04 Nov 2022

MBA Program Leadership: Q+A with Matt Weinzierl and Jana Kierstead


by Shona Simkin

On July 1, 2022, Matt Weinzierl, the Joseph and Jacqueline Elbling Professor of Business Administration, took on the role of senior associate dean and chair of the MBA Program. We asked him, and his administrative partner Jana Kierstead, executive director of the MBA and Doctoral programs, about his role, their priorities for the program, and what they’ve been hearing from the HBS community.

Matt Weinzierl and Jana Kierstead
Photos courtesy Susan Young.

Describe this role and how it fits in the HBS ecosystem.
Weinzierl: The MBA Program, one of the main divisions at the School that reports up to the Dean, is overseen by the two-in-the-box model—one faculty and one staff member, and that’s me and Jana. Within the MBA program there are three program chairs, for the Required Curriculum (RC), Elective Curriculum (EC), and Co-curricular programs, each of whom also has a staff partner. I view my role as the chair as being focused on three things.

First, the strategy of the program, which is not just what the program looks like and its priorities for the next year, but for the next several years and the next 20 years. We try to think about what makes this program special and what can bolster our value proposition for our students, our community, and for the world. We think of the MBA Program as not only the core of what HBS has become, but also as an institution that has a role to play in helping the world to solve its most challenging problems. Second, cultural leadership and tone setting, which I believe is especially important right now as we seek to play that constructive role for the community and the world. Third is managing day to day stuff—90 percent of what comes up is managed by our remarkable staff team, but there are always some items where it’s helpful for me to consult with them.

Kierstead: As the other half of the two-in-the box, Matt’s counterpart in the staff side, I’m focused on aligning people, resources, and energy to support the program. I’ve had the good fortune of working with incredible program chairs, each of whom has built upon the foundation that the other has laid—we’re excited to work with Matt and realize his vision.

Matt, what does it mean to you to step into this role?
Weinzierl: Almost since the day I got here 14 years ago, I’ve felt that HBS is a second home. I’ve always felt incredibly lucky to be here—there aren’t many institutions that have the resources, the platform, and the true, sincere sense of mission to go after some of society’s biggest problems. We have all of that—and we have people, the traditions, and the opportunity required to make it work. The way I view my role, and the reason I was so enthusiastic about accepting it, is that this is a really important time in the history of the program because the world needs institutions like ours to step up as much or more than it ever has. We have an opportunity to seize that moment if we can focus ourselves on it. And we are fortunate to have, because of the leadership of my predecessor, Jan Rivkin, along with Jana and so many others who have come before me, an incredibly strong foundation upon which to build.

How do you two work together?
Weinzierl: Jana and I are true partners, each with our own areas of responsibility and focus but always keeping each other fully in the loop. We are constantly exchanging messages on various platforms about day-to-day stuff that needs to be handled and decided upon. We also meet weekly for more strategic, bigger questions. I like to think that we’re very complementary. Jana has this incredible wealth of experience from her many years of helping this program be as successful as it has been, and she’s an incredible manager. She has educational and execution experience that is not something I bring to the table. In turn, I hope that I can bring the faculty perspective, including a different connection with students, as well as a focus on thinking about the program in a strategic and pedagogical sense. Between the two of us we try to cover the key constituencies and considerations.

Kierstead: Matt is a phenomenal instructor, and he brings that expertise to the conversation. Together we’re able to focus on what’s right for the students, faculty, staff, and program.

Matt, what are your priorities for this role?
Weinzierl: Over the years that I’ve been here, I’ve had countless conversations with students, staff, and faculty colleagues about what works well at the School and what we could improve. As RC chair for two years, I had those conversations at a deeper level, and I started to form ideas about the biggest opportunities we should go after. When I took on this role, I wanted to test those ideas, so I went on a listening tour this summer and talked with dozens of staff and faculty about how they see the program and what they see as its most pressing priorities. In particular, I asked, “What could we do that would make you even more confident that we are fulfilling our mission of educating leaders who make a difference in the world?” And of course, Jana and I have been in constant conversation with each other and the rest of the program leadership about where we want to focus our attention. In the end, a few ideas clearly jumped out, and those have become our priorities.

