Asking the Essential Questions

Professor Harry L. Davis led the creation of the school's popular leadership curriculum and paved the way for international campuses. Most importantly, he has inspired generations of students in his 50 years at Booth.

By Rebecca Rolfes


It's an unusual class in business policy that includes excerpts from Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will, Ben Franklin's epitaph, and a spirited debate about childhood obesity. Given the instructor of this course, it is safe to say that the same class next term will be completely different. Some of the elements may remain the same, but how they are arranged and presented, where the mostly student-led discussion goes, and how long the class lingers on certain points will be entirely new, untested, and unexpected. The class is a cocreation, says its professor, Harry L. Davis, just like a play or a sporting event - or, for that matter, a business.

Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, has been teaching a business policy course for 20 years - this year marks 50th year as a Booth professor. The course is, as one student said, quintessentially Booth in its fearless exploration of ideas among tough-minded scholars looking for the truth.

"Harry's work has reshaped [Booth] and made it better," said Clayton Rose, '81, one of Davis's former students and now a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. "He gets what makes Chicago unique. It's a place that highly values intellectual argument."

Davis has taught, mentored, and inspired generations of Booth students. He uses literature, poetry, and theater to show that business, like other endeavors, is driven by human striving and frailty. He was a pioneer in the field of experience-based education, spearheading the creation of Booth's popular leadership program. And he has been a builder, establishing the school as a global presence by guiding the way for the opening of the school's first international campus in Europe.

In 50 years, Davis almost never has taught anything the same way twice. Call it the product of a restless mind, insatiable curiosity, an overactive imagination. Call it a constant quest for "penetrating what is in essence an open-ended and enjoyable activity," as he has said in one of his course outlines.

"I am not a perfectionist," Davis said in a recent interview. "I'm an experimenter."

During the 2013 Winter Quarter, Business Policy did not get off to a promising start, according to his former classmate at Northwestern University, Al Silk, a retired Harvard Business School professor.

"He called me at the beginning of the term," Silk recalled, "and said it was not going well. He was questioning whether he could still do this. He always does that, questions himself, and always has."

From that early unease, Davis in 10 weeks had won the trust of students who are, by nature, skeptical ("We came to Booth," as one said, "because we're good analysts.") and had them talking openly about their most deeply held values.

So it goes, term after term. Several students over the years have been prompted by a class assignment to make life-changing decisions about career direction and personal relationships, some unexpected. Some students resign from their jobs to pursue other ventures. "I try to create a safe place for them to explore," Davis said. "In my class we're talking about very human things."


Every career has turning points. Davis's class is that point for many of his students - "he changed my life" is not an uncommon comment. His own career has had three points on which everything turned.

The first came when he was getting his MBA at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Davis had yet to decide what to do after graduation and was interviewing with large companies. Sitting in a class on organizational development, he realized how much fun the professor and the students were having. "I wondered to myself, 'He gets paid to do this?'" Davis recalled. "I literally followed him to his office and asked whether he thought I had what it took to pursue a PhD."

He chose Northwestern University for a PhD in marketing. The first day of the first class in Evanston, sitting on a bench, he met Al Silk. The two became fast friends and pushed each other in their studies with what Silk describes as "brutal practice oral exams."

In 1963, still a doctoral candidate, Davis arrived at Booth as an instructor. He taught for a couple of years and ended up carrying a heavy teaching load. One day, he ran into then- dean George Shultz - the same George Shultz who went on to serve as secretary of state and hold other top government posts. "I really hope you finish your dissertation," Shultz told him. "I sense that you and the University of Chicago belong together." This was the second epiphany and the sort of small, almost throwaway comment on which everything can hinge, and it motivated Davis to buckle down and finish his dissertation. "I thought I'd come for two or three years, but I never left," Davis said.

It was Davis's time in the classroom that led to his third epiphany. In the early 1990s, walking into the back of his Business Policy classroom in Stuart Hall, he asked himself, "What does it mean to teach?" This, mind you, after 30 years as a full-time professor. Somehow that day, he felt that he had made it too much about him, the professor, the "fire hydrant" delivering content and not enough about "the students' deep learning." He started the class with an open-ended question. An uncomfortable silence ensued and continued for a long time. But then the answers started coming and more questions were asked.

