In 2016, Jim was selected to attend an eight-week executive leadership programme at Harvard Business School. The programme supports experienced senior executives with the tools and insights to seize opportunities for sustained business growth. Taught in a series of modules, the programme aims to help leaders deliver value in a global context, drive new levels of innovation, and build accountable, high-performance organizations. I was fascinated when Jim talked through the experience over coffee, and he has kindly agreed to share in this article.
Jim Glossat is CEO of Capricorn Mutual. Since joining Capricorn, the business has grown the top line by 30 percent (including this year’s forecast.) Premium income has grown by over 30 percent in three years in a market that is extremely competitive and has seen little growth (The commercial insurance market over the last few years has only been averaging 1 to 2 percent growth.)
In his four years as head of Westpac’s general insurance business, Jim doubled revenue. So, he knows a thing or two about growing a business.
What is it like to study at Harvard? What were your initial expectations?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Being away from home for eight weeks was somewhat confronting. There is the immediate issue you must put your life on pause. Of course, you think about the family and the business, even just the simple things like ‘who’s going to mow the lawn?’
I was one of the first ones to arrive at Harvard. Check in is like being at a hotel. You’re taken to your room and assigned to a group, which consists of eight people. As I was taken to my room, I was led down a hallway with 8 rooms, where the other people in my group were staying. Every group is the same. I sat in the common area for half a day waiting for the others to arrive, it was quite nerve wracking. As people turned up we would go through the pleasant introductions, but you could sense we were all sizing each other up.
Forming, norming and storming.
The process we went through as a group is referred to as “forming, norming and storming” (Tuckman’s stages of group development.) The initial phase of forming the group was really all of us trying to work each other out.
The norming phase took a few days, as the reality of how seriously Harvard take the programme began to sink in. We had one person in our group who would do the laundry at 8pm when we were meant to meet and discuss case studies. After the second evening, the rest of the group pulled this person up and said something.
It was almost like joining the army for 8 weeks.
Each evening we would have to present to the group. After the first few days we worked out that there was not enough time for us to individually read the case studies and write a complete summary. So, we had to each take responsibility for one area and trust each-others assessment.
Harvard intentionally structure the programme in this way as it forces the groups to work as a team. The Storming stage usually happens after a couple of weeks, when you all get to know one another and really trust each other. But there were some groups who did not move beyond the norming stage.
Can you tell me a bit more about the people who attended and the organisations they represented?
Obviously, there were many high achievers from companies all around the world. So, you did find one or two egos. You have people who think that they have nothing to learn. In their mind, they are just there to pick up the certificate. Then there are others who are there for genuine reasons. They want to learn, grow and develop. There are some interesting dynamics within each of the groups. Both in the results and the mix of people.
The attendees were from companies all around the world, both small and large organisations. Harvard makes a point of exposing the students to different cultures. Harvard, when selecting the 160 people that do the course, carefully select attendees not just on experience and qualifications. There is also a quota for each of the continents. Each group has at least one person from each continent. It made classroom discussions interesting, hearing the views of individuals that come from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and so on.
How is the Harvard programme structured?
Harvard devises the course to run at a very fast pace right from the beginning. The workload is quite intense pretty much from day one. The day started at 6 a.m. and didn’t end until 11 p.m., six days a week. Sunday you just try to recharge and have a half day break as you’ve got to prepare for the next day. The format at Harvard consists of business cases, many of them famous business cases. The studies are typically 20 pages in length and very much a deep dive into the organisation. Over the course of eight weeks, you review about 100 cases.
The lecturer could be quizzing participants for quite some time. Some people just said flat out ‘I don’t know the answer, Professor’.
What was the toughest part of the programme?
The Lecturer will ask attendees questions on aspects of the cases. It’s typically not just a one line answer that’s expected of you. Naturally, attendees start with a one line answer, and then the lecturer will deep dive into your thought process. The lecturer could be quizzing participants for quite some time. Some people just said flat out ‘I don’t know the answer, Professor’.
It didn’t start early in the questioning, however down the track as questions got tougher and tougher, certainly, there were people who just did not have an answer. However, it was encouraging to see the class stick together and try and help one another. It becomes almost like a family over the eight weeks; you see each other all day every day, so you build a strong bond.
