The Power of Culture


How the Defining Leadership Principles are sparking change at Berkeley Haas

By Ronna Kelly


Alumnus Kevin Hill, MBA 07, recently lost a bet about the Haas Defining Leadership Principles at his fifth-year reunion dinner in San Francisco. Hill bet classmate Amy Dickie, also MBA 07, that the four principles that describe Haas’ unique culture were in place when they were MBA students. But he was wrong; Haas didn’t codify the principles until 2010.


“I’m so familiar with the Defining Leadership Principles,” says Hill, recalling his surprise at losing. “They actually reflect the principles when we were in the program from 2005 to 2007.”


Similarly, after reading about the principles two years ago in CalBusiness, this magazine’s predecessor, alumnus Paul McKnight wrote Dean Rich Lyons, “I think you hit the nail on the head. Even a 1950 BS grad can identify with those points.”


The fact that the principles ring so true for alumni from two very different times in the Haas School’s history underscores their power. Since taking a stand on its culture by codifying the school’s four Defining Leadership Principles more than two years ago, Haas has created a stronger profile and has more sharply distinguished itself among the world’s top business schools. The principles, which some students cite as the key reason they chose Haas, also play an important role in supporting the school’s new Innovative Leader curriculum, developed at the same time the principles were codified.


“These principles have always been the Haas heartbeat, but we have never used them so deliberately to shape our community and to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” says Dean Rich Lyons. “Haas now has a more explicit roadmap to determine who will thrive in the environment that we’ve cultivated here.”


Common Language


One of the most valuable outcomes of codifying the four principles—Confidence Without Attitude, Question the Status Quo, Students Always, Beyond Yourself—has been creating a universal language for the entire Haas community.


“I think we’ve more sharply defined ourselves than we ever have,” notes Lyons. “It surprised me how quickly the Defining Leadership Principles took root.”


Take full-time MBA admissions. Three years ago, when current students and alumni around the world interviewed a prospective student, they asked about Confidence Without Attitude even before the Defining Leadership Principles were formally codified.


However, Haas also asked interviewers to determine whether a candidate was a good fit with the Haas culture. The problem: “Everyone could interpret Haas culture differently,” notes Stephanie Fujii, executive director of Full-time MBA Admissions and Financial Aid. So two years ago, the admissions team updated the process, asking interviewers to evaluate how applicants reflected each Defining Principle.


“The principles give us a common language throughout our process,” Fujii explains. “They are much more powerful than just saying we have a unique culture at Berkeley Haas. They provide specific behaviors and values for our interviewers to evaluate - qualities we know are a strong fit with our program and culture.”


In addition, Haas now asks that letters of recommendation address how applicants embody Confidence Without Attitude. And applicants themselves must write essays that implicitly touch on the Defining Leadership Principles. Among the essay assignments: Describe a time when you questioned an established practice or thought within an organization, and describe a time when you were a student of your own failure.


After students are accepted, the Defining Leadership Principles are a common thread woven through Days at Haas, an event designed to more intimately introduce new full-time MBA admits to the school. And after prospective students accept Haas’ offer and arrive on campus, O-Week, a weeklong orientation, focuses on one principle each day.


“All of these efforts have made a world of a difference in getting the right fit with students - not just in the evaluation process, but from the very beginning by attracting students who share our values,” Fujii says. Lyons agrees: “I do think our Defining Leadership Principles are helping us win battles against the toughest competing schools.”


Resonating with Students


That was certainly the case for Brad Wolfe, MBA 13, who earned two degrees from Stanford University and worked in its business school as a case writer.


“It really was the four principles that pulled me to Haas,” says Wolfe, who decided to earn an MBA to develop business skills to complement his interest in creativity and innovation.


“The idea of traditional, structured careers is becoming rarer. People are charting their own way in life,” he explains. “Having principles at the school’s core is very important because the pace of change is so fast. You have to be nimble but have something at your core to guide you.”


