Today, I am temporarily putting aside my discussion of mastery, greatness, and deliberate practice, and choosing instead to give a quick recount of my latest trip. Last week, I spent five days in San Francisco with a group of executives from Portugal. I was there to speak to the group about my book, The New Marketing: Social media, email, and the art of storytelling, and to organize and help host a visit of my alma mater, Stanford.
We all met in Paris early Tuesday for the 11-hour flight to California. In reality, we were only to be in California for two days of visits, since we had a day for tourism and two days for travel. But, those two days of seeing the university and two remarkable companies got me thinking about the uniqueness of the Silicon Valley economy.
In the past 15 years, I have not been to Northern California as much as I would like, perhaps only five or six times. Those trips were for a variety of reasons, including some business, visits to companies I had invested in, or reunions at the Graduate School of Business. While one can make a credible case that the area around Boston—with its universities and culture of innovation—is as vibrant and creative as the Valley, each time I return to Stanford and the surrounding area, I conclude that there is something unique there, an entrepreneurial spirit and infrastructure that exist nowhere else.
I must say that I was extremely impressed with the 20 participants in the trip, who came from a variety of industries, including high tech, consulting, Portugal’s largest retail company, and also its largest insurance concern. They were a lively and engaged group at my seminar, and they asked excellent questions during the Stanford visit.
Innovation at a remarkable university: At Stanford, we were guided by two of my old friends, classmate David Obershaw, who now teaches in the School of Engineering, and Mike Hochleutner, who runs the Stanford Sloan Executive Education program. Both gave fascinating talks, lending insight about the remarkable synergies between the schools—engineering and business—and their stimulation of entrepreneurship and venture capital activity. It all began with Hewlett and Packard in the 1930s, aided and encouraged by the legendary engineering professor Fred Terman. The phenomenon continues today, with an astonishing list of tech companies that claim Stanford roots, including Cisco, Google, Sun, and Yahoo, to name but a few.
Mike also spoke of why they have changed their philosophy of the curriculum in the Stanford MBA program, and I found the new view to be a positive and necessary evolution. According to Mike, most business schools taught courses in the same “silos” for nearly 50 years: accounting, finance, marketing, operations, organizational behavior, and political economy. It was thought that these areas constituted the “pillars” of a business education, pillars that had to be erected before the rest of the house.
In 2007, Stanford began to pioneer a new concept, one that several other schools have since followed: We should put the leadership and innovation challenges of today’s world at the center of the student experience. The “pillars of the house” line of thinking gradually gave way to a more holistic, systems approach. First, we should focus on giving students an integrative mindset. Get them to reflect about themselves as individuals, about who they are and the influence they would like to have in their world. Once this mindset is there, they can learn about the specific business concepts and skills while fitting it all into a broader context.
As I have often been frustrated and somewhat outspoken about the way business schools organize learning, I was encouraged by this movement. In particular, I have promoted for many years the concept of teaching conceptual thinking and systems approaches, and pushed MBA students to do the type of deep reflection that effective leaders do. Not only is this approach more gratifying for the student, it is also what most enlightened employers are seeking today in the students they recruit.
So, I was happy to see that at least some business schools are moving away from a static and outdated view of what a curriculum and a student experience should be.
America’s good side: It was also nice for me to return to the old campus and to Silicon Valley, to experience all the energy and dynamism again. As we visited companies such as Google and LinkedIn, I was reminded of the good sides of this micro-economy, and of the US in general.
America still has the world’s most vibrant and innovative economy. It has a remarkable ability to bounce back after a crisis, often through sheer energy and innovation. It is a society that does not stigmatize failure, as much of Europe still does. For example, the Portuguese leaders expressed the clear view that in their country an entrepreneurial disappointment would not look good on someone’s resume. America remains a society where anything is possible, where people are allowed to dream. Attempting a startup and failing is often seen as an admirable adventure and learning experience.
More than any other place I go, America seems to have confidence in its young people. Silicon Valley in particular values imagination and perspective more than experience or pure analytical ability. With its less rigid view of hierarchy and seniority, it is a society where ideas win, no matter where they come from. At LinkedIn and Google, one feels a remarkable youthful energy that fosters a sense of openness and optimism.
When I left for San Francisco last Tuesday, I was looking forward to the refreshing experience of working and playing with the Portuguese leaders. And certainly, that aspect of the week met all my expectations. But it was also nice to rediscover a part of the world I knew well many years ago, and to feel its energy again. While I still see much to criticize in America’s form of capitalism, in its insular views of the world, or its management of recent crises, it was uplifting to be reminded of the positive sides of the world’s largest economy as well.