It’s 7:45 in the morning on a Friday and I am sitting in Spangler Hall, the center of student activity at Harvard Business School. About a third of the building is a large dining facility that includes a kitchen, serving area, and dining hall. Every seat is taken at the tables in the eating area and it is noisy.

The noise comes from the aggregated voices of hundreds of HBS MBA students. They have gathered in their discussion groups to have some breakfast while they review cases they have had to read for the day’s classes and share their insights with each other. I remember those days as an MBA student well and forged deep bonds with the group of classmates I spent a year with every morning (discussion groups did not carry over into the second year). In the end we reviewed and debated hundreds of issues together, preparing ourselves to be “cold called” by our professors when the class began or hoping to raise our hand and be called upon. Fifty percent of our grade depended on the quality of our participation, so informally making our case with classmates in a small group before class helped give us confidence heading into the classroom.

Cases and discussion groups. I never realized how effective both could be in preparing me for business life. A “case,” for those unfamiliar, is a narrative booklet that tells the story of a business and (usually) a protagonist in that business who is facing some challenge, dilemma, or decision. Yes, there are numbers in the cases (after all, this is a business school). But there is always a story that goes with the numbers. Students are expected to read these cases (usually two to three a night, each 8-15 pages long) and do analysis so that they can take a position in the classroom. Once in that classroom, professors don’t teach as much as they facilitate. They are conductors guiding the flow of a discussion among students as different approaches are considered and numbers are scrutinized. Students learn by discovery – an answer isn’t given, it is teased out of the collective. In my experience, the case discussion always started very broadly and narrowed over the course of the class before reaching some “ah-ha!” learning moment.

Because cases could be quite lengthy and analysis could be exceptionally time-consuming, discussion groups weren’t just a luxury, they were a necessity and, in fact, were required by the school. The groups typically divided work among each of the team members and the mornings were when the students reconvened to share their individual findings. While most others and I would read every case (okay, maybe I scanned a few in my two years!), I wouldn’t necessarily do all of the deep analysis that preparation for class required. Instead, I relied on others to help me understand concepts and calculations every morning in the hour or so before taking my seat in the class. 

I recall saying to a faculty member that study groups seemed so odd to me. Like many, my experience with education had baked into me that having somebody else “do your homework” was cheating. His response is one I’ve remembered all these years. He noted that a senior general manager in a business can never know everything. She relies on those that work for and with her to provide insights and analysis. She meets with others regularly to become educated based on their areas of expertise and has to be ready in the moments after such conversations to step in front of board members or investors or other stakeholders and talk with conviction and specificity. After more than twenty years in general management I can attest that truer words have never been spoken. 

So don’t be afraid to share the load and rely on others who know more about a given topic than you do. Leadership isn’t just about taking people somewhere; it’s also about knowing what you don’t know. Rather than becoming an expert in every discipline, become an expert in hiring others who know a discipline and in learning how to assimilate information they share with you so that you, in turn, can share it with others in a compelling way. That is the secret to leveraging a team. And it’s one of the top things I learned at Harvard Business School.  

- Patrick Mullane
Executive Director, HBX