20. Cold feet for the HBS cold call


20. Cold feet for the HBS cold call

The MBA program at HBS is fully case-based. Students prepare a case before class and discuss all aspects of the case in class. The professor has the role of facilitator and specialist. As these discussions are such an important part of the teaching method at HBS, students’ grades depend heavily on class participation. Most of this class participation is voluntary, as students get called on by the professor after raising their hand. There is however one exception to this rule – the HBS cold call.

The anatomy of a cold call goes something like this: the professor walks into class and says, “Johnny, can you tell me what the case is about today?” Then the professor and the chosen student will spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of class discussing the case, the protagonist and the actions that he/she should take. To some students, cold calls are a big source of stress. To others, they are a much needed motivator to prepare each and every case. And then there are those who just seem to master the art of “talking their way out” of any difficult situation and don’t consider the cold calls as a threat.
Not all cold calls are the same… they can differ massively between professors. Find my “HBS cold call survival guide” below.

1. The very very very random cold call
They do exist – the professors that make their cold calls totally random. One professor guarantees total randomness for the cold call by throwing a dart at the class seating chart. Anyone is welcome to witness his dart skills the day before class at 10AM in his office. At the start of class, he will go up to the student who ended up being the “bull’s eye”, show him the hole in the seating chart paper and start questioning him as part of the cold call. One downside of randomness – the same student can be cold called multiple times… or even twice in a row! There just doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid a potential call. My advice: make sure you have a seat on the outer limits of the classroom – his darts don’t seem to make it to that area very often. Or head over at 10 AM every day to the professor’s office to see if you got ‘darted’.

2. The supposedly random cold call
While most cold calls seem random, many of them actually have some level of predictability. Not all professors perform the darts procedure or pick a random student in class. Be aware that it’s often students who don’t speak a lot in class who get targeted by professors. Bad news for the silent ones, good news for the active ones. Avoid these cold calls by making the occasional voluntary comment in class… and as such avoid a potential cold call on a tough day.

3. The supposedly predictable cold call
Other professors put a lot of effort into picking their cold calls. At HBS, professors need to know their students’ names, backgrounds, and specifics. They gather this information from the HBS classcards, an online tool updated by HBS students with their general information, professional background and a set of additional random facts. This information is supposed to help professors steer discussions in class based on people’s expertise.
One professor took this part of his job very seriously. At the beginning of every class, he would walk through his reasoning of how exactly he chose today’s cold call victim. He would begin with stating some obvious relationship between a student and the case of the day. He would then reason through a sequence of links based on students’ classcards to finally arrive at a student that would seemingly otherwise be unrelated to the case, nearly giving several students a ‘heart attack’ in the process. As an example, he would call on a person who likes to travel to comment on a case on Airbus. However, stating that this link was too obvious, he would go for the student that has all of the letters of Airbus in their name… or to the French student in class since Airbus is mainly French. My assessment – keep the “additional information” field in the classcard as empty as possible to avoid links to cases.

4. The “I-thought-I-was-safe” in-class cold call
While most cold calls happen at the start of class, some professors like to keep attention levels high by calling on random people during class. I have seen this happen most of the time in finance classes… as a lot of people happily let go of the discussion once the cold call has passed. I only have one piece of advice in this case: prepare your (finance) cases!

5. The “Oh crap!” cold call
So you are sitting in class and start shaking your head. You do this because a) you were thinking about that great song you heard on the radio earlier OR b) you totally disagreed with a statement of a fellow classmate. Whatever the reason, this kind of reaction can get you a call by the professor even without you raising your hand (as the professor would think you have an opinion you want to share). In this same category, we find the “stretching-in-class-and-the-professor-thinks-you-were-raising-your-hand” call. My advice – always keep a low profile.

6. The non-existent cold call
Only seen in the second year at HBS… where some professors indeed never cold call. However, this is an exception to the rule.

I would like to emphasize the value of the above advice and I have data to prove it. When making some ‘back-of-the-envelope’ calculations, a student at HBS has a chance of being cold called seven times over the 2 years of the MBA program. I was cold called five times at HBS – well below average! I totally failed one of them, did poor on another one and nailed the other three. However, this still remains a pretty low success rate (knowing that I did a good job in preparing my cases 85-90% of the time), which leaves me wondering if the cold calls are maybe not all that random – can the professors smell a lack of preparation?!?!

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ISBN 978-981-09-9168-5
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Authored by: Frederic D Mahieu