November 1, 2020
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we are honored to share the ambitious journey of Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, PhD, MSc, BA, Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Gardner takes us through her Extra(ordinary) journey, beginning from a conservative, yet humble, upbringing from Amish Country. We listen in awe as Dr. Gardner shares her childhood memories; her challenges; and her bravery in the decisions that supported her to step outside of parameters defined by her traditional upbringing. Her resiliency and determination in paving a successful path toward leading discussions on collaboration at the world’s top law school is exceptional. As she begins speaking, we feel the riveting spirit that energized her to pursue limitless goals.
“I was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is known as Amish Country,” she begins sharing. “We have a lot of relatives who are deeply conservative and are in sects like the Mennonites. I still have relatives who are very traditional - don’t use electricity; don’t drive cars. Both of my grandmothers were married with children by the time they were sixteen. They obviously hadn’t finished high school. So, I come from some relatively humble beginnings; and from people who were extremely hard-working. My mother always told me that she wanted me to have every opportunity that she didn’t have”. Dr. Gardner has two brothers, seven and nine years older than her. “From very early on, I realized I had to run faster than anyone thought I could run, or climb higher in the trees. I realized, even if nobody else was comparing me to my brothers, I was comparing myself to them. It gave me almost impossible goals to keep up with them, but it happened often enough that I got a taste of what happens when you really do persevere.”
From early on, Dr. Gardner says that she learned nothing works out one hundred percent of the time; but, realized that “nothing will work ever if you don’t keep trying”. She elaborates, “The successes I did achieve were enough to keep me going. I had immense support from my mother. She was an incredible supporter. She bolstered me in the times when I would receive the pushback from extended family. My brothers and I are first generation college students. Both my brothers went to a good college nearby our home. They received college degrees, and one went on to Medical School and one went on to Law School. But, I was the first person in our family who left our hometown to go to college”. She smiles proudly. “This was a big deal, especially as a girl. We were in a very traditional, patriarchal community. In many, many ways, I am kind of the odd one out. I was super curious about what it was like to live and experience other cultures; what it was like to live in other places. So, I always had that curiosity - I am not quite sure where it came from”. Dr. Gardner remembers her favourite picture book during her childhood; two little teddy bears that took a trip to New York City and experienced many adventures. “I thought: one day, I’m going to go there. Little did I know that I would end up living on four continents and experiencing life as a resident in major capitals around the world!”.
Upon high school graduation, Dr. Gardner entered Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, and chose to study Japanese. “I was a Japanese major! When I was sixteen, I went to a summer program sponsored by the Pennsylvania Governor's School for International Studies. I was fascinated by it; in part because it was as foreign as anything I had ever encountered. Many of the people around me in Lancaster spoke Pennsylvania-Dutch, but it was a dialect of German. So, German was pretty common around there”. She continues, “But, Japanese was something as exotic as you could imagine. So, I started studying the language in a tiny little boarding school in my hometown, completing a language exchange with some of the students there. The Japanese students would teach me Japanese, and I would help them with their English. I kept up my Japanese, independently, for two years before I started at University of Pennsylvania. Thereafter, I wanted to experience life in Japan, so I applied directly to a Japanese University and studied there for the semester. I had an incredible experience staying with a couple of different families, which really gave me a huge amount of insight into the culture. Japan is really, incredibly foreign; it’s not like moving to Europe. It was challenging culturally, especially for a young woman. But, it gave me a lot of confidence that I could live anywhere!”
Upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gardner joined the organization, Procter and Gamble, in New York. “I was very interested in business,” she reveals. “Nobody in my family was in business. We didn’t have any close relatives who were entrepreneurs or in the corporate world. So, Procter and Gamble was a great opportunity for me to join a company that had a very strong reputation for leadership development and training. I joined them with a high hope that since it was an international and multinational company, I would have the opportunity to move around the world with them. At that point, I was fluent in German and Japanese, so I thought maybe I could go to Asia; maybe I could go to Europe…” She elaborates on her ambition, “I basically experienced two big reorganizations after I joined Procter and Gamble, and it became harder and harder to move internationally with them, unless you were running a country”, she laughs. “And there I was, at age 22, with the idea that I had to work for another twenty years before having the chance to move overseas again. It wasn’t happening. So, I started looking for other opportunities and discovered that I was able to apply for a Fulbright fellowship. I got that, and off I went to Germany!”
