In this insightful interview with PaGaLGuY, explore essential strategies for enhancing personal, professional, and societal value with guidance from Patrick Mullane, Executive Director of HBS Online and Executive Education.


The world of business education is rapidly evolving, and at the forefront of this transformation stands Harvard Business School Online (HBS Online). Led by the visionary Patrick Mullane, Executive Director, HBS Online and Executive EducationThrough online certificate and credential programmes, HBS Online is redefining business education for a new generation of learners. In this exclusive interview, we sit down with Mr. Mullane to delve into the exciting world of online business education. We explore the unique advantages of HBS’s innovative programmes, discuss the evolving needs of aspiring business leaders, and gain insights into the future of business education. 

Mr. Mullane brings a wealth of experience to his role at HBS. With a distinguished background in business and education, he has a deep understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. Under his leadership, HBS has become a global leader in online business education, offering a diverse portfolio of certificate and credential programmes designed to equip learners with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in today’s dynamic business environment. One of the most significant advantages of HBS Online’s programmes is their accessibility. By removing geographical and financial barriers, HBS Online makes world-class business education available to a wider range of individuals than ever before. This democratisation of education is essential in today’s interconnected world, where talent and innovation know no borders. 

HBS Online is constantly innovating and developing new ways to deliver a high-quality educational experience virtually. The school’s commitment to using cutting-edge technology and interactive learning methods ensures that learners stay engaged and challenged throughout their programme. In our conversation with  Mr. Mullane, we also explore the future of business education. As the business landscape continues to change,  the need for adaptable and versatile leaders will only grow. HBS is at the forefront of preparing future business leaders for this new reality. This interview is just the beginning of the conversation about the future of business education. We invite you to join us as we explore the exciting world of HBS and the transformative power of online learning. 

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Q1: With over 20 years of experience in various roles—in manufacturing, technology startups, CEO, and the U.S. Air Force—what motivated you to transition to executive education?

Ans:  To be honest, it was somewhat accidental, but allow me to provide a glimpse of my journey. After completing my undergraduate degree, I entered the military with a scholarship covering my education expenses. I spent five years in the military before transitioning to the private sector for a brief period. Interestingly, as a kid from Texas, I always assumed that everyone at Harvard Business School came from affluent backgrounds in New York. The only reason I applied was because a friend from the military got in, making me think, “If he can, maybe I can too.” And indeed, I did. I joined a year after him.

After graduating, I ventured into a startup, followed by a stint in a manufacturing company. I also engaged in consulting and worked in the for-profit education sector. Almost two decades ago, I returned to Massachusetts, serving as a Chief Operating Officer in a manufacturing company. After a management buyout with a private equity fund, I ran the company for five years until it was acquired by a larger entity. As things often go, being part of a bigger machine became less enjoyable.

Discussing my desire for change with my CFO, she reminded me of my past interest in working at my alma mater. I went online and found a job posting at Harvard University for an Executive Director role in a new online startup at the business school. Intrigued by the opportunity and motivated by the mission to bring education to a global audience, I applied. Harvard, in my view, acted like a large and patient venture capital fund, providing the time and resources needed for a startup to thrive. What drew me in was the chance to contribute to a mission that had personally benefited me. I recognised the value of a Harvard education, and I wanted to extend it to those around the world who couldn’t physically be here. Working in a startup environment within such a renowned institution was both challenging and rewarding. Harvard Business School has proven to be a dynamic and fulfilling place to work, surrounded by exceptionally talented individuals. I’ve truly enjoyed the experience.

Q2. How did your journey from discovering the job post to navigating the online education sector unfold?  How did your qualifications align with their vision for the role?

Ans: Well, they weren’t specifically looking for someone like me. The job description listed around 20 bullet points for the ideal candidate, focusing on qualities like being a technologist with experience in digital marketing. My background was quite different, having managed a manufacturing company focused on welding metal pieces. Despite this disparity, the lessons from my entire career, starting from my early days in the military, is that leadership skills gained in various roles, especially as a general manager, are transferable across industries. Over my 30-year career, I’ve learned that being an effective leader transcends the specifics of any given business. Harvard Business School recognised the value of this perspective, understanding that strong managerial and leadership skills, when well-honed, open doors to diverse opportunities, regardless of industry specifics.

