Secret Advice: What Harvard Kennedy School’s Ron Heifetz teaches in his re-entry talk for graduating students

Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School

Ronald Heifetz, King Hussein Bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School

Ron Heifetz is a leadership guru’s guru. Trained as a psychiatrist with a degree from Harvard Medical School, he served as the founding director of Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership. His classes at Harvard Kennedy School, including Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change, are so popular that they often go for the maximum number of points in the school’s bidding system.

 So what does he have to teach?

 Thankfully, he offers a “re-entry talk” for graduating students, chock full of hard truths and secrets to success. Student pack into every square inch of HKS’s Forum to hear his wisdom, but you won’t find videos of it online. Instead we have distilled the essence here:

1. You are in more danger than you realize.

Students reentering the workforce will find out, quite painfully, that it was much safer for them to be angry or outraged in graduate school than in the real world. Institutions inherently resist change, and as an agent of change, institutions will constantly be looking for ways of neutralizing you. In polite society, this can be accomplished by isolating you if you lack allies, stymieing you if you lack organizational knowledge, or denigrating you if you leave yourself open to personal attacks.

2. Reenter quietly.

People will be incredibly interested what you learned in graduate school. But if they ask you to give them advice based on what they learned – don’t! Prof Heifetz believes “if you do you might as well put a bulls-eye on your chest and say ‘shoot me here’!” Some people may be competitive and resent the credential you have and look for reasons and ways to tear you down. Instead if asked for advice, say “One thing I’ve learned is how to listen.” Ask them to tell you what’s happened in their organization or community since you’ve been gone. They will be flattered that you are showing interest in them.

3. Negotiate your job offer to provide time to learn.

It is far less effective to dive straight into your work than to plan 3-6 months to first get a lay of the land. You’ll want to understand which issues are relevant, evaluate the proper way to sequence issues, identify possible allies, and find best voices to champion those issues besides you. Heifetz says that in leadership, “People die with their mouths open. No one was neutralized for listening too much.”

4. Grasp the limits of your knowledge.

You think you know “your people,” but anyone can only know a sliver of a location, group, people. None of us really know our people and especially not since we’ve been gone. As much as you have had to “represent” your tribe at HKS, now go back and understand more of it.

5. Understand the differences between allies and confidants.

Allies amplify your voice. It is much harder to isolate groups of people clamoring for change than the lone gadfly, so having allies ensures that your message is not easily neutralized. Confidants, on the other hand, are there for venting. To be a confidant, they need to have no conflicting interests with you. They may not even care about the issue!

For example, as you try to gain resources for your team at work, your co-worker may be your ally and your spouse may be your confidant. You can freely vent to your spouse about downsizing the marketing departments to get manpower for your team. After all, he or she doesn’t know these people and has no interest in the conflict. But if you were to do the same with your co-worker, you may put them into compromising position. What of your co-worker has allies of her own in marketing? How could you expect her to your secret from them?

These roles are not static. Take other example: if your mother-in-law comes to visit, your co-worker may become the confidant you vent to while your spouse becomes your ally in dealing with her needs.

The problem with confusing allies for confidants in a given situation is that you will confuse reasonable negative reactions as betrayal: a feeling so bad, as Heifetz notes, that Dante put it in the 9th circle of hell. However, the original sin is yours: putting allies in the bad position.

6. Develop practices to reflect.

Heifetz says that the best basketball players are the ones who can escape the perspective they have in the thick of the game to see the whole court, as if from above. Put another way, good leaders can be both on the dance-floor, interacting with their allies and associates, and on the balcony, seeing all the players including themselves in one view. Develop structures that will help you build this skill, such as journaling.

7. The brain does not distinguish between cognition and emotion.

In addition to logos, use pathos and ethos in all your arguments. (if you’ve been reading this blog, you already know that)

8. Separate yourself from your role.

Much of what you encounter in your job is not personal, but it is easy to take things personally – especially if what happens to your job is that you lose it. Heifetz talks about discussions he had with the King of Jordan. Heifetz asked whether having people constantly praise him ever boosts his ego. The King said no, because when people praise him, they are not praising him, the man, they are praising “the King.” No one cares about him, they care about his throne. Similarly, when there was an assassination plot that nearly took his life, he had to recognize that those people were not trying to kill him, the man, they were trying to kill “the King”. Remember that you are more than any one role, and that no role, however big, is big enough for you to fill it with your full self.