Harvard has a strict protocol of how you respond to the professors. You can’t just yell out an answer. You’ve got to raise your hand and wait your turn. Some people in the class were continuously raising their hands. And others weren’t. The professors made a point of picking on those that didn’t seem to say anything.
Did you notice any stark differences in leadership style across the continents?
I was quite surprised when undertaking a case study revolving around an HR issue. The question in this case study – Should we fire the manager or keep them? It was kind of interesting seeing the different cultures come to the fore and who would fire and who would keep. I was fascinated how different nationalities held different perspectives.
In one camp, we had people being very open and clear, in the other camp people would not say outright what they were thinking.
The Australian view was very similar to the British viewpoint. We were very much into calling it as we saw it. Very black and white in our opinions. The attendees from Asian countries would often see our directness as offensive. Their approach was softer, avoiding conflict and almost hoping the other person would pick up on the problem. In one camp, we had people being very open and clear, in the other camp people would not say outright what they were thinking. So it was a little frustrating at times in the classroom.
There were some big differences in the groups. Those groups that were stuck in the ‘norming’ phase found it difficult. The groups who were able to trust each other were able to move into the storming phase.
Was there a standout piece of advice from any of the presenters?
John Bryant the CEO of Kellogg’s, who is an Australian, presented to the group. He made a fascinating observation in that everybody expects the CEO to have all the answers. In a business hierarchy, the CEO sits at the top and typically the more difficult questions all filter to the top. The fact is other people in your organisation will have the answer, the job of the CEO is to bring out the right answer from the people in the organisation.
I thought it was an interesting way of framing a CEO’s responsibility. Whatever the question, the answer is already in the organisation. It doesn’t necessarily sit with the CEO. It is the CEO’s job to identify the best approach which has probably already been identified within the business.
What was your highlight of the Harvard experience?
The network that you build taking part in the programme is incredible. As a result, I now have a network that spans the entire globe. Harvard puts a lot of effort into creating alumni and sends newsletters on what the group is doing. At the end of the course, a class speaker and secretary are appointed. Their job is to stay in touch with everyone and provide updates. The newsletter comes out every three months to tell the alumni what everyone is up to.
You have a camaraderie that has built over the eight weeks, and it continues after the course. For me, that’s been a huge positive.
A lot of effort goes into the groups themselves. We are all connected on a WhatsApp group that consists of 160 people. Daily there’s lots of messaging going back and forth. I heard the other day that an attendee from the United States Marine Corps had been promoted to one-star General.
The group also help each other on business issues. So, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask for input on a board report they are writing or support on a particular issue. The groups share insights, reference material and advice. You have a camaraderie that has built over the eight weeks, and it continues after the course. For me, that’s been a huge positive.
The ultimate highlight?
Being at Harvard together for eight weeks, expressing your values and ideas on management with peers in a safe environment is exhilarating. It was also interesting to balance my philosophies with those of CEOs from great organisations. We got to freely ask questions with Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock and the legendary Jack Welch. It was astonishing really. Reflecting on your ideas and comparing notes in this sort of an environment was just amazing and another big takeaway for me.
Was there anything you took from the course that you were able to implement immediately in your business back home.
As a leader, it is listening. Listening to what is going on around you and listening to your people. John Bryant’s comment resonated. Not automatically jumping into solution mode and feeling compelled to come up with the answer. But working with your people, listening to the team and looking for the right answer, that hopefully exists within your organisation. That is the big one that I’ve been able to apply immediately.
The one thing the case studies kept proving.
Another thing that stood out from the studies is this notion that you can’t be high value and low price at the same time. I work in the insurance game, and my salespeople are always telling me how we are expensive and can’t sell the product. It doesn’t matter where I have worked in my career the sales people will always say that.
An organisation needs to work out where to pitch itself on the market. If you have a high-value proposition, you can’t also be low price. On the value proposition continuum, you’ve got to make a conscious decision. As an example, there are insurers that are offering a premium service to smaller market segments, and they charge a premium for that. They simply can’t be the cheapest.
A lot of businesses struggle as they are want to offer everything to the consumer and at the same time want to be the cheapest. That just doesn’t add up. Getting away from price and looking at your value proposition is something that came up time and time again at Harvard.
All the cases we studied involving organisations that went off course (Nokia as an example), didn’t quite get the value proposition right. They were trying to be all things to all people. I reiterated this very threat to our people as recently as last week in our sales conference.