NITIN NOHRIA. HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL DEAN - Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)

Getting There: A Book of Mentors (2015)




My father grew up in a small rural village in India with no electricity and a very modest school. There are hundreds of thousands of these villages in India. If you travel around the countryside and drive through one, children will run up to the window of your car. If you do as little as give them a pencil, they are the happiest people in the world. As you pull away, you wonder if any of them will ever escape those conditions. My father was one of those kids. Not only was he one of the first people in his village to finish high school; he then went on to get a scholarship to study engineering in college. After college, he got a scholarship to study management abroad. At thirty, he returned to India and became the CEO of a small company. He later became the CEO of a large company and then the president of several business associations. I learned from my father that there was no reason not to be ambitious and imagine that your life could be better. But it was also daunting to grow up with a parent like that. I often wondered, How can I live up to what he’s been able to accomplish?

The greatest lottery of life is where you’re born. I feel so fortunate to have been born into a wonderful family that was able to give me every opportunity I could have dreamed of.

In India, from first grade onward, students didn’t just get grades, they were also ranked in their class. I always stood first or second. That was my entire measure of success. The government designed our curriculum, and everyone learned from the same set of prescribed textbooks. I was a sincere, high-performing kid, but I had no independent curiosity. In seventh grade that changed. My English teacher approached me one day and said, “How would you like to read books by Nobel Prize winners in literature?” He gave me about ten books from his own library. I don’t know exactly what this teacher saw in me, but he clearly felt I could read more than the government thought I could. So off I went and I devoured works such as The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, and Demian by Hermann Hesse. I suddenly realized that I had an ability to explore the world. I gained a new confidence and, ironically, became a worse student (on paper) as a result. I began challenging what the teachers said and I would refuse to do things that I didn’t find particularly compelling. Instead of focusing on completing my assigned homework and maintaining good grades, I would go home and read whatever I wanted. I had become self-motivated, but I no longer stood first in my classes.

Like most middle-class families in India, my parents wanted their kids to be engineers or doctors. Those fields provided financial security, and since there was no wealth to pass down (CEO compensation in my father’s time was modest because it was controlled by the government), that was very important to all of us. The top engineering school in India was the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). At the time I graduated from high school, they allowed you to enter after either eleventh or twelfth grade. Acceptance was based solely on a notoriously difficult nationwide entrance exam that literally hundreds of thousands of students wrote. I applied after eleventh grade, as many others did, thinking I would, of course, get in.

People did not wait for admission letters back then, as the postal system was unreliable. IIT would post a list at the examination centers and some other public venues of about two thousand names, arranged by rank. If you were on that list, you’d been admitted; if you weren’t, you hadn’t. Everyone would crowd around the list when it went up. If anybody found a friend’s name, they would shout it out. It was extremely nerve-racking. I went to the list, read through it, and didn’t see or hear my name. I remember scanning it twice and then thrice thinking that I must have missed it. When I finally realized that I hadn’t been admitted, I was devastated. I thought I was a failure and that I would be one for the rest of my life.

I remember going home and telling my father that I didn’t think I was good enough for IIT and that I should just forget about becoming an engineer. He said, “Nothing is decided. You are still in school. Just write the exam again next year.” So I wrote it again after twelfth grade, but the fear of failure was still in my soul. I completed the math section in the morning, and my father came to meet me during my lunch break. I approached him with a sinking feeling and said, “I don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m not sure it even makes sense for me to write the rest.” My father said, “Look, you’re already here and you’ve prepared. Just write the afternoon portion. What difference does it make?”

One of the proudest moments of my life was standing in front of the IIT list later that year and seeing my name at number 650. I’ve never been happier to be ranked in the middle of anything!

I joined IIT Bombay to pursue a degree in chemical engineering, but it didn’t come naturally to me. I somehow managed to become a decent student, but I realized that there were people who could do calculations in their sleep that I, as hard as I studied, would never be able to do. In my final years I finally got the chance to sign up for electives. I took classes that had a different quality—history, economics, literature, philosophy of science—and found I could grasp them spontaneously and easily. Any effort I put in delivered yet more. Finally, others looked at me and had the same experience I did watching them do mathematical equations. That’s when I knew that as soon as I finished my chemical engineering degree I should pursue something else.

Influenced by my father’s career, I wanted to go to graduate school in the United States and study business, but the reality was that I could not afford to do so if I didn’t get a scholarship. Someone told me that PhD programs offered scholarships and masters programs didn’t. Never thinking for a second that I’d wind up being a professor, I applied to a number of PhD programs and ended up enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, where I was fortunate not just to have been admitted but to have also received a fellowship. (I didn’t even apply to Harvard because I thought it would be too difficult for me to be admitted.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t get into any of the MIT dorms so, using what little scholarship money I had, I rented an apartment in a not-so-great part of town. You could describe my building as a quasi-immigrant tenement. Every single person living there was from a foreign country—and our landlord was from hell. The heat was utterly erratic. The radiator either didn’t work at all or would emit a deafening clanging noise. We protested and told our landlord, but he did nothing. I was getting woken up all night long and was petrified about my academic performance (my scholarship was contingent on my continuing to have very good standing). So in January I packed up a sleeping bag and a change of clothes and moved into the MIT library. Literally. It was open twenty-four hours a day and there were nice couches for me to sleep on. I was studying until two or three in the morning most days anyway, and I was only sleeping four or five hours—so I would just do it all there and then go to the gym to shower and shave. It sounds deeply trying, but it was so much more comfortable than living in my apartment! I lived like that for six weeks until I got lucky and managed to get into MIT student housing.