Post-reunification, Dr. Gardner moved to former East Germany, where she worked alongside the German Ministry of Education to help reform former East German schools with their English curriculum. “There I was in the middle of former East Germany in a little town called Dessau, which was fairly depopulated by the time I moved there. Anyone who had the option of leaving to go to the West, had already done that. So, it was a lot of elder people; a lot of people who didn’t really have the option to move; and, a lot of Russian immigrants who had descended from Catherine the Great”, she recalls thoughtfully. “So, under German regulations, they had the right to move back to an area where they could trace their roots. I was surrounded by a lot of people who I might not have encountered otherwise in life. It was a tough year in many regards because it was this small East German city going through some really tough times. But, I really made the most of it.”
Upon completion of her fellowship, Dr. Gardner proceeded to her Masters at the London School of Economics in London, United Kingdom. “I thought there was a good chance that I was going to go straight into a doctoral program after Fulbright. I had a pretty strong itch to go into academia to become a professor. I remember when living in New York, I met a number of professors at New York University for advice on what it was like as a professor. I also went to talk to some of my former professors in Pennsylvania and was encouraged to go into academia. At that time, McKinsey & Company came along and discussed primary research with me. It sounded fascinating. I was making choices that really allowed me to keep opening up opportunities. Anyone I spoke with said, ‘You can’t go wrong joining a consultancy like McKinsey & Company. You will get exposure to many different types of problems and work with super high-quality people.’ Again, I was living in London and still incredibly interested in travelling the world. Obviously, McKinsey & Company opens up a lot of these opportunities. The choice was relatively easy at that point to head into consulting.”
Dr. Gardner becomes solemn recalling these memories. “I had an amazing time. I mean, it was tough and there were definitely times when I was unhappy. Either because I was working around the clock or I was on a project which was extremely demanding and I felt overwhelmed. It’s not like it was easy by any stretch, but it was incredibly challenging, it was intellectually stimulating. Changing focus every three to four months on a project was fascinating”. She was offered an opportunity to move to South Africa, where Dr. Gardner and her new husband worked for a year with their respective consulting firms. “We moved for a year to South Africa. We lived in Johannesburg and had fascinating client experiences there. I think we really learned so much about race relations and the part individuals can play in either building or undermining society. We later decided to move with our consulting firms back to London. Initially, we thought we would be moving back to the United States; but, we missed London. I spent another couple of years at McKinsey & Company, and then moved on to my PhD.”
Dr. Gardner researched a number of different PhD programs. “I considered going back to the London School of Economics. I had an incredible professor there. He had been my thesis advisor when I completed my Masters thesis. And, he was very generous and thoughtful with the advice he gave me. I think a lot of the faculty would have tried selfishly to draw a student back into their fold and benefit from it. But instead, he said, ‘Heidi, you’ve been working in a team-based environment for four or five years at this point. You have to realize that a PhD at the London School of Economics would be a pretty isolating experience.’”. She continues, “He encouraged me, instead, to go across town and look at the program at the London Business School. Here, you join with a cohort and have two years of mandatory classwork where you really get to know your fellow students and colleagues. You work in a much more structured program with faculty. He was dead right! That was exactly what I needed. I applied to the program at the London Business School and left McKinsey & Company on very good terms.”
Dr. Gardner shares a light-bulb moment with us, confirming her choice to head back into academia, and why this was the right decision for her. “I remember the very moment that led me here. I was sitting in Milan, Italy, during my employment with McKinsey, and I was running a big, cross-Europe project for a client. My counterpart, who was running a piece of the project in Asia, flew to Milan where we met over breakfast one morning. He was saying, ‘I was thinking about it in the shower this morning…’ and was talking about the direction the project could take. And, I just couldn’t pay attention. The phrase ‘I was thinking about it in the shower this morning’ kept reverberating in my head and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I never think about work in the shower!’ He was so excited by what we were doing that he was willing to think about it and play with these ideas, even when he didn’t have to! From that point on, I decided that I also needed a job that excited me to the point where I would also think about it in the shower,” she smiles. “This is why heading back into academia felt like the absolute right direction. I do feel incredibly fortunate to have followed my instincts.”