Q3. How did you spearhead the transition of Harvard Business Online, particularly in decisions regarding pedagogy and technology? What was your original vision, and how did you establish the groundwork for its present state while persuading internal stakeholders to endorse online courses?

Ans: Firstly, I want to acknowledge the groundwork laid by the organisation, which had already commenced about a year ago, albeit in its early stages and sought stability. Some crucial decisions had been made prior to my involvement. One pivotal decision was to uphold our pedagogical foundation, the case method, if we were to venture into online education. 

However, finding a technological platform that aligned with this pedagogy was challenging a decade ago. While options like Coursera and edX existed, the consensus among those initiating HBS Online was that these platforms wouldn’t fully support our pedagogical approach. Consequently, a significant decision was made to develop our own platform internally, a daring move given the associated risks, especially for an institution not accustomed to such endeavours. Another noteworthy decision, particularly pertinent to entrepreneurs within large organisations, was to establish the platform independently and off-campus. Building it within the existing infrastructure, with its 120-year history at the business school and 500 years at Harvard, was deemed unlikely to succeed. This decision reflected the application of faculty research and entrepreneurial principles.

When I joined, I was fortunate to have these decisions as a foundation. The subsequent focus was on shaping the portfolio. At the time, there were concerns about the potential impact on traditional MBA enrollment and brand perception. However, I was convinced that offering introductory courses online wouldn’t deter MBA enrollment or harm our brand. Addressing the brand concern, our mission at Harvard Business School is to educate leaders and make a global difference. We firmly believe in this mission, and our commitment extends beyond geographical and traditional MBA constraints. Capitalism, when executed correctly, benefits the world, and we felt a moral obligation to share valuable knowledge with a broader audience. Over time, this belief gained traction, and as our online programs grew, participants consistently rated them as their best online educational experiences.

In essence, it became a repetitive process, akin to being a politician, where I reiterated our mission and the value of our programs. The consistent message, coupled with a belief in our mission, eventually garnered support. Today, our online programs successfully cater to 40,000 students annually.

Q4. How did you successfully navigate the challenge of fostering innovation within your educational domain, particularly in convincing professors to engage? What strategies did you employ to facilitate compelling discussions and inspire professors to embark on innovative course development under your leadership?

Ans: Well, one thing that helped was when our previous Dean famously stated during an interview—I can’t recall the exact year, perhaps about 12 years ago—that it was time to embrace online education. Initially, when asked whether Harvard Business School would venture into online education, he responded, ‘Not in my lifetime.’ However, after a year of observing the evolving landscape and seeing the increasing number of institutions engaging in online education, he realised that not doing so would negatively impact the brand. Revisiting the mission, he recognised that Harvard Business School had a role to play in the online space to assist others and contribute to its mission. Having the Dean publicly declare our commitment to online education was a significant boost.

Another factor is the way we’re organised here at Harvard Business School. Every division in the school—MBA, HBS Online, Executive Education, and others—has a faculty counterpart, following a ‘two-in-the-box’ system. For instance, V.G., my counterpart and I collaborate on setting and communicating strategy. While I handle the business side and staff, we both contribute to strategy, and he serves as the interface to the faculty, championing what we’re trying to achieve.

Admittedly, at the start, it was a bit challenging to get faculty interested in online programmes due to uncertainty about how it would pan out. We sought out faculty interested in creating content with market appeal. Fortunately, being in a business school means even the less popular ideas generally find a market. Over time, as we gained traction, faculty interest grew because they saw the value and quality of our work. Now, we face the challenge of prioritising projects due to the surplus of supply over demand. It’s a combination of strong leadership from the Dean, the ‘two-in-the-box’ management style, and the success of our initiatives building upon each other, aligning people and moving us in the same direction.

Q5. It’s intriguing to observe that from your modest start, the number of students you’ve engaged with has surged to approximately 40,000 annually. What’s the narrative behind this remarkable growth?