The first is to invigorate the sense of purpose within the MBA Program. COVID and various other factors have made it hard to keep the focus on why we’re all here, which is to educate students, who bring with them incredible potential, to make a difference in the world—to train and prepare them for roles with serious responsibility and complexity. As I told the MBA students at the start of this year, we do that through a focus on hard work, with humility, for humanity. It’s a tagline I keep repeating, because it captures for me what’s most important.

The second is to center the education in the MBA experience. If you ask students why they decided to come to HBS or get their MBA, the first answer they often give is the network. I have come to believe that in many ways this is just the right answer. The key nuance is that the networks they’re talking about, whether social or professional, have value that comes from the shared educational experience. That’s really the source—they’re networks that mean something because they’re built on a transformational experience of learning and growth.

Third is making sure we’re attracting and supporting the most talented young potential leaders in the world. That involves a lot of things in terms of both making sure we’re offering a great value proposition and extending our reach to people who might not think they can afford this education or think that this would be a place traditionally for them.

What are other issues that you have both heard from the community?
Weinzierl: There are a lot of questions out there about the two-year MBA and its potential obsolescence. I believe that if the two-year MBA delivers on what it promises, then it has an unimpeachable value proposition—this is a transformational two years that gives people the breadth and depth to confidently feel that they can go out and take on these leadership positions that as they grow into them. So, the real challenge is to make sure we’re delivering on that promise and that we are communicating that to the broader world and to our potential applicant pool. That’s where these priorities come from.

There were other specifics that people mentioned. One is making sure we don’t have a transactional culture here at HBS—part of what makes this place such a successful program is that we are all in this together, we are co-producing. Another is ensuring that the curriculum is coordinated, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, without too much top-down direction. Then, making sure the curriculum does enough to address some important current topics—people want more on machine learning, AI, crypto, Web3, DEI, climate, entrepreneurship, and so on.

I also heard from several people that it’s important to not only keep thinking of how we can get better, but also to celebrate the good work we do here. HBS is a truly mission-driven institution, we create an incredible educational experience, and we should celebrate that and make sure that we don’t forget to be grateful for how lucky we are to be here as we work to make it better.

Kierstead: I echo and agree with all that Matt has said. Keeping with the theme of celebrations, our team is really excited by the term start. We’re thrilled to be back in person and to see the campus vibrant and alive. We’re excited to continue building community within and across sections, class years, and the community writ large.

How will you measure success?
Weinzierl: I asked everyone, “If you had to name a single measure of success in the MBA Program, what would it be?” Of course, it’s not going to be any single measure, but I was trying to force the thinking. I heard some really insightful answers.

One main bucket was to get more feedback from participants in the program. We already gather quite a lot of data from the students, but we could gather more types of data, in different ways, and perhaps in more subtle ways that help us really understand what’s working well and what could work better.

The second is more of an external perspective—asking the broader world how HBS MBA graduates are delivering on our mission. Not just if they are successful and making a difference, but if they have the character and the personal leadership skills that make them admired and respected.

The third is a set of measures asking older graduates how the MBA Program has made a difference in their lives and careers. That could be by utilizing simple things like net promoter scores at different career and life horizons, or by more in-depth interviews.

What do you both most want to convey to the community?
Kierstead: We’re heading into an uncertain economy and we know it’s weighing on people’s minds. The good news is that we know how to support students in a downturn and we are prepped and ready to go should we need to again.

Weinzierl: We all already know our mission in MBA—we’re trying to train, to educate, young people with incredible potential to be leaders who make a difference in the world. We do that through the combination of hard work, humility, and humanity. It’s those three things, when brought together, that allow us to get that done. That’s the spirit in which I’d like us as a community to think about what this MBA Program is doing, and to talk with the world about what this program is doing.

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