Q&A: Five Years of the Haas Defining Principles

When Dean Rich Lyons partnered with faculty, students, alumni, and staff to articulate Berkeley-Haas culture, the aim was to capture the school’s essence.

What emerged were our four Defining Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself.

Launched in February 2010, the Defining Principles culture initiative has touched all aspects of Haas: admissions, curriculum, staff hiring and reviews, alumni relations, and day-to-day operations. We asked our chief culture evangelist, Dean Rich Lyons, to reflect on some the shifts that have taken place over these five years, and what lies ahead.

Q: Can you share an example of how the environment at Haas feels different than it did five years ago?

A: One of the things that we’ve had to get used to is what I will call the discomfort in the Defining Principles. Let’s take Question the Status Quo. It’s easy to say we all appreciate it and embrace it, but it’s hard to do. It’s especially hard when somebody questions a status quo that you put in place. Many of us—including me—have asked: “Are we fully ready for this?”

Some people have said that if you go back five or 10 years, we were so consensus-oriented that it was hard to voice a contrarian view. That can lead to groupthink, and to stasis. If we want to be really dynamic, constructive disagreement is part of it. In senior leadership team meetings, I’ve seen more of a willingness to put somebody’s idea out there and say, “Wait a minute. I have a different view.”

This also maps into our interactions with the broader campus. Intellectually, we are very good at questioning the status quo at Berkeley. But operationally, the university can be a pretty bureaucratic place. I think people at Haas are really taking up the challenge and asking the kinds of questions that we talk to our students all the time. Questions like, “Isn’t there a better way to do it?” The campus sees it too. They see us changing the rules by which we’re governed.

Q: Haas now has five years worth of graduates who grew up with the Defining Principles. How are you seeing this reflect back on the school?

A:  I see it all the time. Here’s an example: we hand out our “culture cards” that list the Defining Principles. When I go to see a donor or alum I always ask, “Do you know about the culture work we’ve been doing?”

Many, many of them say, “I’ve got the culture card on my desk.” Or they have it in their wallet or purse. It’s not just that they’re aware of it—they are using it, and they have an appetite to be guided by it. They’re proud of it.

Another example: I was at lunch recently with some venture capitalists who don’t know the school very well, and I handed a culture card to them. They said, “This describes the kind of people we like to fund.”

Questioning the status quo is the first principle on the list, and most entrepreneurs are very good at that. But these VCs also know that if you can’t build a team as an entrepreneur, you won’t be successful. Confidence Without Attitude—they said that’s exactly what they’d like to see more need of. Students Always and Beyond Yourself fit in as well.

Q:  You’ve said the DPs codified a culture that was already here, and also that they are aspirational. Thinking ahead, what’s next?

A: We’ve got a very strong culture, it serves us, we’re proud of it. The question is to what end? If our value proposition is producing a distinctive type of leader, how is our culture driving that outcome?

If the culture is driving what we’re doing at the highest level to produce a distinctive type of leader, it’s a different value proposition. We’re only part of the way there to really linking culture to the leadership profile or leadership archetype that we’re standing by as a school. That’s part of the aspiration for us.

Q:  What’s your top advice for other institutions working on cultural change?

A: There are three bits of advice I give to everybody.

Number one: Culture is a long-cycle project. We are five years in and we are maybe 60 percent of the way to achieving the full benefits.

Number two: You need urgency. Change management efforts founder because there isn’t a sense of urgency or a clear case for why it’s important. You need to establish the case, and maintain that urgency over a long period.

Number three: Who owns it? If somebody senior—preferably the most senior person—isn’t 100 percent committed, you probably won’t get there.