Two principles spoke most strongly to Wolfe: Question the Status Quo and Confidence Without Attitude. “To really come up with the innovations of tomorrow takes a lot of questioning,” says Wolfe, who founded a startup focused on online creativity before coming to Haas. “I want to be in a culture that emphasizes questioning, and I’m not sure every business school does that to the extent that Berkeley Haas does.


“You have to be humble to really empathize and understand someone,” he adds, referring to Confidence Without Attitude. “I think that principle really separates Haas and is also crucial to the emergent field of design thinking and creativity, which are all about empathy.”


In addition to drawing students on a personal level, the Defining Leadership Principles are creating a more closely knit group of classmates, particularly in the Full-time Berkeley MBA Program, where changes in admissions and curriculum have been implemented first. “The chemistry in the class is noticeably different. The class has this connection, this bond, that’s even deeper than what we’ve seen in the past,” Lyons says. “That kind of energizing effect - an esprit de corps - has been palpable.”


Defining Leadership Principles at Work


While dozens of stakeholders helped develop the Defining Leadership Principles, Confidence Without Attitude traces its origins to a comment made several years ago by a recruiter about Haas students being less arrogant than peers from other schools.


On a recent visit to Haas, Intel CEO Paul Otellini, MBA 74, explained why Confidence Without Attitude and Students Always are important when hiring newly minted MBAs. “At Intel we hire many graduates from business schools. Too many arrive thinking they’ve learned all they need to learn. We need to undo that,” Otellini said. “That mind-set doesn’t produce the kind of development that we need in people.”


Another recruiter, Brian Schneider, director of university relations at Zynga, explained how he has seen Confidence Without Attitude in action among Haas grads working for the social media game maker. “Our industry is an incredibly fast-paced, rapidly changing environment. We value individuals who can take on new challenges and quickly grow into leaders. We have seen this happen with a number of Haas alums at Zynga,” Schneider says. “They are not afraid to tackle new projects, get their hands dirty, and help their teams and peers figure out how to get things done.”


Innovative Leader Curriculum


In tandem with more sharply defining its culture, Berkeley Haas also refined its mission to “develop leaders who redefine how we do business” and created an Innovative Leader curriculum to deliver on that mission.


Two key components of that curriculum are the new Problem Finding Problem Solving course (see page 14) and a new experiential learning requirement for MBA students. Also important is an effort by the school to coordinate its curriculum around a set of key capabilities that are instrumental to developing innovative leaders.


“The capabilities provide a connective tissue within the MBA curriculum at Haas,” says Associate Professor Terry Taylor, who currently leads the effort to coordinate how faculty members highlight the capabilities. The capabilities are: frame problems; experiment to learn; navigate uncertainty; and influence without authority.


Lyons and Professor Michael Katz initially reviewed course syllabi and met one-on-one with faculty first to identify the crucial capabilities and then elevate their prominence in the curriculum.


Associate Professor Don Moore, for example, kicks off the first day of his Leading People course outlining how it will develop several of the capabilities in students. Students learn about influence without authority as they study the psychology of persuasion. They learn experimentation as part of a group project that requires students to come up with an idea about leading people and then create an experiment to test it.


Reinforcing Culture


Although the Innovative Leader curriculum was first introduced to MBA students, the Defining Leadership Principles still have a strong presence in other academic programs. The Master of Financial Engineering Program, for instance, gives students awards related to the principles at commencement each year. And students in the Undergraduate Program are assigned to cohorts whose names reflect one of the principles.


The school’s culture initiative also includes Haas staff. Two years ago, the school began presenting Defining Leadership Principles staff awards at an annual appreciation luncheon. This spring Haas created two new parttime positions focused exclusively on culture-building at the school. “We talk about developing our students into innovative leaders, but it’s also an important goal for our staff,” says Haas Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Chizuk. “It’s how we will continue to thrive.”


Life After Haas


Alumni, meanwhile, are embracing and experimenting with the Defining Leadership Principles in all sorts of different ways. One alumnus, Bhavik Joshi, BCEMBA 09, co-founder of an early-stage startup, incorporated the principles into his LinkedIn profile last year, calling them the “four core values that I have always leveraged in navigating through my professional career.”