"I said less that day than I had ever said in class," Davis said. "It was one of the best classes I can remember, and it changed my view of what it meant to teach." He realized that if he gave students the right problem, he needed only to be there to ask the right questions. "You can trust the process and trust the students. The professor doesn't need to be in front of the classroom."

Davis almost invariably answers a question with a question. It is the Socratic method as a means to student insight, incorporating elements of improvisational theater andprocess acting. It's based on active listening, building this idea on that one in order to come to something greater than any one person could reach on his own. It is the essence of being a good manager and a good leader - to challenge, trust, collaborate, and foster creativity.

Colleagues and former students talk about Davis doing nothing more than asking the perfect question at the perfect time - the question they hadn't thought of - and in a gentle, unthreatening way.

"He's very crafty - I use that word deliberately - at getting people disarmed and in a safe place so they will talk openly and honestly," said Ashley Keller, MBA '07, JD '07, cofounder of Chicago-based Gerchen Keller Capital and a Chicago Booth distinguished fellow in 2006–07. "I had some confidence that what I said would not go farther than the four corners of the room. How he pulls that off, especially in a classroom of 60 students, I don't know. He asks the right sort of questions that are never judgmental, designed to make the speaker open up."

Davis's classes sometimes seem not to be about business at all. His curiosity about people and how they make decisions, dating back to his dissertation on family decision making, connects him to how companies actually work. A recent discussion of childhood obesity in his class hinged on whether one should lead based on consideration for the public good or the wishes of shareholders. Should a food company formulate better-for-you products at the risk of losing sales to more addictive goodies? Or is its primary job to grow regardless of public health? The unfolding debate in many cases unraveled the students' assumptions.

"People when they go to work sometimes leave parts of themselves in the trunk of their cars," Davis said. "That makes no sense to me. Why would you do that? I want to show them how to bring their own unique gifts to it all."


Students graduate. They leave and forge their varied paths. A professor's impact can feel nebulous in those journeys. But there are ways to measure it.

In 1978, one of the deputy deans called Davis and asked him to have lunch with an advertising executive, Dave Echols, at the Drake Hotel. Echols had contacts at Kraft Foods and had the idea of presenting students with a real-world business project. From that lunch came the New Product Lab, now the Management Lab. (For more on the Management Lab, see "Management Lab Tackles the Elusive Problem of Big Data.") "When Davis started it, people thought, 'Okay, this is sort of a free market institution, but this isn't teaching; it's experience-based,'" recalled former dean Robert S. Hamada, Edward Eagle Brown Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Finance. "Harry was way before his time because now the idea of a class serving as a lab for a real-world consulting project is widely accepted."

Davis's thinking on teaching based on "live" business problems later was outlined in a 1992 paper, "Rethinking Management Education: A View from Chicago," co-authored with Robin Hogarth, PhD '72, emeritus professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain, and a former professor and deputy dean at Booth. Drawing on the right lessons from experience, the paper concluded, "can help people question what they know and adapt to new realities."

The Management Lab played to Davis's creativity and spontaneity, recalled Glen Senk, '80, CEO of New York jeweler David Yurman Inc., winner of the 2010 Distinguished Corporate Alumni Award, and an early participant in the lab. "Davis encouraged students to try different product and packaging alternatives," Senk said. "He was so curious. He encouraged noodling." The Management Lab was Booth's first foray into experience-based learning, but the school would take it another big step in the late 1980s. At the time, curriculum flexibility that came with the lack of required courses was a big draw, but it left students feeling lost and not part of a cohort, said Luis Miranda, '89, chairman of the board of advisors for the Centre for Civil Society, a nonprofit think tank in New Delhi. "There was no feeling of community."

Miranda was active in the Business Students Association at the time, and Davis, then a deputy dean, asked him to lead a group of students to advise the faculty on possible changes. A group of about 10 brainstormed over beer at a local pub - and then a larger group of 50 convened at a retreat in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

The group talked about "ethics and soft skills." They recommended that admissions and career opportunities be improved. Leadership Exploration and Development, later renamed Leadership Effectiveness and Development (LEAD), evolved from that process and is what Miranda called Davis's "living legacy." It's a class that aims to enhance students' soft skills through organizational workshops, negotiation and improvisation exercises, presentation training, and other activities that promote effective leadership.