Ans: Absolutely! Like starting a marathon with a leisurely stroll, our enrollment journey commenced with a grand total of zero. I’m a bit hazy on the exact numbers, but I distinctly remember us hovering in the humble territory of a few thousand in that inaugural year. It’s not exactly a trajectory akin to a rocket ship; think of it more as a gradual evolution in a landscape where online content has proliferated like confetti. While we’re doing our thing at the business school, the educational scene has transformed into a bustling marketplace. It’s akin to setting up a lemonade stand and discovering there’s an entire street fair happening around you. Undoubtedly, we’ve experienced growth, but it’s been more of a delightful, meandering journey than a straightforward blast-off!

Q6. What captivating trends do you foresee making a lasting impact on the landscape of business education, encompassing areas like technology, operations, and human resources, in the years to come?

Ans: I believe there are three interconnected factors driving this evolution. Firstly, from our institution’s standpoint, there’s a pressing need for increased flexibility. Given the rapid pace of technological advancements, courses and content related to technology can swiftly become outdated. Therefore, we must find ways to be agile and deliver courses and concise content that precisely meets the needs of individuals striving to stay current in their professions. This adaptability is a critical factor.

Secondly, the immense potential lies in technology, especially in Artificial Intelligence (AI). We envision significant opportunities to integrate AI into both online and on-campus courses. Recent experiments in our MBA programme involved using AI to enhance students’ experiences in the classroom. For instance, in our commitment to the case method, AI could function as a virtual professor, engaging in conversations to test the limits of students’ knowledge. This approach mirrors the Socratic method of interaction between a professor and a student, challenging and guiding without providing direct answers. As a personal example, I experimented with ChatGPT, asking it an accounting-related question. Instead of providing the answer when I responded incorrectly, it prompted me to consider whether a balance sheet is about a period or a snapshot in time, fostering a deeper understanding. This illustrates the potential for integrated virtual professors in our online programmes, pushing the boundaries of learning.

Finally, there is a prevailing concern about jobs being automated. However, this trend can enhance the value of an MBA, particularly in terms of leadership. AI cannot replicate the human ability to lead, inspire, and organise people effectively towards a common goal. The strategic understanding of leadership, distinct from technical skills like coding in Python, will become increasingly valuable. Emphasising leadership skills is crucial to preparing for and remaining relevant in the future.

Q7. How extensively are you pushing the boundaries in delving into the realm of personalised large language models (LLMs)? Currently, it appears that such infrastructure is readily available, at least to Harvard, and has become somewhat standardised. You discussed natural language models (NLMs), and now we’re stepping into the era of personalised large language models (LLMs). Essentially, one could meticulously craft their own expansive language model and, by diligently feeding it all Harvard coursework, conceivably attain a level of proficiency closely resembling that of an AI professor engaging in enlightening conversation with a curious student. What are your thoughts in this direction? 

Ans: Certainly, with the caveat that I’m somewhat removed, as most of this experimentation is occurring in the MBA programme. However, there seems to be a growing consensus among students that the true value lies not in replacing the in-class experience but rather in providing opportunities for students to pressure test their thoughts on a given case before entering the classroom. This, in turn, enhances the productivity of in-person sessions. It helps to move beyond the challenges of orchestrating a classroom conversation, where faculty often strive for those “ah-ha” moments. Sometimes, this goes smoothly, following the expected trajectory based on student responses and classroom management. However, at times, it takes a while to transition from basic observations to deeper insights. Envisioning a scenario where AI aids individuals in reaching that deeper understanding before entering the classroom is significant. It sets the stage for experiencing and exploring those insights through actual interactions with faculty and fellow students. This potential is immensely valuable. Furthermore, if AI contributes to improved research, it will enhance the learning process, inform cases, and better prepare students, presenting substantial opportunities in the realm of education.

Q8. How do you address the challenges of managing multiple programmes within your broad portfolio, especially in ensuring the needs of diverse student groups are met?

Ans: Yes, indeed. You’ve essentially highlighted the core challenge in your question—the need to cater to students’ diverse needs. As I mentioned earlier, our key focus is on maintaining flexibility to bring programmes to market swiftly. These programmes aim to equip executives, managers, and professionals with the contemporary knowledge they require for immediate application, benefiting both themselves and their respective organisations. It’s noteworthy that educational institutions historically were not designed for agility, having followed traditional approaches for centuries. Currently, our Dean is remarkably proactive, propelling us to explore the frontiers of technology and digital transformation.

