smiles on customers’ faces by enriching and improving their lives. Whatever the mechanism, a leader's ability to motivate and inspire those around them is vital.

Leaders also have to enable and support the organization to achieve its goals. This means creating the structures, processes, systems, and a culture that will yield outstanding products and services. Even simple measures can go a long way.

One large retailer, for instance, changed incentives and trained salespeople to focus on doing what was best for the customer rather than push a particular product to earn a commission. Other organizations have changed processes to enable representatives to focus on building customer relationships and addressing customer problems instead of maximizing the number of service calls they needed to take.

Leaders of these organizations create psychologically safe cultures, as my colleague Amy Edmondson would say. They invest in building trust to encourage employees to act and to speak up—whether sharing a great idea, voicing a concern, or offering difficult feedback.

Finally, leaders must empower. Once they have done the work of enthusing and enabling, they must create opportunities for people around them to thrive by pushing decision-making down through every level of the organization. Employees who feel they are seen, respected, valued, and appreciated have a deepened sense of connection to the organization and to each other. Empowerment gives employees the freedom to have a meaningful impact on their work, team, customers, and society.

I saw a fascinating example of this when I served on the board of Novartis. In 2018, the CEO began an effort to “unboss” the company—developing servant leaders who put their teams’ success above their own. At heart is the belief that teams do not exist to support a leader, but leaders to support a team.

For empowerment to succeed, you as a leader must commit to Amazon’s “disagree and commit” ethos: if the team decides to go in a different direction than yours, you can disagree, but you nonetheless must commit to supporting the team’s decision.

My colleague Hubert Joly, who served as CEO of Best Buy for a number of years, describes five leadership qualities to enthuse, enable, and empower:

  • Be purposeful

  • Be clear about who you serve

  • Be conscious of your true role

  • Be driven by values

  • Be authentic

The history of Harvard Business School is one of leaders who have enthused our community with strong values and a powerful mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world. We have developed the structures, processes, and culture that have enabled us to fulfill that mission by supporting research with power in practice, writing cases, designing classrooms, and nurturing faculty who create transformational educational experiences. Finally, we have empowered our faculty and staff to take decisions and our students to take ownership for their learning through participant-centered case discussions. It is, in my opinion, why so many of us love this institution so deeply.

As you begin your own leadership journey, then, I encourage you to think about how you will enthuse, enable, and empower those in your organizations. If you do so, I am certain you will experience a career filled with purpose and meaning, accomplishing things that you never thought possible, while learning from amazing people in ways that you had not anticipated. And when that happens, I am confident you will look back to your time here and appreciate all the things you gained—knowledge, skills, resilience, flexibility, resourcefulness, and an ability to accept challenges—while looking forward to the future with confidence and optimism.

Members of the Class of 2022, before closing, I hope you’ll offer up your thanks to the family members and friends who have supported you during your time at HBS. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives and partners and children, classmates and buddies: they’ve had your back through your entire HBS experience. Too often love is not expressed. So, I ask you to stand up and turn around. Take a moment now to show these individuals how much their love mattered to you, and how much they mean to you, and join me in a collective round of applause for them.

I know I speak on behalf of the entire community when I say how proud we are of you, and what high hopes we have for you. Congratulations and all our very best. Thank you very much for your kind attention.