Davis keyed in on the idea of having second-year students design the class for the first-years, creating what Miranda calls "a continually evolving animal that is designed to be current and relevant."

Karen Lynch Parkhill, '92, CFO of Comerica Bank, headquartered in Dallas, and her husband Jeffrey Parkhill, '92, president of Dallas-based Parkhill Development Corp., met in Davis's class and were LEAD facilitators. They remember the day when Davis had all of them gathered before the first class. "I'll never forget it," Karen recalled. "He said, 'If it's not broken, break it and make it better.' It's one of the most powerful business lessons I've ever learned and something I have used throughout my career. It can always be better, and we collectively can make it something different from what anyone else would do."

Trust in the students, in the process, and in the right set of questions - the mutability and experimentation inherent in the course design are signature Davis. "Every organization should have a sandbox, a playful area where you do experimental things," Davis said at the time. "This is our sandbox."

The value of LEAD goes beyond its impact on every MBA student, according to Hamada. "The school itself has to be more than a collection of courses," he said. "I say that as a former dean. There have to be experiences that tie the whole thing together. When you become an alumnus, you have that experience as part of the memory."

LEAD launched in 1989 for the Full-Time Program. A faculty committee in 2008 recommended that a leadership requirement be added to the Evening MBA and Weekend MBA curriculum and the Effective Leadership course was added in June 2009. The course name was changed to LEAD in 2013. Following a review of the Executive MBA curriculum in 2012, the program in 2013 added a LEAD module to supplement its Essentials in Effective Leadership course.

The experience of collaborating on Booth's leadership curriculum taught Miranda a life lesson: "If you come across a problem, do not complain about it, fix it."


Davis has made a career of teaching business leaders. He is fascinated with the subject because, "It matters. Leadership matters enormously," he said. "I don't think it's terribly well understood. We can all suffer from hindsight bias. Good outcomes in the short term are too often attributed solely to good leadership and bad outcomes to poor leadership. But the story is always more complex."

Leadership brought Davis to theater, stemming from his long association with Barbara Lanebrown, '91, who entered the Full-Time MBA Program following a long career as a playwright, artistic director, and actor. Successfully teaching people who are used to being the smartest ones in the room is never easy. But Davis takes an unusual approach that disarms them: showing how daily meetings, casual conversations, or presentations are like performances. Thinking on your feet and being "present" are as important when dealing with employees and customers as they are when enacting a scene with other actors.

Harry and Sue, his wife of 50 years, are frequent attendees at the University of Chicago's Court Theatre and, about 10 years ago, Davis introduced himself to Charles Newell, the artistic director. He proposed an idea: "Having business executives perform theater passages is a great way to get the executives to think about their effect," Davis said. "In business, we talk things to death. You can learn a lot by doing."

Newell brings a few actors to classes-turned-workshops moderated by Davis where the attendees and actors work through scenes together. "We pair people off into groups of three - one director and two actors," Newell said. "They decide who's going to do what, what they're going to present, and what the storyline will be. Then they present the scene."

Newell said that the performance experience heightens confidence and leadership skills. "The students realize how their approach as a leader can empower or disempower their employees. That's the most thrilling aspect of the whole thing. It's very hands-on and practical and at the same time very personal and emotional."

And it's not just theater that piques Davis's creativity. His inspiration for a class can come from almost anywhere - his extensive and ever-changing reading list, his travels, fleeting conversations, and music, from classical to jazz. (See "Trains, J.S. Bach, and the Interests of His Students.")


By 2010, Davis had demonstrated that he was not only a master teacher but also a deft administrator and coalition builder. He had served as deputy dean and on boards and committees at Booth and the University of Chicago and led the way for Booth's European campus. (See "A Vision for a Global Campus.") Now, with a deep understanding of Booth operations and the graduate school's fit within the broader university, he stepped in as interim dean.