The Pros and Cons of a Dual/Concurrent MBA Degree

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An increasing number of business school students are now completing their MBAs as part of a dual degree program that will award them another graduate school degree. Popular dual degree options include JD/MBA, MD/MBA, Master of Public Health/MBA, Masters of Public Policy/MBA, and all sorts of other MA and MS programs from education to electrical engineering. But what are the pros and cons of these programs? 

Pros

Another brand name school on your resume

Attending the Tuck School of Business in Hanover, NH gives you all the access and prestige of Ivy League Dartmouth College. Attending as part of the dual degree program at Harvard Kennedy School, just a bus ride away on the Dartmouth Coach, would give you access to the resources and network of Harvard University as well. If you're only as good as the last school you attended, dual degree programs are excellent opportunities to pump your resume full of brand names and broaden the alumni networks to which you have access. One friend of mine completed the dual program at MIT Sloan and HKS and went to work in China, where his boss inevitably introduced him to clients as "our new hire from Harvard."

Diverse network in two career fields

Attending a world-class MBA program will give you a robust network of business leaders across traditional private sector industries such as consulting, finance, and technology. Adding in a dual degree program in public policy will also give you access to leaders across local, state, and federal government, as well as diplomats, non-profit leaders, and academics. As more of the world's challenges become interdisciplinary, individuals who can straddle the line between the public and private sectors will be the ones best able to capitalize on the opportunities. Or, if you plan on going into a technical field such as quant hedge funds, distressed equity, healthcare management, or hardware start-ups, having colleagues from programs in mathematics, law, medicine, and computer science will give you an incredible leg up against the traditional MBA competition.

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Efficient use of time (completing two degrees in 1 fewer year)

Almost all dual degree programs allow you to complete two degrees one year faster together than you could if you did them separately. For example, a JD from Yale Law School takes three years while an MBA from Stanford GSB takes two. Separately, it would take five years to complete, but together you can complete them in four. If you are gung-ho on attending two different programs already, completing them in a dual degree program is a much more efficient use of your time. You'll pay one fewer year of tuition, and get back into the working world making a good salary one year faster.

Balanced curriculum

Business Schools teach students how to lead others and develop processes that will make their organizations more efficient. Government Schools teach students where to lead and inspire them to spend their lives tackling the most difficult challenges of our times. Other graduate programs confer specialized knowledge that will prove invaluable in gaining the credibility to lead experts.

More opportunities for honors and scholarships

An often overlooked benefit of graduate school is that it provides you with the opportunity to apply for scholarships. These are ostensibly for money, but often come with great prestige as well -- the kind that would look good on your resume. Many scholarships, however, do not accept applications from MBA students, so a dual degree gets you around that. Also, if you apply to schools that confer graduations honors for GPA, theses, or other work, going to two schools gives you two bites at the apple.

Flexibility on when to apply

Not everyone knows exactly what they want to do when they arrive at business school. As you settle in for your MBA at MIT Sloan, you might decide that you actually are drawn less to the engineering, technology, and logistics disciplines of MIT and more to the pubic sector work of government and non-profits. Fortunately the dual degree program at Harvard Kennedy School lets you apply to HKS in your first year at Sloan. And vice versa. Say that you are going through the core curriculum at HKS and decide that you're much better suited to consulting. You can apply to MIT, add in an MBA, and then be better positioned to recruit for McKinsey or BCG.

Cons

Tuition cost and opportunity cost of work

Getting another degree is an amazing opportunity, especially if you can save an year of time and tuition when doing it in a dual degree program. However, when compared to doing a solo-MBA, the added cost of another year of school (in the case of a three-year program) can be daunting. You'll have to pay ~$60k of tuition and fees and forego one year of salary at the starting MBA rate ~$125k. That's a large chunk of money to make up over the course of your working career. Of course, MD and JD students who have already prepared themselves for the long-slog of school see the marginal cost as relatively lower and the benefits of the additional MBA on their future careers is great.

