What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School: Notes from a Street-Smart Executive

What They Don't Teach You At Harvard Business School: Notes From A Street-Smart Executive
Publisher: Bantam
Published: 6/1/1986
Mark H. McCormack, one of the most successful entrepreneurs in American business, is widely credited as the founder of the modern-day sports marketing industry. On a handshake with Arnold Palmer and less than a thousand dollars, he started International Management Group and, over a four-decade period, built the company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with offices in more than forty countries.

Book Summary - What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School by Mark McCormack

Key Insights

Effectiveness in a business setting is about more than simply making a good sale. There is also a huge psychological component involved in any successful economic transaction, and leveraging your knowledge of the consumer’s true needs in order to best connect them with your product is key. As such, the role of active listening and communication in all aspects of buying and selling is essential for commercial success. Consumers want to hear your story...and they want to know that you hear theirs too.

Key Points

Active Listening

As a society, we are regularly bombarded with numbers. From growth projections to user data statistics to other objective analytics, our economy operates, largely, by way of quantification.

Numbers can certainly be useful in addressing problems--on both an individual and a corporate level--but, in many cases, they fail to offer a complete picture of any situation.


Numbers don’t account for relationships.

Whether you are selling a product or buying one, it is critical that you understand the personality of the person or people you are working with.

Why do these people want the product?

What will it do for them?

How does it align with their individual/company goals?

These qualitative perspectives are all worth considering when establishing a business relationship.

While a prospective customer is often sharing one narrative with you, they could be offering a very different story to their colleagues around the water cooler later on.

For this reason, active listening is critical in determining what lies beneath the surface in any potential transaction. Connecting with buyers and sellers in business settings should extend far beyond the facts and figures. Ultimately, humans want to connect on a human level first. A sale can be built from there.

Let’s look at an example.

For years, Pepsi unsuccessfully pursued Burger King in an attempt to collaborate. Burger King, on the other hand, was already involved in an agreement with Coca-Cola.

So, what finally changed Burger King’s mind and convinced the company to switch to Pepsi?

Pepsi finally started listening. They realized that underneath the surface, what Burger King really wanted was a company that related to their positionality. When Pepsi took the approach in their pitch that both Burger King and Pepsi were ‘number two companies’ (as opposed to McDonald’s and Coca-Cola who were number one), Burger King made the switch to Pepsi’s products in an act of solidarity.

When you can relate to the customer and make a strong connection, it is much more likely you will make a sale.

Shifting Your Approach

When it comes to buyer and seller dynamics, we all have preconceptions about what we will see and experience, depending on context.

For instance, if you walk into a car dealership, you might expect a salesperson to aggressively push you towards buying a car. Perhaps this salesperson will share statistics and percentages regarding fuel efficiency, cost, and other vehicle features in order to encourage you to buy that company’s brand of car as opposed to another one.

But maybe, you just wanted to look around and casually consider some car-buying options, not with the end goal of making an immediate purchase. Therefore, when the salesperson approached you armed with data and strong, persuasive efforts, you felt overwhelmed by all the options and left the dealership altogether.

The point? We can not assume that consumers want what we think they want. In fact, it can often be valuable if we alter our approach from what is expected.

Rather than aggressively pushing the customer towards a purchase, the salesperson in this example could have experimented with a gentler tactic, serving as a resource in the background, not actively pursuing the sale. The customer may not have expected this approach, and, in turn, they could have been even more interested in purchasing a car because he or she did not feel hounded.

There is power in reverse psychology!

Personalized Communication

We live in a world where communication is constant. From our friends. From our family. From the companies where we work. From the stores where we shop. From the restaurants where we dine.

So, if you are a seller who is trying to break through the ‘noise’ of advertising communication coming from every direction, how do you do it?


We are quick to delete form emails because they don’t make us feel special. Anything that starts out with “dear customer” or “dear student” leaves us feeling like nothing more than a number.

Instead, in sending out communication, use whatever personal information you have at your disposal. Sometimes this is adding a personal note when someone is interested in buying your product or explaining in an email why your service will relate to the consumer’s needs specifically. This can be the difference between a sale and a missed opportunity.

We are more likely to value the individuals and organizations that make a sincere effort to get to know us on a personal level.