His job was to keep the train on the tracks and running on time, and more importantly, to ensure a seamless transition to the new dean, Sunil Kumar, who took over on January 1, 2011. "I was very pleased to take that role," Davis said. "I thought the last thing the school needed was to have a period of six months of no momentum and no continuity." Many faculty members avoid committee and administrative work, and the skills of a good academic do not always match those of a good manager. Davis, on the other hand, found from his first experience as deputy dean that he had what it takes. "I had more entrepreneurial skills than I thought I had. I loved to start new things, and I enjoyed not just coming up with the idea but rolling up my sleeves and, with other people, figuring out how to make it happen."

Davis possesses talents that extend far beyond administration, said Mark E. Zmijewski, Leon Carroll Marshall Professor of Accounting, who served as deputy dean at the time. "His entire goal as interim dean was to help Sunil have the best transition possible," Zmijewski said. "He did not have a goal to accomplish something for himself but had the selfless goal of helping Sunil launch his deanship." When Kumar arrived, Davis introduced the new dean to students and alumni. He offered the new dean a perspective on Booth's history and challenges that only someone with his extensive knowledge of the institution could provide.

Early in his tenure, Kumar named Davis chair of the Global Strategy Assessment Committee, a faculty group charged with investigating ways to enhance the school's global programs, resources, and infrastructure.

"Harry had been part of creating the first overseas program," noted Luigi Zingales, Robert C. McCormack Professor of Entrepreneurship and Finance and David G. Booth Faculty Fellow, and a member of the committee. "But that strategy had not been looked at since then. We have two overseas subsidiaries, but that is not scalable." The committee was asked to develop an international strategy without overextending the faculty. "We were allowed to start from scratch," Zingales said.

The committee recommended improving access to the Executive MBA Program for potential students from Latin America, where the school has a strong brand name; assessing the ability of the Executive MBA Program in Asia to serve a geographically diverse student body (Booth announced this summer the relocation of its Asia campus from Singapore to Hong Kong.); better integrating the Executive MBA Program with other degree programs; and enhancing the role of the nondegree Executive Education program.

"The committee was made up of very opinionated people, as you can imagine," Zingales recalled. "Keeping the committee together was difficult at times but something that was impressive from Harry. He's very understanding and not divisive. He was tolerant of other views even when they were confrontational or off the point. It wasn't easy to form a consensus and move things along."

Davis's impact hasn't been confined to Booth. During the past five years he has made a mark in leadership training elsewhere at the University of Chicago. For example, Davis played a key role in developing a leadership program for two national laboratories managed by the university: Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

"Most scientists out of necessity are very focused on their research," said Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne. "They have to become the expert in their field. What the program helps them do - what Harry is very good at - is drawing them out, opening up their minds to a much broader way of thinking and solving problems." Davis has served on the Argonne Board of Governors since 2008.

Davis also has served as faculty director for the Executive Program for Emerging Leaders (EPEL), a leadership program designed for University of Chicago staff with high potential. The content is based on the general management and leader- ship programs developed at Booth. These managers are "key to our success," said Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the university's provost. Davis's classes - be they somewhere at the university, in Europe, at a company or organization, with executives or graduate students, for a grade or nondegree - have possibly only one thing in common. "He wants you to go somewhere," Rosenbaum said. "He wants you to come out of yourself and explore the larger world of management and organizations in an entirely new way."

Davis noted that the philosopher John Dewey, who taught at the University of Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, talked about the notion of flexible purposing. "Sometimes as we work together I think we mutually discover that a different destination might even be more interesting," he said. "You have to have a purpose, but you need to have this real sense of flexibility and agility. Along the way you may discover that the purpose needs to be modified. So when a class works well there is really a cocreated experience. And that's incredibly satisfying for both students and for me when it happens. It doesn't always happen, but it's worth striving for." 



Hanging with Harry in the Tree House

In the years leading up to his retirement, the late-dean John Jeuck wanted to establish a program that would attract the best students by offering them full tuition and a stipend along with exposure to a senior professor. Bill Uhrig, '84, Jeuck's former teaching assistant, who had remained in close touch with his mentor, asked how that would work. "Jeuck had no idea what the interaction should be but said, 'If you put Harry Davis in charge, it will work out great,'" recalled Uhrig, owner of Three Cities Research Inc., a venture capital and private equity firm in New York.