“The London School of Business was a great PhD program”, she states fondly. “Both our daughters were born during my PhD. And, I’m not sure this is true, but at least a couple of administrators and faculty told me that there hadn’t been anybody who had children during that PhD program - either men or women - who had finished their degrees and went on to a professorship. Now, there have been lots of people since then who have done so, but back then it felt like a risky move. We wanted to start a family; so, I had children during a PhD program. Nobody ever believes that I didn’t plan it this way, but my first daughter was born the morning that Spring Break started! By the time everyone else returned from break, I decided I was going to go back and finish my course credits. I could have waited a while, but I was excited to get back into studying. Frankly, I didn’t know the first thing about raising a newborn, but I definitely knew my way around a classroom; how to pass exams; and how to get the most out of a curriculum. So, I was delighted to get back and take one more class.”
Two years later, Dr. Gardner welcomed her second child. “What I found is that after having children, I was so much more focused and so much more productive in my PhD program. And, I was incredibly blessed. I’m not claiming to be superhuman; I had an incredible infrastructure and support around me. But, I was able to be really productive and ended up writing an award-winning dissertation. I was doing really well in the academic job market”. She takes us to what led her to the world’s top university. “I was invited to fly out to a number of different universities and interview with them for positions in their business schools. When I received an offer from Harvard Business School, it was absolutely the right one for me to choose. We moved our family to Boston, where I spent six years at the Harvard Business School on the faculty before moving to Harvard Law School. I have been at Harvard Law School in a couple of different capacities ever since then.”
Dr. Gardner details for us her incredible roles with Harvard Law School. “One role is as a lecturer teaching the graduate law students, who are the JD’s and the LLM’s. This is equivalent to teaching the MBA students at the business school. I actually left this role when I went on sabbatical to London with my family last year. The second role is as Faculty Chair and instructor in executive education. In these programs very experienced lawyers come back to campus for a short time - anywhere from two to six days - and complete a crash course. Oftentimes, it’s related not directly to the law itself, but to the practice of it (leadership and the courses I teach around collaboration). The third role is my title: Distinguished Fellow. This is in the Center on the Legal Profession; this is my research home for the books I have written since joining Harvard Law”. She is humble, but we encourage her to continue. “I am still publishing case studies and articles, and have a lot of research publications through this position. What is fascinating to me is to see how people consume education, depending on the experience they have had in the working world. What I experience teaching students is that there is a massive amount of diversity. I think something that is not well-portrayed in fictional accounts of a place like Harvard Law School is they show only the surface level diversity. They show superficial diversity. What I am talking about is incredible diversity through and through. We have people who are extreme extraverts and they externally process their ideas; and, we have others who are incredible introverts where they won’t speak until they have formulated their thoughts - not just in sentences, but in structured paragraphs. In the classroom, I try to create a very inclusive, psychologically safe environment because I want to challenge students; I want them to challenge each other. In doing this, I want to give them confidence that when they are challenged by a client or a judge or whomever out in the work world, they have the confidence to be able to speak with their authentic voice. This is something that is very important to me.”
Also when teaching executives, Dr. Gardner works to create an inclusive environment in the classroom. “I pay a lot of attention to whether people, by the second or third session, have had a chance to contribute their thoughts. And, if they haven’t, I invite them into that discussion. It is important to me that we do this because research tells us that groups are higher functioning to the extent that they have more equal participation from their members. Some of the research on collective intelligence says that a group will outperform even its best members if everyone has equal opportunities to contribute to the problem-solving discussion”. Dr. Gardner’s passion is contagious, “In the classroom, I believe our best learning experiences are when we hear from a huge variety of people. We have a tremendous diversity of people around us. Some of the common characteristics are pretty obvious. We have people who are very, very bright; incredibly smart. We have people who are very driven to use their intelligence for something that they find meaningful. I think that’s perhaps some of the difference of where people come from. They are all highly motivated to achieve, but they have a very different understanding of what achievement means. And, there’s space for that. There are people who are highly motivated to be the litigator and make a big name for themselves; but, there are probably far more people who are motivated by other factors. They are motivated by creating access to justice or some other kind of social concern. Or, they are motivated to solve really complicated, intellectual problems, and they have chosen law as the domain to tackle those problems. Many of the Master students come into a program with a clear understanding of the organizational or team dynamics in a law firm that are suboptimal. So they are really curious about trying to figure out how to take their knowledge of the law and their knowledge of the work environment and combine those to do something different.”