Undoubtedly, navigating this path is challenging. Like any organisational or cultural shift, it demands effort, persistence, and the inevitable overcoming of obstacles. However, I am content with our progress and the direction we are heading. Additionally, I recognise the importance of not only determining the content we teach but also the delivery modality.

Considering the reality that not everyone can be on campus consistently, we are exploring a mix of online formats, both synchronous and asynchronous, combined with on-campus components. Identifying the optimal balance is crucial. To be candid, it appears that preferences are somewhat polarized. There’s a group that insists on a fully on-campus experience, while another segment prefers an entirely online setup. What remains unclear is the middle ground. I believe there’s potential there, but it’s a space we are still working to define.

Q9. What’s your grand vision for programme delivery, and are there any upcoming innovations to enhance your methodology further?

Ans: Yeah, it’s funny. It’s not nearly as it seems. It’s mostly outside of technology, to be honest. At least it’s not the primary driver. You know, things like running some international programs—now, should we be doing more of that? How much more should we be doing? Currently, we’ve conducted very few; in fact, only one program in a different language with translation. Should we do that more? Again, it’s about getting this mission aspect right. There are many people in the world who could benefit from what we offer but don’t speak English. How do we address that?

The other significant consideration is how we implement regional pricing. There are people who could benefit from what we offer, but we charge a uniform price worldwide, which, even by some standards, is inexpensive. A typical HBS Online certificate course costs about $1,750. It’s certainly less than most MBAs, although it’s not an MBA or degree-granting. It’s designed for more focused learning, helping someone gain knowledge today and apply it in their job. However, there are numerous opportunities to extend the benefits to more people if we can fine-tune regional pricing and address issues arising from currency fluctuations. All these considerations are more macro, strategic questions about how we want to grow, where we want to position ourselves, and the impact we aim to achieve. Certainly, technology can assist in solving some of these problems, but ultimately, it’s about making informed decisions on our growth trajectory.

Q10. Given the proliferation of online courses and the availability of programs from institutions like Harvard Business School (HBS), alongside the vast amount of information on platforms like YouTube, the decision-making process for prospective students has become more intricate. In this context, what are the two or three essential factors that students should prioritise when selecting an online course from HBS?

Ans: I believe the first consideration lies in identifying the knowledge gap and understanding what needs to be learned. This is a fundamental aspect. One advantage of online programmes like ours is the ability to focus solely on specific topics, such as negotiation or strategy. The second factor involves conducting a cost-benefit analysis—evaluating whether the outcomes gained from the course justify the associated costs. This issue is not exclusive to the US; it’s a global concern. Many individuals invest heavily in degrees only to realise later that the value of the degree and acquired knowledge may not be sufficient to offset the incurred debt. While online programmes like ours involve less financial risk, they still require careful analysis. Even with a less significant financial investment, one must assess if the programme aligns with their goals. Lastly, it’s crucial to determine whether foundational skills across various areas are needed, guiding the choice between pursuing an MBA or acquiring specific skills applicable immediately. As mentioned earlier, this ties into the decision of whether to take time off for an MBA. While there are reasons to pause and pursue an MBA, such as gaining distance and time for ideation and networking, it’s not always necessary. Many individuals, including a significant portion of those enrolling in HBS Online courses, identify as entrepreneurs. In summary, the three key considerations are as follows: Will it enhance my knowledge and skills? Is the benefit worth the cost? Do I need a broad foundation or specific skills?

Q11. What advice would you offer to individuals starting their professional journeys in today’s dynamic business environment? Be it with companies or entrepreneurs.

Ans: One thing that I’m certain about—perhaps because I’m an older individual now—is that our younger employees, as well as the younger MBA candidates and individuals I encounter, are very impatient. The first piece of advice I would give is to be patient because building anything, whether it’s a career or a business or both, takes time if you’re going to do it well. 

Now, I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t be aggressive or push boundaries. However, most people won’t become the CEO of a unicorn at 25 years old. In fact, 99.999% of the world won’t achieve that. So, you’re not an abject failure if you don’t reach that level. There’s nothing wrong with striving, but realise that good things take time. Even things we think of—Amazon, for example—were getting started when I was an MBA student, and I graduated in 1999. Admittedly, Jeff Bezos did well long before now, but it took time to grow that business.