The first group in the Distinguished Fellows program began studies in 2002. Five students are chosen each year (there is no application process) and not only do they earn their Booth MBA, but they also get the opportunity to "hang out with Harry," their faculty mentor, in his office, which they have dubbed the "tree house."

The "tree house" was named by a student who observed that Harry's office was like the place he escaped to when he was a kid in order to get away from adults and talk honestly. "For some reason, that name has stuck," Davis said. "And I like the idea because I think that we don't have enough venues in which we can be fully present to what other people are saying, to listen, and to just be who we are."

In the tree house discussions, sometimes Davis provides the material and sometimes the students present ideas. There is an extensive and ever-changing reading list, with selections discussed while sitting in Davis's Eames rocking chairs. Davis likes the rockers because "they slow people down." Discussions are more in-depth and "less hierarchical." He admits that there's no evidence to back up his rocking chair theory, but "I have to say that there are many good conversations in Harper 346," he said.

The fellows also take annual field trips. Ashley Keller, MBA '07, JD '07, recalled visiting post-Katrina New Orleans where the group met with government and business leaders. "It was a powerful lesson in crisis management," Keller recalled.

Keller, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and practiced law, had dinner with Harry in the months before he launched a business to invest in legal claims. "I still look to Harry for advice on big life decisions," he said.

Leslie Mueller Fletcher, '05, a member of the second class of distinguished fellows and vice president, international mergers and acquisitions, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., said Davis created a safe space for meaningful conversations. "He is a master at mirroring back at people what they have a hard time seeing in themselves, at just the right moment," Fletcher said.

A more recent fellow, Joshua Gantz, '12, similarly found that Davis has an astonishing ability to ask questions that are both simple and thought provoking. "I am constantly in awe of his ability to develop such deep connections with people in such a short period of time," said Gantz, CFO of Ambulatory Management Solutions in Chicago. "I always say that Harry knows the secret to my life, and he's just waiting for me to ask the right questions so he can guide me there."


Trains, J.S. Bach, and the Interests of His Students

With wide interests, Harry Davis is a Renaissance man in an age of big data and technical specialization.

He is a student of trains, with a love of rail journeys traceable to his youth when overnight trips to the family home in Maine enabled him to view the passing countryside from a sleeping berth.

His early love of trains would play out in the most unexpected way. Davis's discussion of the positioning of the Santa Fe Railway's onetime flagship passenger train, the Super Chief, made an impression on one of his students in the Executive MBA Program, Michael Haverty, '82 (XP-49), who worked in operations for the railroad. Years later, when Haverty became president of the Santa Fe, he invited Davis on a cross country trip in his private rail car as he considered a strategy for teaming up with truckers to provide door-to-door service to customers.

And in his signature style, Davis confirmed he believed a railroad/trucker business partnership made sense, when many others did not. "Harry was there on the train when the concept of a joint venture between Santa Fe Railway and JB Hunt Transport was born," recalled Haverty, now executive chairman of Kansas City Southern in Kansas City, Missouri.

Davis is inquisitive about the way things work, and the people he meets in the most random of places. During the restoration of the Skinner pipe organ at Rockefeller Chapel in 2005, Davis developed a relationship with the artisans and family owners of the Schantz Organ Company, recalled Linda E. Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology. "He came back with these great stories about what they did and how they did it. He was fascinated. Who takes the time to do that? He's very interested in individuals and wants to make a connection. It enriches his thinking and he uses it in his teaching. The depth of his impact on people across the board is astonishing. What makes these connections so meaningful is the fact that he allows people to have an impact on him."

Davis engages fellow passengers on his many flights around the world, earning him the nickname Runway Harry. He has been known to walk up and down the aisles of a plane to see what people are reading. He is stymied by the number of tablet readers but still gets some tips that end up on his own nightstand and his course reading list.

