"All Start-Ups – Even Ones Inside Of Universities – Have The Same Challenges" 5 Lessons from Harvard Business School's (HBX) Patrick Mullane

I had the pleasure to interview Patrick Mullane. Patrick is the Executive Director of HBX, Harvard Business School Online.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I have had a very eclectic career by most standards. After completing my bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame while on a military scholarship, I served four years in the U.S. Air Force. As the son of an astronaut and a complete aviation geek, I had what was one of the best jobs ever: launching and operating spy satellites for an intelligence organization. After a short stint in the private sector upon leaving the military, I applied to Harvard Business School (HBS) on a whim. I thought HBS was the domain of rich kids who went to Princeton or Yale – not public high school kids from Texas – and was shocked when I was admitted. Two years on the HBS campus with such amazing classmates ended way too quickly, but after receiving my MBA, it was time to move on. I graduated at the height of the dot-com bubble and joined a startup – as much of my class did. After living in Boston, Denver, and Washington D.C., working in industries that ranged from for-profit education to consulting, I moved back to Massachusetts and became the CEO of a manufacturing company. After ten years there, I thought it would be great to come back to HBS and was fortunate to be hired to lead HBX, Harvard Business School’s initiative to bring case-based business learning to the digital realm.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’d like to think that much of the goodness I help bring (along with the rest of the HBX team) is a sense of pride and accomplishment in people from all over the world and exceptionally diverse backgrounds who take our courses. Each year, about 500 HBX participants come to campus for two days of community-building and learning, called HBX ConneXt. During that event, I speak with many who tell stories of their dreams to improve themselves through education, and a secondary dream to do it with an institution that has a history and reputation for quality throughout the world. It’s cliché, but it’s true: Education is the great equalizer. Anything we do to help another person know something they didn’t know before and apply it in their life in a positive way is an act of goodness. Those people, in turn, will introduce their own version of “goodness” into the world partly because of what they’ve learned through HBX. So, we have the satisfaction of delivering a significant “multiplier effect” through the execution of our mission.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became an Executive Director” and why?

1. It’s okay to say “no.” 

As Warren Buffet famously said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that the really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” I’ve been surprised by the demands on my time, and so navigating the myriad of requests I get and knowing when and where I can add value is an important skill (and one I have yet to perfect). I find it useful to think back on my day every now and then and view with a critical eye all the meetings I went to, and alone-time work I completed. I ask myself if those activities helped advance our mission more effectively by having had me involved. I’m surprised at how often I say to myself, “Probably not.”  When that is the answer, I try to internalize that realization and use it to be more disciplined next time around. I think this is something many entrepreneurs are not very good at. It’s hard to remove yourself from some decisions and discussions. But it’s necessary.

2. Don’t underestimate the number of stakeholders at a large university.

Universities are collaborative places where consensus-building and information-sharing are generally the norm. Given the mission-driven nature of what they do and the premium put on thinking a lot (vs. doing quickly), it’s necessary to consider deeply who needs to know what and when. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But it can slow processes down relative to my experience in the private sector, and it can be a bit less clear at times who needs to be informed owing to the parallel organization structures that exist in academia: that of the faculty and the administration.

3. Sharing is encouraged.

In the private sector, organizations generally hold their cards close to their vests.  Strategies, products, and plans are not openly shared with the outside world.  As an Executive Director at one of the world’s most prominent academic institutions, I’ve found that in most cases, this mentality does not hold true.  It’s encouraged to share what you are doing with other institutions in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors. I believe that spreading ideas and learning from others’ experiences helps make us better. Ideas (good ones, anyway) are like wine – they need to age before they are ready for consumption.  During that aging they must be tested, transformed, refined. Having the ability to talk openly helps that aging process. 

4. There is so much that is still unknown.

I’m referring here to the field I now play in: online education. While there have been many efforts in the space dating back a decade, it is still a very new industry with much to be sorted out. I was surprised by the wide-open nature of the market and how much innovation continues to occur. Anybody who says they know where it will all end is either naïve or a liar.  But one thing we know for sure: The education landscape of the future will look very different than that of today. I do think that the traditional “brick-and-mortar” university is under siege, and while all schools feel this to some extent, universities and colleges on the margin (smaller endowments, hyper-specialized, geographically isolated, etc.) will be particularly vulnerable. Technology can be both a curse and a savior in this brave new world. But knowing how much of each it will be has yet to be written.

5. All start-ups – even ones inside of universities – have the same challenges.

HBX is essentially its own school within a school. Not only that – it’s a startup school within 381-year-old university and a 109-year-old business school. And like any startup, it faces many of the challenges that startups in the private sector do: scaling operations, hiring quickly but effectively, evolving strategy based on market feedback, putting formal processes in place. These and many more aspects of new enterprises are universal in nature. Fortunately, a university can be more patient (to a degree) than a private sector entity. But that doesn’t seem to make the challenges any less pressing!

I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

I’d love to have a meeting with Gwynne Shotwell, the President and COO of Space X. I mentioned that I grew up the son of an astronaut.  My father flew into space three times on the space shuttle while I was in high school and college. After college, I spent five years in the space business myself as a U.S. Air Force officer.  So, to say I have space in my blood is the understatement of the century. I’ve watched with great respect and interest the amazing things Space X has accomplished; I have to admit I was skeptical of their ability to do what they said they would do in the timeframe they said they’d do it! I’d love to learn more about how they manage rapid innovation, how they recover from a setback and what the future holds in the arena of space travel. I also have two ulterior motives. The first: I’m part of a nonprofit called For All Moonkind, which is seeking to put in place international law to protect the Apollo and other human landing sites on the moon. Given the rise of commercial space ventures and the potential for human space tourism, there is a real need to ensure that these sites on the moon that represent our common exploratory heritage are preserved for our posterity. I’d love to have Gwynne and Space X help spread the word. The second motive: I have a son who’s a physics major at Stanford who needs a job!

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