24 May 2012

Graduating Harvard Business School Students Hold Class Day Exercises

Facebook COO and HBS grad Sheryl Sandberg delivers keynote address

BOSTON—The Harvard Business School MBA Class of 2012 held its Class Day exercises yesterday afternoon on the great lawn in front of the Baker Library I Bloomberg Center for the 876 members of the Class, their families, and friends.

Presided over by Class presidents Funa Maduka and Jonathan Dick, along with Class Day committee members Luke Marklin, Tehmina Haida, and Katharine Hill, the program featured the presentation of four faculty awards for excellence in teaching, a student speaker, and an address by Sheryl Sandberg, a member of the Harvard MBA Class of 1995 and now chief operating officer of Facebook.

One student not in attendance was in the thoughts and prayers of everyone at the event. Tragically, Nathan (Nate) Bihlmaier died earlier in the week. To help honor him, Professor Youngme Moon, Senior Associate Dean and faculty chair of the MBA Program, read the essay Bihlmaier had written several years ago as part of his application to the School. Inspired by a phrase immortalized by legendary architect Daniel Burnham, "Make no little plans," Bihlmaier wrote, in part: "I established a belief...that the path to success is only realized by accepting the responsibility to lead, by utilizing an unyielding initiative to achieve, and by daring to take on any challenge that arises with reckless abandon." Members of Bihlmaier's family will accept his diploma from Dean Nitin Nohria at Commencement exercises this afternoon.

Determined by a vote of members of the Class, teaching awards for the first-year required curriculum went to Professors Rawi Abdelal (Business, Government & the International Economy) and Benjamin Esty (Finance). Honorees for their teaching excellence in the second-year elective curriculum were Associate Professor Tom Nicholas (The Coming of Managerial Capitalism) and Professor Jan Rivkin (Advanced Competitive Strategy).

Andrew Sternlight Photo: Neal Hamberg

Student speaker and cancer survivor Andrew Sternlight, who is also a candidate for the JD degree at Yale Law School, recounted the impact of the disease on his life. After months of chemotherapy, he realized the overarching importance of family, community, and purpose. Sternlight said that the time he spent with his family was precious, that they gave him a sense of hope. "At HBS," he continued, "we have been part of something larger than ourselves. We share our common humanity." As for purpose, Sternlight explained that in the midst of his recovery, he realized he needed to discover "a deeper sense of self." His MBA education, he explained, gave him the opportunity to "dream big" and, in keeping with the School's mission, make a difference in the world. He urged his classmates to do the same – "to figure out your purpose and pursue it with everything you've got."

Sandberg, who came to Facebook after working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company, as an economist with the World Bank, as chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton Administration, and as an executive at Google, offered the audience insights into her own life along with a wide range of observations and advice. Among them:

  • After leaving Washington, DC, for Silicon Valley, Sandberg was offered a job at Google as its first business unit general manager, but she wasn't sure the position was the right fit. "The job was several levels lower than jobs I was being offered at other companies," she explained. So she sought the advice of CEO Eric Schmidt, who told her that "When companies are growing quickly and having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves....If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat. Just get on." She took the job.
  • Sandberg noted that in the current business environment, a ladder is no longer an appropriate metaphor for career growth. As one of her friends put it, the more appropriate comparison is a jungle gym. "As you start your post-HBS career," she advised, "look for opportunities, growth, impact, and mission. Move sideways, move down, move on, move off. Build your skills, not your resume....Don't plan too much, and don't expect a direct climb."
  • "Your strength will not come from your place on some organization chart. Your strength will come from building trust and earning respect. You're going to need talent, skill, imagination, and vision, but more than anything else, you're going to need the ability to communicate authentically, to speak so that you inspired the people around you. You must also listen so that you continue to learn every day on the job."
  • Honest feedback is essential, but getting it can be a problem, Sandberg said. "A good leader recognizes that most people won't feel comfortable challenging authority, so it falls upon authority to encourage them to question."
  • "If you want to win hearts and minds, you have to lead with your heart as well as your mind. I don't believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. That kind of division probably never worked, but in today's world, with a real voice, an authentic voice, it makes even less sense."

Sheryl Sandberg Photo: Neal Hamberg

Sandberg also talked about the challenges facing women in the workforce, especially in top-level positions. Only 15 or 16 percent of C-suite positions are filled by women, she noted – a number that hasn't moved in a decade. "We need to acknowledge that gender remains an issue at the highest levels of leadership," she said. "The promise of equality is not equality. " To bring about improvement, she advised, women need to stop underestimating their abilities, while companies have to give more thought as to how to mentor, sponsor, and encourage them.

In closing, Sandberg advised the graduates to "make the effort to speak as well as seek the truth, remain true to and open about your authentic self, and give us a world where half our homes are run by men and half our institutions are run by women. I'm pretty sure that would be a better world."

And oh yes, "keep in touch via Facebook," she said with an expressive smile. "And since we're public now, could you click on an ad or two?"


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.