The North Bay Chapter of the Haas Alumni Network created a special annual award for an alumnus who embodies one of the principles. And the San Francisco Chapter recently created a new undergraduate leadership award that asks applicants to choose one Defining Principle to describe how they see their roles as a future member of the Haas alumni community.


An alumni survey recently found that 41 percent are aware of the Haas School’s Defining Leadership Principles. That number climbs to just more than 50 percent for alumni who have graduated within the last 10 years.


“A culture strategy is generally understood to be a four- to five-year process. To have so much recognition after two years is really quite remarkable,” Lyons says. Still, he is aiming higher, for 70 percent recognition among alumni who graduated in the past 10 years and 50 percent for all other alumni, both by 2014.


Why do the Defining Leadership Principles resonate with alumni so much? “The principles help me and other alumni talk about where we came from and one of the most important times of our lives in a clearer way,” says Lyons, himself an undergraduate business alumnus. “That in turn builds pride and a stronger connection to the school.”


Share how the Defining Leadership Principles resonate with you by emailing Tenny Frost at



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Why culture?


Prof. Jenny Chatman explains the Importance of organizational culture


When Rich Lyons became dean in 2008, he didn’t intend to lead a sweeping culture initiative at Haas. He knew he wanted to develop a strategic plan for the school. And from his previous industry experience, Lyons saw firsthand the power of competing on culture. Seeing a new opportunity at Haas to set the school apart, he launched an initiative to sharply define the school’s core values, which would go on to be codified into the four Berkeley Haas Defining Leadership Principles.


"I was an undergrad here so I had some sense of the distinctive Haas culture, and how it’s remained constant over the decades,” explains Lyons, BS 82.


Fortunately, he could tap one of the nation’s foremost experts on company culture right from Haas’ own faculty: Professor Jenny Chatman, who was instrumental in the school’s culture initiative.


“Culture is the glue that holds an organization together and makes it distinctive,” says Chatman, who has studied organizational culture since the mid-1980s as a PhD student at Berkeley Haas. “It’s especially important here at Haas because we have such diverse constituencies - students, alumni, faculty, staff - who have vastly different reasons for being here.”


Chatman’s research has led her to study such companies as Southwest Airlines, known for its unique, fun-loving culture and its 39 consecutive years of profitability. She also studied Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream as alumni Rick Cronk, BS 65, and Gary Rogers, BS 63 (Engineering), guided the company through its toughest period ever in the late 1990s.


Chatman recounts how Dreyer’s faced a confluence of challenges, everything from record-high butterfat costs to Rogers being diagnosed with a brain tumor. But rather than engaging in panicked cost-cutting, Dreyer’s emphasized how much the company valued employees through honest and open communication, including flying around the country to meet with more than 4,000 employees about a restructuring. Cronk and Rogers also continued to invest in its Dreyer’s Leadership University, “providing unequivocal evidence that Dreyer’s cared about employee development, even during difficult times,” Chatman wrote.


The culturally consistent actions paid off for Dreyer’s, Chatman noted, as the company rebounded with new premium and superpremium product lines and a new distribution agreement with Ben & Jerry’s. Reflecting on that period, Cronk said, “It was a common trust and…openness…people believed the story and they understood…there was an enormous amount of pride and optimism.”


Similarly, the culture initiative at Haas has been very open, involving dozens of stakeholders, from students and alumni to faculty and staff. Chatman says the process has been far more extensive than efforts at other business schools and is more comparable to the efforts strong culture organizations engage in to reap the benefits of a strategically relevant culture.


“I don’t think other schools have been as methodical as Haas. Rich had to do it this way because we had a strong culture already,” she explains. “It’s not uncommon to have a strong culture, but it’s unusual to be this methodical, which was necessary to be as precise as possible in aligning the school’s strategy and culture.”


And all that work has paid off for Haas, too. Says Chatman, “The process allowed us to better understand what Berkeley Haas is good at and zero in on what makes us so distinctive.”


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