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What This Professor Learned From Trying to Change the Curriculum at Harvard Business School
Discover how a Harvard Business School professor's bold attempt to change the curriculum led to valuable lessons on humility, failure, and student culture.
Andrew Logemann
Andrew Logemann
Head of Marketing
min read

Harvard Business School has it all: prestigious alumni, award-winning faculty, top-tier job placement, Ivy League pedigree, and famous case methods.

But at one point, the famous business school was missing something on its resume: students who cared about others as much as they cared about themselves.  

To Tom DeLong, a renowned HBS professor of over 25 years, the curriculum at the business school needed to change.

Students were too self-focused. They needed to learn how to be more vulnerable, more authentic, and how to listen more than talk.

So Tom set out to change the way students studied the human side of business.

What followed was a case study in how (not) to approach change and influence behavior–a humbling lesson for the professor who had spent the last 25 years studying and teaching those very things.

Adam Nathan, CEO of Almanac, sat down with the Baker Foundation Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School to talk about his biggest decision of the last ten years: changing the curriculum at the Harvard Business School.

Here's their full conversation.

Tom's decision to change the curriculum at Harvard Business School

Adam Nathan: Let's get right into it. What was the biggest decision you've made in the last ten years?

Tom DeLong: I wanted to change the curriculum at the Harvard Business School. I was unhappy with the product. I wanted our students to be more interested in other people and to be more selfless.

Adam Nathan: That's an ambitious goal. I would love for you to share some of the context around that. How did you come to that decision? What was the lead up to it?

Tom DeLong: I've been teaching at HBS for 25 years, and throughout that time, I've been worried that our students were too self oriented. They weren't concerned about other people. So I said, is there a way in our curriculum to focus more on the human side of the enterprise?

I talked to the dean, and he asked me to take on an assignment. He said to take what we teach in our elective course, The Authentic Leader, and introduce it to all 900 students. Like how to be more vulnerable, more authentic, and how to listen more than you talk. He said that was how I could make the biggest difference and have a real legacy at HBS.

Adam Nathan: So he asked you to take this elective course that you'd been teaching to second year students and scale it to every student in Harvard Business School?

Tom DeLong: Exactly. He wanted me to create a course that would be in the required curriculum for all 900 students.

Why his attempt to change the curriculum didn't go as planned

Adam Nathan: So how did it go?

Tom DeLong: I don't like to see things as failures. I like to see things more as learning experiences. But if I had to classify anything as a failure, this was a failure. I came up short.

The thing that I wanted to do more than anything else was to create a context for all of these 900 students to have a different kind of experience.

About three weeks into the course, a number of the students started to rebel and started to say things like, I didn't come to the business school to learn about the human dimension. I didn't come here to learn how to be more self aware. I came here to learn about proprietary trading, how to go into private equity, and how to join a hedge fund.

So they had a very different take on what they wanted, and it was just enough to sabotage the course, which ended up falling apart.

Adam Nathan: How did it unravel?

Tom DeLong: Students just didn't come to class. When we put them in small groups, they would basically say in small groups of six, why are we doing this? This is a waste of my time. I'm paying all this money to come here. And this feeling started to permeate the whole curriculum–the whole campus.

What he would do differently if he had to do it again

Adam Nathan: So it sounds like you regret this decision to take on this huge project to try to change the school. And it sounds like a lot of it, from your perspective, was about the students' mentality of what they came to HBS to do. If you were to do this again, what would you have done differently?

Tom DeLong: One of the business philosophies that we teach here is about supply and demand. I do believe that we should have kept this course as an elective. That way we could build up the demand and students would get a chance to select into it as opposed to being forced into it.

The number one mistake I made was saying yes to this. A dear friend asked me to do it, and my ego was too big to say no. I thought, if I can do this, I'm going to become the hero because no one else has been able to do this.

But I missed my shot on a number of dimensions. And that's ironic, because I know better. I'm a social scientist. I consult with organizations, and yet I wasn't taking my own medicine.

One of my students used to say to other students that the greatest form of self care is to be able to say no. And at this point in my lifetime, I should know that.  

So If I were to do this again, I would create a longer time frame. Instead of saying I would do this in six months, I would create a much longer tail. I would get the students more involved to try to create more inclusion. And I would talk a lot more with the faculty about what the implications were for this.

Adam Nathan: So it sounds like you'd apply a number of classic leadership or management axioms, like: picking your commitments, choosing your bets more carefully, giving yourself time to succeed, involving more people, and asking for help.

Tom DeLong: Well, you mentioned mom and apple pie. It's one thing when you get friends involved, but it's another thing when you are so caught up in your own ego that you don't ask for support. Here I am–teaching people how to be more self aware–that the cobbler's kids didn't have shoes. I was a living example of that.

Every semester, I ask our students to write down a time they needed support and didn't ask for it. And they're stunned by the number of examples. So here I was, quite the example of my own teaching.

Adam Nathan: Was there any silver lining in this experience for you?

Tom DeLong: Yeah, number one, I was humbled. Number two, we pared back the course. We kept it, but as an elective. And the interest in the course has increased year after year. Now, two thirds of the student body, which is 900 students, ranks this course as number one. It's got great demand, and they're signing up for it. They're making the choice to take it. So this whole notion of agency is just absolutely paramount. I could go on and on about that.

Why it's important to be even keeled in your approach to life

Adam Nathan: I'm sure we have a lot of ambitious overachievers listening in–folks who like to take on big projects. What advice do you have for them?

Tom DeLong: Take a step back and ask yourself: do I measure everything in terms of either or? Do I tell myself, either I was a great success or I was a failure?

I see this over and over again. So I want to ask these high achievers, do you have the ability to live your life with fours and sixes? And not overreact one way or the other? When you overreact, everyone else has to respond and adapt based on what mood you're in. You need to be more even keeled. You need to be more observant of your own behavior as opposed to moving from one to ten.

Adam Nathan: That is great advice–some that I will take to heart myself. And thanks again, Tom, for coming on and sharing your story. Very inspiring and a lot to learn from, as always.

Tom DeLong: Thank you, Adam. I wish you the very best.

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