The second thing that I believe is really important is to pay attention early on to what you’re good at and what you’re not. Hopefully, you get better at everything as you get older because you gain more experience. Still, as a human being, you’ll be biased toward being better at some things than others. This is crucial for several reasons. One is that as you become a leader—and this has been a significant lesson in my life—surrounding yourself with people who know a lot more about a given topic than you do is critical to your success, the organisation’s success, and even their success. Make sure you know where your own gaps are.

The third piece of advice is to take professional risks. You won’t grow if you don’t stand up in front of a group of people and give a presentation, even though it might scare the heck out of you. Taking on a complex project where volunteers are needed or starting a business—take those risks. It’s a lot easier,  sounding like an old guy here, to take those risks earlier than later in your life. So, don’t be shy about doing them when you’re younger as opposed to when you’re older.

Q12. Your book title, “The Father, Son, and Holy Shuttle,” exudes wit despite the perception that wisdom often comes with age, usually at the expense of humour. With your varied background spanning the military, MBA, and now HBS Online, coupled with your introspective and measured approach, where do you continue to conceal your infectious humour?

Ans: My dad’s definitely a big influence! He’s got a contagious laugh, and our whole family loves finding humor in everyday moments. It’s true that laughter is the best medicine, and I think that playful spirit shines through in my writing. My colleague actually describes it best: “He’s still got that mischievous twinkle in his eye, always ready with a quip that leaves you wondering if he’s serious or just pulling your leg.” I guess that’s kind of my style – a bit of silly wordplay and unexpected humour.

Q13. In your opinion, what are the three key factors for assessing success in both personal and professional realms? 

Ans: I risk not sounding funny, but I think everyone understands where I’m coming from. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but think about what people will say at your funeral about who you were. I’ve heard of people writing their own obituary before, and again, it sounds morbid, but it really centers you around, “What am I doing with my life, and what do I want people to say about me when I’m gone?” If they can say things like, “They made me laugh,” or “He was great to work with,” or “He was a great family man,” whatever it may be, if all of those things you aspire to can be said, then you’ve probably done well. So, think of the end and then work backward from it, almost like a business problem, and hopefully, it helps inform your behavior and your goals today.

Another thing I really enjoy about being a manager is seeing the people I work with and those who work for me succeed. Think about what I’ve done to help others become better in what they do, whether that’s in their personal lives or their professional lives. Lastly, if everyone you work with says great things about you, but your family says bad things, or vice versa, that’s probably not success. So, think through the trade-offs you’re going to make between your work and your personal life. It’s hard, but finding a balance that lets you give what you need to give to those who work with and for you and gives what you need to give to your family is critical to happiness and that measure of success. Maybe it’s a dissatisfying answer in the sense that it’s not about salary or title or anything like that, but I think most people would agree that if you can address those three things and be happy about how you’ve addressed them, then you’ve achieved success.

Q14. Unveil the MBA magic in just 10 captivating words! 

Ans: My answer is a toolkit to maximise personal, professional, and societal value. 

Reflecting on my own  MBA, it’s not about specific lessons but the valuable connections. Every job post-Harvard came through an HBS connection. In less than 10 words, it’s about community. 

Our conversation with Patrick Mullane has vividly illustrated the transformative landscape of business education. Under his visionary leadership, HBS Online has emerged as a leader in innovation, accessibility, and excellence within the realm of online certificate and credential programmes. As we navigate the ever-evolving world of business, HBS Online’s commitment to nurturing adaptable, tech-savvy, and globally-minded leaders is more crucial than ever.

The future of the MBA is no longer confined to traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. It’s found in the flexibility and reach of online platforms, the embrace of cutting-edge technology, and the dedication to preparing leaders for a future that demands agility and vision. HBS Online is at the forefront of this revolution, paving the way for a new generation of business minds to thrive in a world where borders are blurring and opportunities abound.

This interview is just a stepping stone into the vast and exciting world of HBS Online and the future of business education. We encourage you to explore further, delve deeper into the transformative power of online learning, and discover how HBS Online can equip you with the skills and knowledge to chart your own path to success in the ever-changing landscape of business.

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