Executive Commentary
The Most Unexpected Lesson I Learned at Harvard Business School
Steve Dunmore
Steve Dunmore
CEO, K-12 Schools
Sodexo North America

In what feels like a lifetime ago, I was in my first year at Harvard Business School. I learned a tremendous amount that year – including one lesson that was more consequential than I thought possible. 

HBS is a competitive place. I figured out quickly that one of the best ways to stay ahead was to form a really good study group. These are the classmates who can help with the workload and prepare each other for the professors’ interrogations of student business plans.

So, I set about assembling what I thought was the dream team of study groups. I put together one with a stellar business resume. These students had been in finance and accounting and operations. They knew how to keep a business afloat.

I overlooked the students without business degrees – those who had studied the arts, practiced law or had a medical background.

Then we started presenting in class. Pretty soon it became clear that the work from our group was average.

The students who respected each other’s different backgrounds and ideas… were the ones finding the creative solutions and innovative ways forward.

The top performers came from the eclectic groups – those with both business-minded students and those coming from the arts, law, medicine and the military. These were students who respected each other’s different backgrounds and ideas. They were the ones finding the creative solutions and innovative ways forward.

It was a wake-up for me.

The realization taught me to fight my knee-jerk assumptions – to be more respectful of others’ potential. Just as we know not to judge others on what they look like, we also cannot judge them on their backgrounds. Where a person comes from or where they went to school or where they work cannot tell you about the quality of their ideas.

The lesson came back to me a few weeks ago when I spoke to cadets at the Valley Forge Military Academy and College. I had been asked to speak to cadets about the concept of respect.

There are so many different versions of respect. It’s like a kaleidoscope that changes through our lives. But that Harvard experience, for me, was a key facet. It’s a lesson I leverage regularly today.

Workplaces are more diverse than ever. Research supports what I saw for myself all those years ago – a diversity of perspectives improves all aspects of outcome.

I certainly see this in my own workplace. My company has won many awards for Diversity and Inclusion and many of us consider it Sodexo’s greatest strength. Yes, it’s the right thing to do, but it also drives creativity and innovation in developing customer solutions that are critical to our growth and competitiveness.

It’s also crucial to understand that this does not happen automatically. You can’t just bring different kinds of people together and expect seamless collaboration.

It takes leadership that authentically respects diversity. All the way through the organization, it takes courage and discipline for each person to put aside assumptions and listen – really listen – to others.

If a team is to succeed, each member must respect the ideas and the humanity of the others.

I ended my talk to the cadets by asking them to never underestimate the power of respect. Respect for ourselves or for others.

When we can offer and receive respect in its many different forms, we can be our best selves. And, we can bring out the best selves of each other.


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