That list has included not just books and magazine and journal articles, but musical compositions. He enjoys the work of jazz greats Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. In the classical repertoire, he opts for Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, and Ives. He is a devotee of the late pianist Glenn Gould, perhaps best known for his interpretations of J.S. Bach's keyboard compositions.

Performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations, a masterwork that consists of an aria with 30 variations, was the signature work of Gould, who played it throughout his career - some would say obsessively - and recorded it twice.

Even the difference between Gould's two recordings is instructive. The first is 38 minutes long; the second is 51. Gould said that he had a growing "discovery of slowness" and that speed meant a lack of deliberation, less time to thoroughly penetrate the material. So much in business can be thought of in the same way, Davis said. "The question of what is the right pace is as relevant in business as it is in music," he said.

Perhaps the same could be said of Harry Davis's career. Today he keeps a schedule that would "have most of us on our knees," Ginzel said. But after 50 years at Booth, Davis has learned about pace, about slowness, about thoroughness and, most importantly for him, his students, and the university, about variation - the ability to take one career and spin it out in an infinite number of ways.


A Vision for a Global Campus

The idea for a European campus was born not from a single "aha!" moment but from a seemingly harebrained proposal by a Spanish entrepreneur seeking economic development for the tiny nation of Andorra, in the eastern Pyrenees.

Although Davis was properly skeptical of the pitch to open a European campus, he never closed the door, recognizing the germ of an idea that Booth might extend its reach and become the first business school to offer a truly global MBA.

The proposal was first brought to Davis in 1990 by Spanish entrepreneur Juan Marti and Eduardo Ochoa, a native of Argentina who at the time was a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, along with a relative of King Juan Carlos. The trio was worried that the single European market would take away Andorra's competitive advantage as a destination to buy tax-free goods. As Davis remembers it, they parachuted dramatically into his office, sopping wet from a July rainstorm. They were not tilting at any small windmills.

Davis, then deputy dean for MBA programs, heard them out and a month later sent a cordial rejection letter. He left, however, a tiny opening, admitting that the idea was intriguing and that he was willing to talk again.

A few months later, Davis and some colleagues were attending alumni meetings in Europe and tacked on a couple of unscheduled side trips, one to Pamplona, Spain, and one to Andorra. Marti pulled out all the stops, and the Spanish hospitality wowed the Chicagoans, but the thought of trying to staff an MBA program on a mountaintop 3,000 miles from home was pure fantasy. Still, Davis remained intrigued. His second rejection letter said, "We would be open to exploring further some of these ideas."

Months passed. In July 1991, Davis was heading back to Europe to make a speech in Bordeaux. This time the persistent trio invited him and the school's COO Daniel Tepke, '82 (XP-48), to Marti's hometown of Barcelona, which was preparing for the 1992 Olympics. Davis stipulated that he would visit only if there was a nonstop flight from Barcelona to Bordeaux, which, much to his surprise, he found. As he toured Barcelona, famous for its distinctive architecture ranging from Gothic to modern, the city struck him as a potentially inspiring and romantic setting for study.

"The thing he saw," said Ochoa, now president of California State University, Monterey Bay, "was a way to globalize the MBA, with the potential of a third hub in Asia. Chicago was one of the first to do that. Other universities have now followed suit, of course, but Harry saw this early."

In 1991, Davis invited then-dean John P. "Jack" Gould, Steven G. Rothmeier Professor and Distinguished Service Professor of Economics, and then-deputy-dean Robert S. Hamada, Edward Eagle Brown Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Finance, to dinner, where he floated the idea of an executive MBA program based in "a castle in Spain." However enticing the vision of a business school in a metaphorical castle might have seemed, this was still the University of Chicago, the seat of rational economic decisions. Some additional, less romantic work was in order before the plan could launch, including opportunity cost analysis, due diligence, meetings with faculty, and interviews with a cross section of European business executives.

Booth opened the Barcelona campus in 1994, not in a castle, but in a more cost effective former bank building. It relocated its Executive MBA Program Europe to London in 2005. "If you don't try things, you don't have anything," Gould said. "Harry is comfortable with ideas; he thrives on them. At the same time, he is very pragmatic. His curiosity leads to action."

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Last Updated 1/16/14