Henry McGee is a veteran of HBS. After graduating back in 1979, he spent the next 34 years at HBO. He held many positions in a wide range of areas at the company, including family programming, film acquisition and international co-production—before being named President of HBO Home Entertainment in 1995. 

In 2013, Henry McGee returned to HBS in the role of Senior Lecturer. A member of the General Management Unit, he teaches the required MBA courses Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA) and Field Immersion Experience for Leadership Development (FIELD).  In addition, he is an instructor in the executive education course The Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports.

Why did you decide to come to HBS as a student? 

Like many students, I came to HBS in order to change careers.  In college I was focused on becoming a journalist and when I graduated I was lucky enough to land a job reporting for Newsweek.  After working for a couple of years in the magazine’s DC bureau, I decided that the business side of publishing was more interesting to me than the editorial end.  Regrettably, though, I knew very little about marketing, finance, strategy or management so decided I needed to get an MBA.  

HBS was my first choice because of the intellectual rigor of the program and the ability to tap into the university’s vast resources.  For example, in my second year I was able to take two courses at Harvard Law School directly related to my career interests: one was on the First Amendment and another was on the regulation of the communications industry.

Did things work out as you planned after graduation?

Well, yes and no.  With my original post-MBA career plan in mind, I went looking for a job at Time, Inc., the nation’s largest magazine publisher.  I was very fortunate and they offered me a job in a sort of informal publisher’s training program.  The plan was for me to start in circulation, rotate through the different business functions and, if I was any good, eventually become publisher of a magazine or group of magazines.  I was ready to accept, but they said I might also want to check out this crazy new venture on the fifth floor of the Time & Life Building. It was something called “Home Box Office” and was premised on the idea that you could get people to pay for television, a very radical and unproven notion at the time. 

When I met with HBO Chairman Nick Nicholas, HBS ’64, he convinced me that HBO had the potential to revolutionize the industry.  His vision was so compelling that I signed on and didn’t leave for 34 years when I retired and return to HBS.  Starting with Nick, the network of HBS alumni has been tremendously important in my career.

Why did you decide to come back to HBS as a professor? 

During my career at HBO, I became deeply involved in the film business and eventually joined the board of the Sundance Institute and served as president of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, organizer of the New York Film Festival.  Several years ago I noticed that the documentary film community had become obsessed with business as a subject and that films like Inside Job, Inconvenient Truth, and Supersize Me were winning awards and doing relatively well at the box office.  

I’ve always had an interest in teaching—my father is a recently retired law professor—and I wondered if you could use some of these new films to put together a course examining some of the ethical challenges business people face. I ended up talking about the proposed course with Professors Joseph Badaracco and Sandra Sucher, who teach the EC course The Moral Leader.  They invited me to work with them to put together a couple of film-based cases. Working with them and teaching the cases in a classroom was both challenging and rewarding and convinced me it was time to make the move from executive to educator.

How has the school changed since you were a student here?

Returning to campus after more than three decades in the business world I see many different changes but two in particular stand out: the tremendous diversity in the student body and faculty and the school’s commitment to turning out leaders who have a commitment beyond the bottom line.  Women weren’t even admitted into the MBA program until the 1960s and when I was here in the 1970s there weren’t many women in my class.  We’re still not where we want or need to be, but women now make up 40% of the student body.  The same trend is true for U.S. minorities—not many when I was here but now they represent one out every four students at the school. There’s also been tremendous growth in the number of international students—more than a third of our students come from overseas. This year I had students from Bangladesh, China, Nigeria, Russia, Argentina, Australia and many other countries. I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is to teach in a classroom where you get to tackle key business issues from so many different perspectives.  

There’s also been huge growth in diversity among the faculty and administration.  For example, earlier this year I wrote a case with two colleagues—one from India and the other from Switzerland.  Right now I’m finishing up a case with Professor Anita Elberse, one of the youngest women to receive tenure at HBS.  She also happens to be in charge of the first year of the MBA program.

The other huge change I’ve observed is the school’s commitment to turning out leaders who will make a difference in the world. Students learn that as business leaders they have responsibilities that go far beyond the bottom line.  For example, I teach a required first-year course called Leadership & Corporate Accountability. When I was a student I don’t think a course like that would have even been offered, let alone required.  There’s also a tremendous range of second-year courses that give students a chance to explore in depth their potential to have a meaningful impact not only on their investors but their customers, employees, and society as well.  Reimagining Capitalism, The Moral Leader, and Business at the Base of the Pyramid are just a few of many courses that students can take.

How has the school remained the same since you left?

Here, also, two things stand out for me—the school’s ongoing commitment to excellence and its use of the case method as the principal form of instruction. Whether it’s in the classroom, teaching group meetings, seminars, written work or research, faculty and students demand and expect the best from themselves and from one another.  It’s an essential part of the school’s culture and that has not changed. That can be tough at times but it’s that relentless focus on excellence that makes HBS such a great place to learn and teach. 

Similarly, the case method remains a bedrock at HBS and having been a student and teacher, I know from experience that it’s a highly effective way to learn. That said, I think that the introduction of FIELD has been a powerful addition to the curriculum. It gives students a chance to focus on the type of leader they want to be and learn and practice the most effective leadership styles. The case method plus FIELD are a winning combination and it’s a very exciting time to be back on campus.