I started by studying finance, which I felt made sense given my engineering background. But, once again, despite my long hours at the library, there were many students far more skilled than I was in that field. I realized that while I could get by doing finance I was never going to be extraordinary at it. My advisor encouraged me to branch out and study the subjects I was most interested in. I signed up for classes in less technical fields, such as organizational behavior, leadership, sociology, and psychology, and found that they came naturally to me. But I still studied nonstop.

PhD programs, at their core, orient you toward becoming an academic. The better I got to know my professors, the more the lives they led became appealing to me. I went to see my advisor and told him that I was interested in becoming an academic but was conflicted because I wanted to do “real” work. He said, “Being an academic is real work. It’s just a different kind of real work.” It sounds like such a trivial thing to hear, but his words helped me become a professor.

I graduated from MIT with a PhD in management and was very fortunate to receive offers to teach at several fine business schools. One of my options was Harvard Business School (HBS) in their organizational behavior program. If you think that Harvard is well-known in the United States, its reputation only grows exponentially the farther you go from Boston. When I was growing up in India, HBS was a fantasy. I used to wonder, What does it take to be a part of an institution like that? It was like a sacred place that was just beyond my reach. When I talked to my parents about the various job offers that I was thinking through, they felt I needed a lobotomy for even considering anything other than Harvard.

So I joined the HBS faculty at the age of twenty-six. You hear stories at HBS of how students are terrified of being “cold-called” by faculty members. Well, I must confess that on the first day I was as petrified as any student. My goal was to survive class without embarrassing myself and my family. All HBS classes are taught using the case method, where students are presented with a real-life business dilemma and put in the role of decision maker. Unlike teaching via lecture, where you can stand up and deliver what you’ve planned, there is a lot of student-teacher interaction in the case method, and there is uncertainty as to where it will lead. I spent at least twenty hours preparing for my first ninety-minute class and had a hundred worries running through my mind. What if the students didn’t react the way I expected them to? How would I handle it if a student didn’t want to answer a question? If their answers go all over the map, how will I get them back on track? If a student says something foolish, how do I help him or her not feel ashamed?

Thankfully, that initial class turned out fine, but for the first several years, I still prepared obsessively and worked incredibly hard. Most mornings I would arrive at my office by five a.m. and fourteen-hour days were par for the course. (It now takes me about ninety minutes to prepare for a ninety-minute class, but I still get a twinge of anxiety whenever I go in front of any classroom!)

During my first year at HBS, I wondered if sometimes I wasn’t being taken seriously because I am Indian and didn’t fit what people expected a business school professor to look like. I had a mentor named Bob Eccles who was the head of my unit. We used to write cases together and would go to different companies to interview people about specific situations. In these conversations, I noticed that everything would be directed at Bob. Yes, he was the senior colleague, but I didn’t think that was the reason. I couldn’t tell whether it was discrimination or simply the awkwardness of another person not knowing how to pronounce my name—but it was definitely happening. One day I just decided to be assertive and inject myself into the conversations. I discovered that if I was proactive in participating and shaping the discussion people would talk to me. From that experience I learned that I could influence how people interacted with me.

My time in the United States has been a continual living of the American Dream, and I feel grateful for the many opportunities I’ve been given. However, if it wasn’t for my English teacher in seventh grade, I don’t think I would have ever had the confidence to believe I had anything useful to offer. Instead, I was inspired to explore and develop my own point of view. This has been a big part of what’s allowed me to flourish at HBS and realize things I never would’ve imagined possible. I went from being a professor to a unit head to senior associate dean. Then in 2010 I got a magical phone call from Drew Gilpin Faust (president of Harvard University) informing me that she would like me to be the dean of Harvard Business School. It was beyond any dream I could have imagined. Coincidentally, my father and mother, who visit me once a year from India, were with me that day. I can’t tell you how fortunate I felt to be able to share that moment with them. Our family had sure come a long way from the rural village in India where my father grew up.


Images Understanding your strengths and weaknesses can take a long time and can even be a painful process, but it’s one of the most important things to do in life. I feel fortunate to have found a career that I am passionate about and am thankful that I allowed myself to switch course and dedicate myself to this new path. But the lesson to take away from my story is not to change paths the moment you discover something’s difficult for you. If you give up at first blush, you’ll never succeed at anything because nothing worth doing is easy. Give whatever you do your full effort, but at the same time keep your eyes open. If you discover, even by accident, what you’re truly spectacular at and can pursue it, I recommend doing so.

Images Be generous and don’t worry about keeping score. My grandfather didn’t have a lot of money but he was amazingly generous. He and his circle of friends used to play an Indian card game in which a very small amount of money changed hands. I used to visit him every summer vacation and can’t remember anyone my grandfather hadn’t deliberately lost to before they left his home. No guest could leave without a meal, and everyone was always welcome to sleep over. People my grandfather had worked with or had recently met would regularly ask him for help, and he would always try to do whatever he could. We predicted that about a hundred family members and friends would attend my grandfather’s funeral, but many more people came to pay their respects, including several people none of us even knew. My grandfather was loved and admired in life and death. He made a huge impact on a lot of people, including me. I try to teach my students to behave as he did. When you are generous, you will always feel good about yourself. If life ends up being generous in return, as it usually does with giving people, then you will have greater joy.