Four Reasons Why Harvard Business School Should Not Add Sales Courses

By Stephanie Frias

On Tuesday, February 19, we had a great VP of Sales panel in class. Yes, sales, the ignored discipline on MBA campuses across the country. Only 20 percent of accredited MBA programs offer a sales curriculum and only3 percent offer an MBA concentrating in sales.[1] Having worked in a sales organization for part of my pre-HBS career and now working on launching my own company, it was refreshing to hear the panelists’ insights. It led me to ponder why there is no sales curriculum at HBS. Below are my hypotheses and conclusions.

1.    Rarely do CEOs come from the sales trenches. False. Sure, a large number of Fortune 500 CEOs, about 30 percent, have a finance background. [2] However, approximately 20 percent of the same CEO pool made their way to the top from the sales side of the house. Some notables include:

a.    John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems
b.    Samuel Palmisano, former President and CEO of IBM
c.    Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft
d.    John Morgridge, Stanford MBA Professor and former President and CEO of Cisco
e.    John Thompson, former CEO of Symantec

Irrespective of background, there is rarely a conversation these CEOs, or any other executive, have about their company that does not involve revenue. HBS is an institution dedicated to teaching future leaders who will make a difference in the world. For those aiming to make that difference at the helm of a corporation, knowing what it takes to make a sale, and then being able to sell something themselves are both paramount. In my eyes, sales jobs teach critical skills, including self-motivation, confidence and persuasion. Salespeople also learn to survive the pressure of numbers while building a reliable network. Any CEO running a public company can attest to the value of these abilities.

Moreover, as HBS admissions boasts and often reminds us, many HBS students will eventually found their own company. I have yet to hear about an entrepreneur who could afford to ignore customer acquisition, customer lifetime value, and overall sales.

2.    The new first-year Field curriculum at HBS covers everything you need to know about sales. Negative. While I applaud the new Field course for being ambitious in its undertakings and deem the program in many ways a success, I do not believe it fills the sales gap. Yes, students are required to make “arms-length” revenue from their Field 3 business idea to continue on the “viable” track. However, not everyone on the team is involved in all functions. Therefore, even if some team members do make a “sale”, it does not guarantee every member was exposed to sales tactics. Secondly, many teams do not end up on the viable business track, and while still a valuable learning experience, the curriculum does not teach students the fundamentals of selling.

3.    You really cannot make good money in a sales profession. You can hear the playback in an MBA’s head, “Have you seen what i-bankers and consultants make? I have big dreams.” All the panel speakers mentioned the great earnings account executives go on to make. Granted, being on a quota is nerve-racking. If you do not perform, you are out of a job. The rewards, however, can be great. Geoff Dodge, EVP of Sales and Marketing at Dataxu, mentioned how while at Salesforce he witnessed one sales executive receive a $4.1MM bonus after stellar performance. Dorothee Bergin, Director of Sales at Simulmedia, mentioned how it can be hard to give up the salary you grow accustomed to from doing well. Therefore, it is not that sellers do not have an opportunity to make great money, but rather that the way in which that money can be made is not for everyone. It seems that for most MBAs, letting go of a sure thing is very difficult.

4.    The sales function involves little strategy. “Don’t you worry your little head about these strategic matters. You’re only the sale girl after all,” says your boss. This is an MBA's nightmare: being pigeonholed and not ever chiming in on company strategy. I hold the view that you can make a stint in sales an opportunity to strengthen your professional arsenal before moving on to other operational roles. Further, it has been my experience that the best sales people, the ones to volunteer first to test new products with clients or to help define new data measurements, often have their opinions both respected and requested by the senior executive team. At startups, it is especially true that great sellers are the feedback loop from customers that lead to great products. Moreover, every salesperson has a unique approach to their job. Meeting or exceeding your quota involves strategic thinking, whether it is deciding what the product mix per customer should be, or figuring out how to expand a territory. If you see the quality of data gathering Mark Roberge, SVP Sales and Services at Hubspot, has developed to help train and support his sales team, you will never again believe sales does not involve strategy. Ever.

Overall, I find it unfortunate that many of us will walk away from HBS without really digging deep into sales. While the classroom has taught us many valuable skills, it remains true that we are all always selling something, no matter what career path we take. It is ironic that HBS does such a phenomenal job of selling itself, yet does not make sales part of the formal education. It might just be time for the student body to sell the administration on the idea.

[1] Suzanne Fogel, David Hoffmeister, Richard Rocco, and Daniel P. Strunk, “Teaching Sales,”Harvard Business Review 90, nos. 7, 8 (2012): 94, via EBSCOhost, accessed February 2013.
[2] Eric Savitz,” The Path to Becoming a Fortune 500 CEO,” Forbes, December 5, 2011,, accessed February 2013.


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