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Summer 2009

Second Time Around

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Experience matters. That was the message this past February when the first crop of fellows in Harvard University's newly created Advanced Leadership Initiative arrived on campus. While many their age would be retiring or nearing retirement, these baby boomer lawyers, doctors, military officers, and business executives were here to jumpstart the next phase of their lives: first as students and then as leaders focused on social problems, including education.

"I'm too young to die on the golf course," jokes fellow Hans-Ulrich Maerki, a former executive with IBM.

Conceived initially at the Harvard Business School by Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter and her colleagues, the initiative is a now a collaboration between five of the university's graduate schools -- education, business, law, public policy, and public health. Fellows like Maerki are spending nine months (February through October) taking classes across the university, mentoring students, leading study groups, meeting with faculty advisors, and attending working dinners where aspects of leadership are discussed and debated. They are all here, says Senior Lecturer James Honan, Ed.M.'85, Ed.D.'89, to figure out how best to harness their existing expertise as they move into new careers in public service.

"Given that these fellows have spent their careers primarily in the for-profit world, the question becomes, how do you make a transition to a new operating environment? How do you take the leadership skills you already have and ask what's new or different?" says Honan, who serves as a faculty leader on the project along with Professor Fernando Reimers, Ed.M.'84, Ed.D.'88.

Initially, in an effort to help answer these questions and to develop the "social purpose plan" that each fellow will present when the program ends, four fellows interested in education turned to Ed School students for advice. During the first of several meetings organized by Reimers, for example, a dozen students spent nearly two hours one afternoon brainstorming ideas about fellow Shelly London's interest in youth violence and ethics. London, a former corporate communications expert, was toying with the question made famous in 1991 by Rodney King, "Can we all get along?" and hoped the students could help her better understand what educational research was being done in this area.

"What or where can I go with this? Where can I make the biggest impact?" she said. "Everyone wants to be a social entrepreneur, but then you have to ask, would I be more effective if I got in with someone already doing this kind of work?"

After hearing a range of advice -- do a literature search, focus on family, start small -- London, who was busy taking notes, concluded, "My life was much easier when I was in the corporate world."

Throughout the program, fellows also have a chance to analyze issues and problems on deeper levels by getting involved with case-based "think tank" seminars, including one led by Reimers that is looking at education reform in Brazil, among other "cutting-edge education challenges and solutions," he says.

It's this ability to dig deep that sets the new initiative apart from other short-term programs aimed at experienced professionals. "This program is much more than taking existing courses; it has its own educational offerings and experiences," says Moss Kanter. "It is also an honor to be selected. Fellows form a peer group and are expected to mentor students based on the fellows' extensive, successful careers."

The program is also unique for the faculty members involved, says Reimers. Students are not typical -- besides being older, few have professional experience in the public service area in which they are focusing. (With education, several served on the boards of education-related projects and one fellow, Vivian Lowery Derryck, did some Africa-based education work with the U.S. Agency for International Development.)

"Learning is about developing new understandings based in re-examining our knowledge and experience in light of new ideas and exchange with others," Reimers says. "Since I believe that teaching and learning is, to a great extent, working with the experience and prior knowledge of the learners -- and of the teachers -- the opportunity to work with the fellows will give me access to a very different range of experiences than I normally have in the courses I teach at the Ed School."

Reimers says that as a result of his interaction with the fellows and the new program, he has revamped his curriculum for master's students. "I have redesigned my seminar on education, policy, and inequality in Latin America this semester to include a section that engages the students in doing case studies of leaders who have succeeded at creating educational opportunities for disadvantaged children," he says. "This has been inspired by my interaction with the fellows and with the participants in the education think tank."

Asked how they will know if the fledgling program is a success, Moss Kanter says, "When the fellows create projects that are viewed as making a meaningful difference in society and the fellows attribute their success to their time at Harvard. And when other colleges and universities offer rigorous, serious educational programs for people at later stages in life, in their own ways."

--Visit www.advancedleadership.harvard.edu to learn more about the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative.

Illustration by Jeff Hopkins, Ed.M.'05