On Rejection and Other Feelings

As the idiom goes, ‘if you are down, that’s okay, but don’t stay down.’ The subtext here is that while you will undoubtedly experience rejection and disappointment many times throughout your career, it is key to turn these negative experiences into fuel for future success.

Remember: rejection is rarely personal. Most of the time, failing to make a sale is a result of an incompatibility with the product, not a reflection of whether the potential buyer liked you as a person or not.

Speaking of feelings, you also want to make sure you are trusting yours. If something does not feel right, for whatever reason, it is okay to hit the brakes and stop a transaction or drop a customer or move in a different direction. Instinct is a powerful tool, and it should not be ignored.

Timing is important and if it doesn’t feel like it is the right time for you to make a particular decision, it is completely acceptable to change your mind.

Timing and World Choice

As stated above, timing is critical. Think of our current situation with COVID-19. If a ton of companies had started selling fabric masks in the United States five years ago, would they have been highly successful? Probably not. But now, because coronavirus precautions have become imperative, mask sales have taken off.

Another example of the importance of timing is when McCormack tried to develop a professional golf tour in South America. Unbeknownst to him, the timing was off with this endeavor, due to skyrocketing inflation and a severe devaluation of the currency. The tour could have been successful in other circumstances, but at the particular time of its development, it was going to be too costly overall.

In addition to timing considerations in the business world, it is also key to consider your word choice. In many cases, considering your word choice could actually involve saying nothing at all.

For instance, if there are downsides to a particular sale, it is not advisable to bring those up to the consumer, because there is no purpose in doing so. Maybe you know that a newer model of this electronic you are selling will soon become available. So? By telling the consumer about the coming update, you are distracting him or her from the benefits of the current product and possibly losing a sale.

Accentuate the positives. Always.

Quality and Growth

When going into business, quality has to be the focus from the start. Quality in terms of your product, your employees, and even your clients. If any one aspect of your company is lacking in this regard, it will be difficult to compensate for the deficit.

When McCormack founded IMG--an international management organization for sports figures and celebrities--in the 1960s, his first client was Arnold Palmer. While Arnold Palmer is now considered one of the best golfers of all-time, he had only one championship under his belt when he was hired by McCormack. Still, McCormack had wanted him as a client because of his courageous and classy personality. He wanted his company to reflect the golfer’s values. And it did. Quality.

From the time we are children measuring our height with a yardstick against the wall, we are all about growth. However, in growing a company, it is essential not to grow too fast.


You could easily end up outpacing yourself.

For instance, maybe you have a product that people really want and so you get tons of sales orders right off the bat. Then, you hire rapidly and add employees to your company so that you can get the products out faster.

However, in this hypothetical example, you never took the time to ensure that your product was high quality before scaling up. This could be detrimental in the long-term, as consumers will now be disappointed in what they have received and could be less trusting of your goods in the future.

Slow and steady.


Busy has become the new black. This is to say, deeming yourself a busy person has turned into a status symbol within society.

However, while many of us strive to fit a million activities into our schedules, we must be smart about our priorities.

Just as we schedule our professional responsibilities, we are at our best when we also build in time for leisure activities like hanging out with friends, exercising, and engaging in hobbies.

With effective scheduling, you will find yourself in a better position for establishing a business, managing a business, and generally taking control of your personal and professional life.

The Main Take-away

While business schools are often very procedural in their teaching of entrepreneurial practices, there is only so much you can learn within the confines of a classroom. Certainly, the theory is a critical component in contextualizing the art of buying and selling, but it is often not until theory can be applied that it is fully understood. What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School examines the pedagogical gaps in business instruction, encouraging students and new professionals to listen actively, do the unexpected, personalize communication, and effectively organize their time in order to achieve entrepreneurial success in our ever-changing society.

About the Author

Mark McCormack was born in 1930 in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Yale Law School where he earned a J.D. before serving in the United States Army.

Throughout his lifetime, McCormack held several influential roles including lawyer, sports agent, writer, and entrepreneur.

Most notably, he was the founder and CEO of IMG, an international management organization that works with sports figures and celebrities.

In addition to What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School, McCormack wrote a few other books including The Terrible Truth About Lawyers.

He died in 2003 at age 72.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *