Coffee on the third floor with Professor Harry Davis

Araba Nti, Class of 2017

Araba Nti, Class of 2017

Harry Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, describes being a professor as a career that “gives you a great deal of latitude to be your own playwright.” And that he has. Along with teaching and research, Davis is the founder of both LEAD and the Management Lab. He has also served in various administrative positions, including serving as the interim dean.

Harry Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management

Harry Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management

Araba is a second-year MBA student who enjoys learning about our professors beyond classroom interactionsDescribing the classroom as his “real home,” Davis looks back at what originally attracted him to a life in academia: “My father worked for Bell. I always assumed I was going to go into business, because in those days, people typically went to work for large companies. So I decided to get an MBA. I remember I was in my second year and I was interviewing with companies, and I had an interview with General Electric. I left the interview and went to a class where this teacher was teaching a class on what we might call ‘soft skills.’ In the middle of this case discussion, I thought to myself ‘is he getting paid to do this?’ It’s probably the best question I’ve asked myself, because I literally followed him down to his office after the class and asked the professor ‘would it make sense to get a PhD and do what you do?’ It was what he was able to create in the classroom. We were all engaged, learning, listening to one another. There were different points of view but we showed respect for one another in the conversation. He was a very strong force in the classroom that kept us on track without having to say much.”

While working on his dissertation as a PhD student at Kellogg, Davis came to Booth for a post doc with no intention to stay. He’s been here, in his own words “for more than half a century.” Attributing the tremendous influence he has had on the Booth curriculum to “a tendency to say yes more often than no without knowing what will happen,” he tells the story behind how he created the two courses that are probably the biggest opportunities Booth students have to reflect on and hone and their leadership skills:

On the Management Lab: “The first Management Lab [originally called the New Products Laboratory] was a six-month project with Kraft Foods. I literally went around the hallway and tried to recruit students—we didn’t have the bidding system then. I thought the learning experience of the lab would largely be an opportunity to have the students learn about marketing—how to run a focus group, how to write a concept statement, how to put together a financial plan, how to collect data—all of which we did. But I realized over the years that the students were learning a lot about themselves and about working in teams while working on these projects.”

On LEAD: “The business school rankings came out and Booth didn’t do so well. And what we found was that a lot of recruiters saw Booth as a place that attracted students that were very smart but that weren’t very connected to the area of leadership and how to have an impact on other people. And I thought to myself, ‘I could take a lot of what I learned from these laboratory courses, and we could actually have students create a curriculum. Then in the second quarter, have students implement it.’”

Can leadership be taught in the classroom without concurrent practice? Davis describes leadership development as a process of translating conceptual knowledge into performance: “There are concepts that relate to leadership that are useful to know, but each one of us needs to internalize these concepts in our performance. Leadership takes place on a daily basis—it isn’t just something that takes place at the top of an organization. Having opportunities to practice and perform are incredibly important. I think leadership requires knowledge—conceptual knowledge—what we spend a lot of time developing here. Then it requires the ability to read a domain: in this context, ‘what is important for me to understand in terms of how I’m going to act in a way that makes people excited to follow?’ It requires knowing what I’ve called action skills, which are the skills of communication, listening, knowing when to be assertive, when to lie back. Then translating that knowledge into actions with other people. Then outcomes—we need the skills of learning the right insights from experience. The other thing that I think is important is asking yourself, ‘given these experiences, what are my values? If I have the ability to have impact, for what purpose?’ The longer I’ve been working on this, the more important I think this is.”

Aptly given the chaired position of “Professor of Creative Management,” Davis sees creativity as an essential part of business. Defining creativity as an ability to match capabilities to an exciting and challenging task, Davis has a suggestion on how to find work environments that brings out our creativity: “write down five stories of times in your lives when you’ve felt creative. Where you had a goal, where there was a challenge involved, perhaps where there was a deliverable. Write a story about what the challenge was, who was involved, what were the dead ends, what were the moments of excitement, and how did it resolve itself. Go as far back as you can. Read back over the stories and try see if there are themes that emerge across the experiences. And these are themes you can look for when choosing a company. A certain amount of patience is necessary to learn a skill, but my sense is that your generation is much less patient. I think the notion of creating structures in large organizations that acknowledge both exploitation of what we know how to do—which requires focus—as well as exploration within a defined playing field, may make your generation more willing to work to for them”

On the future of education: “One evolution I would like to see is for education to not end at graduation. Many of you will be working for five or six companies, you may be working on different continents and you will have very very long careers. The notion that you’re no longer a student when you start working is a relic of the industrial period in this country. I think we need to think creatively about how to equip students to keep learning after graduation and think about how Booth can be involved.”

How does Davis nurture creativity in his own life? Davis has been heavily involved with the Court Theatre and recently stepped down as the chairman of the board of the Seminary Co-Op. A lover of music—particularly jazz—he plays the classical guitar and used to play flute/classical guitar duets with his son. Reflecting on his time at Booth, the manner in which Davis describes his proudest accomplishments sheds light on what outcomes he personally values: “I’m happy that I was able to plant some seeds in a number of places that have stuck and sprouted. This may seem strange, but I love it when other people own them. And when these people don’t have any connection with me but, rather, they’ve made it their own.”

Araba is a second-year MBA student who enjoys learning about our professors beyond classroom interactions