Nancy Koehn, historian at Harvard Business School, thinks it’s a generation that, before this recession, had not experienced failure.
Question: What business and life lessons have you learned from your students at Harvard Business School? Nancy Koehn: One of the fascinating things about the generation of students that’s been coming through the doors of Harvard Business School for the last 10 years is how pragmatic they are and how clearly they understand the way my generation didn’t understand that they’re going to work for most likely a lot of different companies. They’re going to write a career novel chapter by chapter, but the chapters aren’t necessarily going to be written in one company and in kind of a vertical way at all. It’s going to be much more horizontal and across companies, across industries and that one of the most important criteria in writing that novel and choosing those chapters and navigating through them will be what do I think makes me feel like I am fulfilling my purpose. These students have an astounding sense of their own purpose and this great kind of well or hot spring if you will, of idealism that nourishes, that gushes underneath that sense of purpose and you know there is a real element of sort of organizational and financial ambition, “I want to do this and this and this in regard to my own reputation and my own net worth.” But that is very much just a patch. There are a number of other kinds of patches on the quilt of each of these people and there is a huge piece of what is my role as a global citizen. What is my role as a consumer? What is my role as an employer? What is my role in terms of the time I spend? What is my role in terms of who I sign up with as an employer to give them my very precious, very scarce energy and time? And there is good evidence this is not just Americans. It has global kind of aspects to it. It’s fascinating how what a huge and deep sense they have of the power and importance of their own contribution and some of that I think is a generation raised in incredible prosperity. Some of that is a generation raised by boomer parents who were endlessly fascinated by themselves and their children and their reflection of their children that way, but it’s an incredible force for good, that credence they put in their own worth and their own energy is important. So they have a real sense of: how do I make a social contribution? How do I use my energy wisely? And this relates directly to how they define success. How do I do that in a way that I don’t make the mistakes that a couple of generations have made ahead of me? Now every generation vows that it will not be like the generation directly ahead of it, but Millennials to me and my Harvard Business School students have a highly developed sense of what they do not want to be. They do not want to be someone who you know goes to work for 80 hours a week and wakes up in their forties or their fifties and doesn’t know their children. They do not want to be someone who puts their marriage on hold while they each climb the partnership ladder. They do not want to be someone who has no sense of a spiritual and social calling until they’ve made enough money that they need to appease any kind of guilt they have about how they made that money. They don’t want to be any of those things and most interestingly they don’t really think that shareholder capitalism not only as defined academically, but as it’s defined intellectually as a paradigm for the way business works, they just don’t think that’s the story. That’s not the song they sing. That’s not the song of the world. It’s much more variegated. It’s much more complicated. The stakeholders are much bigger than shareholders and so they have a new agenda and it’s wonderful to see that. It’s wonderful to be around that. It’s energizing. It’s game changing. It shows me what the future is or gives me a good, good kind of birds eye view into the future and it makes me question a lot of the older paradigm that’s been so important in shaping American business thus far and in shaping a place like the Harvard Business School. I think there is something else though that’s very important I’ve learned from these students and it’s fascinating, but it’s a little bit less cheerleading and that is that my students for the last maybe 10 years are students that have known astounding privilege and an astounding array of experiences, experiences that would have made me as a little girl just you know bug eyed with wonder and amazement, but most of them haven’t known any real failure. So there is an acknowledged fragility that lives in them and I think it’s been fascinating to watch them through this recession because it hit so fast and so hard. I was teaching last spring as the economy was really unwinding and it was fascinating to see some of the latent fear, some of the kind of almost quiet excitement that oh boy, the world is changing. It’s not going to be so easy. It’s going to be harder. What are we going to learn? How are we going to be tested? And it’s just interesting to see that they know they haven’t been tested. They know their backbones haven’t been built by the opportunity of adversity and it will be interesting to see how they respond to this economy and the new normal that is coming out of it. One last aspect of this in a grain of sand if you will. Many years ago I wrote a case about Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer and this astounding journey he made in 1915 and 1916 across the ice flows of Antarctica and got lost and how he kept his team together and alive and the only other case in the curriculum of my course, which is a stream of interesting well known entrepreneurs beginning in the eighteenth century and ending with John Mackey of Whole Foods and Mr. Bono. The only other case that got the kind of traction as the Shackleton case was the Winfrey case. The students were just fascinated by him, fascinated by what do you do when you have nothing and everything is at stake and what do you learn and how are you tested and how do you walk through that test and I think the jury is out as to how this generation of people in which so much rests for the future will respond to this test of our times, but I’ve learned that the flipside of all that idealism and all that confidence and all that sense of wonder is at least I think with my students, a sense of acknowledge fragility. Recorded on December 17, 2009