13 Jul 2022

A Banner Year for Reunions: Q+A with Mary Jane (MJ) Keough


by Shona Simkin

Photo courtesy MJ Keough.

At this moment in July, MJ Keough and her team are taking a very brief, but well deserved, breather. They’ve just wrapped up an unprecedented series of events, bringing back all of the classes whose reunions were canceled due to the pandemic, plus the on-track one-year and Executive Education reunions. Six weekends, 34 MBA classes (250 sections), three One Year Reunions (30 sections), and 22 Executive Education classes (160+ cohorts). For perspective, a typical spring includes eight MBA reunions and a single One Year Reunion. We caught up with MJ to ask about the experience—the experiments, the successes, and what they’re taking away from the busiest spring in recent memory.

What was the inspiration behind a month of reunion events?
Our messaging for canceling our 2020 and 2021 reunions was that we hoped to bring alumni back as soon as it was safe to do so. As we were coming out of the pandemic we started talking about how we could do that for 35,000 alumni who missed their reunions. We worked closely with Operations on how many people we could have on campus at one time—the maximum capacity for lunches, sessions, and events, which was somewhere between 4,200-4,500. But that was still a stretch and something we’d never done before. We tried to figure out what we could do within those numbers that would be really meaningful for our alumni and focused on what was most important to them. Then we grouped the classes as closely as we could by life stage and started to create programming and schedules based on the unique needs of each of the cohorts. We utilized input from our amazing alumni via surveys and during our monthly calls with our alumni reunion program volunteers to create two meaningful days for them on and off campus.

What did alumni identify as the most important aspects of reunions?
Reconnecting with classmates was a priority, so we spent a lot of time thinking about ways to give them more time and opportunities to connect with each other. Additionally, we hoped to give our alumni opportunities that deepened their connection to HBS and their desire to give back, whether through time, treasure, or talents. It was also important to have HBS cross collaboration on many fronts—to engage with Career and Professional Development, the Initiatives, MBA, Publishing, and Executive Education. All of us have been disconnected from the community during the pandemic, so we wanted to make it a school-wide series of events. From a planning and logistics perspective, it was a tremendous opportunity—how do we become more efficient in our work and expand our capacity and impact through streamlined processes and logistics? How do we use the HBS facilities and resources the best we can? It gave us an opportunity to think about how we think about reunions in the future.

The School has always had a culture of experimentation—what did your team experiment with beyond the very nature of the reunions?
We tried to embrace new and different ideas, technology, and processes to experiment with while preserving and building meaningful experiences for our alumni. We utilized new workstreams to manage and organize the unprecedented volume of work. On the programming side we paired faculty with specific cohorts to present content and discuss topics alumni identified as important or of interest to them. We piloted a new program called Alumni Dialogues, which followed a conference method of gathering in a large group to pitch topics and ultimately vote on topics that folks desired to discuss in smaller groups. We featured faculty presentations in the morning, and opened up the afternoons for class programming with panels or social time, it was really up to them. We introduced HBS for Life via an interactive board in Klarman, selfie stations, and a multimedia campaign. Lastly, we created a “Live from Klarman Hall” series of live-streamed presentations.

We also wanted to leverage technology, and had two real game-changers. We had on demand check-in kiosks set up in Klarman—alumni would go to an iPad, input their name, verify or change their information, and print out their badge and get a lanyard. It took two minutes at most. It was impressive to alumni and their guests and provided efficiencies and advancement in our execution—a huge success.

We also piloted an HBS events app that was a schedule of all of the weekend’s events. Alumni could open the app and see all of the sessions, logistics, and events with start and end times. We could change things in the app in real time, which we did often due to the necessity of simulcast rooms for faculty presentations and to share any shifts to programming or locations. We could also push notifications in case of an emergency, changing weather conditions, times the last bus was leaving, or different section dinner times. It was great. We had printed schedules at a glance available, but the app was most up to date.

Additionally, during the pandemic we introduced a digital reunion profile book in lieu of a printed book. Previously we had March update deadlines for delivering the printed book to alumni at their June reunions. Now alumni can update their profile through their reunions and view the book real-time over a month prior and following their reunion. The complete “Reunion Profile Book,” including a foreword prepared by alumni class leaders, is available to alumni in mid-late June for their review and printing if they desire. It’s much more convenient, comprehensive, and interactive.

How did you figure out staffing for so many events?
We had over 200 volunteers across HBS, and each weekend we’d use 120 or so. There were many COVID or life-related staff adjustments, so we were constantly having to shift, pivot, and be flexible. What was so amazing about our broader HBS community is that there are so many that were generous with their time and talents and willing to jump in to help wherever and whenever they were needed.

We very deliberately tried to leverage the talents of people in the right spots. Historically for reunions we have a smaller group, and this time, given the number of staff volunteers and the series of reunion celebrations, we tried to really think about how, where, and why to best place people to help our alumni and guests navigate the campus, our programming, and their evening events. I started my role in Alumni Relations in 2019, so not being as experienced as my colleagues with regards to reunions, I took the opportunity to ask a million questions—I probably drove people crazy but we pulled different folks with different experience and talents together, had many conversations and really rethought the work we were doing. We learned a lot from having the opportunity to experience staffing models throughout June, modifying slightly with each one, and look forward to continuing our journey with regards to staffing for reunions!

What are you doing now? Are there things you’ll apply to future reunions?
We’re in the process of gathering information from surveys and debriefing meetings to really think about what worked and didn’t, so that we can take our learnings and apply them to our fall reunions that are right around the corner in October. We look forward to being back on a normal track—it’ll be remarkable to just have one set of reunions to focus on!

The beauty of having the reunions back to back was that we could iterate. Time and time again we’d run into issues and pivot. We’d learn and shift, learn and shift. We were fortunate to experiment with some things we wanted to try, which we could then tweak. We ultimately had great learnings and many were hugely successful. It all just shows the incredible capacity and talents of folks here at HBS. My colleagues in External Relations (ER) and our cross-HBS team is really exceptional.

What is one of your biggest takeaways from this experience?
We’re just so grateful that we completed our reunion celebrations with such great success. It makes us happy to hear how grateful the alumni are that they were able to be together on-campus. It was a huge commitment from the School to dedicate the resources to help us navigate something like this. So many people were involved in making this happen so successfully, from the Dean’s Office, to Finance, to HR, to Operations and Security, to IT and Media Services, and to the many of my dedicated, talented, and creative teammates in AR and across ER and more than I have mentioned here. It was really a tremendous effort to secure and deploy resources to the degree we did and our efforts touched more people than we even know.

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