4 Harvard Business School Rules You Can Use to Hire the Best Executives

March 4, 2016

If you need to hire an executive at your company, you might want to take some notes from the world’s top-ranked business schoolHarvard Business School (HBS).

Just look at the leaders it has produced. CEOs of companies like Toys R’ Us, GM, HP, Boeing and Sony. Sheryl Sandberg. Former President George W. Bush (in fact, HBS is the only business school with a president as a graduate). New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. And on and on and on.

Cleary, HBS does a great job of developing that talent in its MBA program. But the college also does an equally great job of identifying what qualities to look for when searching for a leader, making it the perfect place to go for advice on hiring an executive at your organization.

After analyzing their admissions process, it’s clear that HBS adheres to four rules, which are applicable to any company looking to hire a CEO (or any other executive position).

The four rules are:

  • Intelligence trumps industry knowledge, as intelligence and mental agility is innate, whereas industry knowledge can be learned.
  • Look for a solution-focused leader who will be excited to come into work each day.
  • If you are hiring someone to be a leader of your organization, they should be able to detail a compelling vision for your organization.
  • Above all, integrity matters. You can never compromise on integrity.

Rule 1: Intelligence trumps industry knowledge, when hiring a leader.

HBS doesn’t want the best business minds. They want the best minds, period, which they can shape into a great business leader.

For example, if you look at the pre-MBA industries of the Class of 2016, there’s no one dominant category. Venture capital/private equity was the most popular, with 18%, but there’s also 7% from healthcare, 5% from the military, 8% from government/non-profit, 5% from heavy manufacturing and six other industries represented.

“A truly diverse student body — in background, nationality, interests and ambitions — is the foundation of the HBS experience,” HBS writes on its website. “Indeed, these differences are critical to the HBS learning model, which thrives on the many perspectives and life experiences our students from all over the world bring to their classes.”

Even their teaching philosophy reflects this. HBS utilizes the case method, where its students are given difficult challenges in all fields, from education to politics to business to medicine. From the information they are given, the student must make a plan to overcome the particular challenge and then defend that plan to their classmates. The focus is on making good decisions and being a good leader, not learning about business specifics.

Therefore, HBS puts little emphasis on having any industry or business knowledge. Instead, it searches for people with the brainpower able to “master analytical and quantitative concepts,” according to the school’s website.

How HBS screens for intelligence:

Obviously, GPA and GMAT scores play a factor here. For HBS, the average undergraduate GPA is 3.66 and the median GMAT score is 730, which are both among the highest of any business school.

But beyond just test scores, the HBS admissions office looks for intelligence in its interviews with candidates and an application that shows the person is able to handle complex concepts. That means indications of taking on tough issues in their respective field on a resume and being able to discuss those issues articulately in the interview.

Rule 2: Look for a solution-focused leader who will be excited to come into work each day.

HBS wants people who have the energy and the passion to actually put their intelligence in motion. They want people who can get things done, not just talk about getting things done.

How HBS screens for energy:

Like intelligence, HBS measures a person’s energy level, to a large degree, off their application. But they do screen for it in the interview as well.

For applicants, HBS wants people who have an application that indicates a strong commitment to their work and self-improvement. That means people who have big accomplishments in their professional and personal life.

In the interview, HBS admission officers will ask questions like “what excites you most about your career plans,” “what are you hoping to learn at your next position” and “describe your biggest accomplishments.” They’ll also ask what books the candidate is currently reading or the ways the candidate is staying abreast with the industry the candidate works in.

These questions are designed to gauge both a candidate’s passion for their work and commitment to self-improvement, along with their ability to actually get things done.

Rule 3: If you are hiring someone to be a leader of your organization, they should be able to detail a compelling vision for you.

A great leader doesn’t just keep an organization afloat and deal with fires as they come up. A great leader ultimately has a vision for their organization, and therefore vision is a key quality HBS looks for in its recruits.

How HBS screens for vision:

For the application, HBS wants people who’ve exhibited vision in their professional lives. For example, they don’t want a teacher who taught the lesson plan their predecessor gave them, but a teacher who has experimented with new techniques and is pushing themself to better prepare their students for an ever-changing economy.

This is also assessed during the interview candidates have at the HBS admissions office. Admission officers will ask what they plan to do seven years after they get their MBA and what the candidate would change about the industry they work in. The hope is to find a candidate who can present a solution to big challenges they want to take on, instead of seeing the MBA as a route to a good job working for someone else.

Rule 4: Above all, integrity matters. You can never compromise on integrity.

HBS wants smart, energetic people with vision who will likely go on to have real power in this world. But if those people don’t have integrity, that’s bad news for the rest of us. 

“That's why we look for students who exhibit the highest ethical standards and respect for others, and can make positive contributions to the MBA Program,” HBS wrote on their website. “The right candidates must be eager to share their experiences, support their colleagues, and teach as well as learn from their peers.”

How HBS screens for integrity:

A candidate’s application will give some insight into their integrity level. For example, HBS admission officers look at how a candidate has served the community throughout their lives.

The interview is critical as well. Here, admission officers will ask candidates about an ethical problem they faced, to detail a mistake they’ve made or about a leader they admire. The goal is to find someone who understands the power they potentially could have as an HBS graduate and a person who will use that power responsibly.

*Image from Harvard Business School

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