Dr. Gardner elaborates on her measure of success for us. “I think success, for me, is being able to take a step back and see that I am creating value in ways that doesn’t just benefit me, but benefits other people. Success, on a personal level, really means that I am able to draw on my strengths - the things that I’m not just good at, but really passionate about. And, giving myself the license to recognize and admit the areas where I struggle. All my work for the past ten or twelve years has been focused on collaboration - smart collaboration. When I talk about smart collaboration, I refer to people who have highly specialized skill sets, or different experiences in life and with work. We can come together to tackle problems that are bigger than anyone could do on their own. I really try to live this philosophy in my own work, and always try and figure out the things that drive me - what are the things I have been told I am good at? Not just that I believe that I’m good at, but I that I have been told again and again that I am good at? People whom I respect and trust hold me up in certain ways. Those are the characteristics and the skills that I want to keep leveraging. We know that people thrive at work when they feel like they are doing their best work day in and day out. And, I am really incredibly fortunate to be in a situation where I feel like, generally, this is what I am doing.”
Dr. Gardner’s childhood was safe and secure; but, we learn not one where ambition and education may have been valued for women; and, where intellectual endeavors were looked down upon. “Being raised in and a part of an environment like that, and being able to piece together all of these experiences, adventures, and opportunities that I have persevered toward is an illustration of taking whatever is in front of you and making the most of it. It is something that has been valuable in so many different circumstances for me”. She continues, “After I had lived all over the world, and had reached my goals, and achieved success, one encounter I had with my grandmother was her lack of acknowledgement in my achievements. I recall her words to me: ‘don’t forget where you came from.’ At some point, with the support that I did have from people who believed in me and understood that a choice that was different from theirs, was simply a different choice. It wasn’t a reflection of my undervaluing of what they have chosen. It was simply a different choice. There were just enough of these people to keep me going. And then, I was able to make my choices much more freely. It’s important for everyone to have people who believe in them; people who validate their choices. I don’t know anyone who is strong enough, in the face of complete opposition, to do this alone.”
Dr. Gardner continues: “You are absolutely right. People should consider defining their own success. Your question regarding what success means, and how everyone has a different definition of it, is critical for people to think about. What genuinely drives them; as opposed to how they would like to be seen by others? I think it’s important for all of us to remember, as well, that sometimes we can do something that feels small, even micro to us that ends up having such a big impact on somebody else. One of the things that helps people become more confident is genuine, authentic constructive feedback. I don’t mean an annual performance appraisal, but rather almost the exact opposite. The small, context-specific, action-oriented pieces of advice and mere observations that happen when individuals work together. I think we can always do better. All of us.” Dr. Gardner knew from a very young age that the world was bigger than the one she was born into. Her story inspires many people who fear the unknown; but are determined to pursue their purpose and follow the instinct that may change the course of their entire journey. The challenges that could have inhibited Dr. Gardner’s success have fueled provoking discussions in equality…
Dr. Gardner chose courage to persevere, despite the uncertainty in her journey. She discloses many moments where she encountered difficult choices and doubts for her decisions. Not all of the choices Dr. Gardner made were completely hers; unknowing if she was headed in the direction she had even set goals toward. However, Dr. Gardner forged forward with powerful ambition; her belief in herself; and a little risk; which, allowed her to become resilient in making choices that were unconventional in a world that wouldn’t resonate with her spirit.
Leading by example, Dr. Gardner turned her obstacles into something incredibly positive. She remained agile, not allowing herself to become paralyzed by fear. She crafted a path, followed her spirit, and guided herself to a measure of success she created and achieved…one course and one country at a time.
“They always say luck favours the prepared. I do feel incredibly lucky, but I tend to talk about it in terms of a combination of strong intuition, hard work and some good fortune. A positive spirit is really essential. The world is changing so quickly these days and our ability to predict is so limited… it’s a tremendous skill for people to be able to flex dynamically, and to recognize that they have far more power to shape their environment than they may think they do.”
Dr. Heidi K. Gardner, PhD, MSc, BA
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar, Founder & CEO