Unintegrated program means extra work of building your own path

Unlike integrated "joint degree" programs where academic deans have established well defined pathways for pursuing two degrees, often bolstered by a steady pipeline of concurrent degree students who can help show you the way, unintegrated programs mean that you have to fend for yourself. If you're not the kind of go-getter who can coordinate with two different sets of graduation requirements and two different registrar offices, this option may be a little stressful.

Takes time away from your MBA cohort

Depending on when you sequence business school in your dual degree program, you may not graduate with your MBA class or spend much time with them after the core curriculum part of the degree is over. This can be a serious downside considering that the network is a key part of value proposition in MBA programs.

Shuttling between campuses

If you decide to do a concurrent degree at two different schools, it is likely that you will have to pack up your apartment and move at least twice in a three year period (notable exceptions include the dual degree program between MIT Sloan and Harvard Kennedy School). For ex-consultants, living out of a suitcase for three or more years might not sound so bad, but for the rest of us this can have a negative effect on quality of life. Even if you decide to pursue two degrees at the same university, graduate school campuses are rarely co-located and so even if you keep your apartment, you still will have to shuttle back and forth across as variable commute (notable exceptions include programs between Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School, which are located just across a walking bridge from each other). Of course, if for some reason you would like to be in two different cities over the course of your study (e.g. to be close to two different sets of family, you didn't get into the desired program in your #1 city and are using a dual degree to form a back-up option), this can be a blessing. 

Degree Programs at Harvard Kennedy School

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The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University is the premiere professional school in the world for government officials, from senators to ambassadors. Located on the Cambridge shore of the Charles River in Boston, across the bridge from Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School (or HKS) offers a number of degree programs designed to cater to the interests of the students.

  • Master of Public Policy (MPP) - The standard, 2-year, work-horse degree of the school. Year One is spent in the Core Curriculum learning skills from negotiations to econometrics; Year Two is spent on electives and a capstone thesis-like Policy Analysis Exercise. One of two options for the HBS/HKS program.
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA) - A 2-year free-for-all where you skip the core curriculum and feast on all the fascinating electives that HKS has to offer. The vast majority in this program are enrolled in Dual-MBA programs at T-10 Business Schools and the rest have already taken a substantial body of graduate school credits.
  • Master of Public Administration in International Development (MPA-ID) - The most rigorous 2-year master's degree at HKS for hard-core quants who want to work in international development, at a central bank, the IMF or the World Bank.
  • Mid-Career Master of Public Administration (MC-MPA) - 1-year program for those who want to take a pause in their career once they are more advanced in it. They add rich experiences to elective class discussions.
  • Joint & Dual MBA Programs (MPP/MBA or MPA/MBA or MPA-ID/MBA) - The best of both worlds - all the hard skills and prestige of an MBA with the global outlook and idealism of HKS. You can come for the integrated 3-year MPP/MBA or MPA-ID/MBA with Harvard Business School joining a growing network of alumni congressmen and CEOs, or a dual program at a different business school, coming to HKS in order to round out your resume with that golden Harvard Brand.

Harvard Kennedy School only has one application deadline each year. This year the application deadline is December 4, 2017. By that day you'll have to submit:

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  • Online application
  • $100 application fee
  • Essays, which vary by program:
    • Essay 1 (JFK Essay): The Harvard Kennedy School motto, echoing the President for whom the School is named, is “Ask what you can do.” Please share with the Admissions Committee your plans to create positive change through your public leadership and service. (600 word limit)
    • Essay 2 (MPP Essay): Describe a professional or academic episode that gave you a chance to use personal strengths, and/or revealed personal weaknesses. Then explain specifically how the MPP curriculum at HKS would leverage your distinctive abilities and/or fill gaps in your skill set as you equip yourself for your career goals. (600 word limit)
  • Additional analytic resume/statement, which vary by program
  • Three strong letters of recommendation from individuals in academia or other professional sectors who know you well and can tell us about your qualifications for our programs
  • Academic transcripts that include your institution's name, course names, grades you received and proof of your degree (if received)
  • Standardized test scores (GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, and/or IELTS)

HKS is much more interested in discovering "what you can do" than admitting those with sterling credentials so the essays are much more important to building a successful application. Also, when there is no interview, this is your only chance to communicate your unique narrative.