Everett Harper, MBA ’99: What Matters to Me Now and Why
“There’s hardly a more complex system than a system of humans.”
We don’t know all the answers. The alternative, Everett Harper says, is to ”pursue mastery in uncertainty.” | Kim Salt
Like most of us, I was trained from childhood to always have the “right” answer. However, over the last 15 years, the practice of curiosity has been more important to me because it is the foundation for navigating complex challenges.
In this ongoing Stanford Business series, we ask Stanford GSB alumni to reflect on how their worldviews have changed in the years since they earned their degrees.
Everett Harper, MBA ’99, is the founder and CEO of Truss, a board member of the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the author of Move to the Edge, Declare It Center: Practices and Processes for Creatively Solving Complex Problems.
I had a glimpse of this when I was a PhD student in organizational behavior at the GSB. Asking great questions to fuel research was applauded. But when I transferred to the MBA program, the biggest surprise was the expectation of certainty, epitomized by Professor Van Horne’s classic response to my dithering answers: “Decision time, Mr. Harper!” I adapted — and to my surprise, really enjoyed CorpFin — but maintained a side hustle of curiosity, like studying “the strength of weak ties” in sociologist Mark Granovetter’s Social Networks class.
As I’d come to learn, the business world is more about solving complicated problems with lots of unknowns than linear ones with clear answers. As the founder and CEO of Truss, a human-centered software company, and a board member of CARE USA, I spend most of my time making decisions with imperfect information.
For instance, there wasn’t a precise roadmap to bootstrap a remote-first, diverse, salary-transparent company in 2012. There was definitely no linear solution to help us fix HealthCare.gov after it crashed in 2013 — in fact, a linear system tanked the site in the first place.
We learned to use practices and tools that originated in engineering, design, behavioral economics, and organizational behavior — hypothesis testing, agile sprints, and pre-mortems — to build systems to navigate through uncertainty. By the time COVID hit in 2020, we’d had a decade head start on remote work and could help our clients manage this unexpected challenge.
Comfort with ambiguity and complexity equips leaders to deal with events outside of “work” as well. How do you lead your company while managing your own response to tragedy? After the murder of George Floyd, I held an all-hands meeting for my shell-shocked employees. To create space for them, I acknowledged my vulnerability: “I’m a CEO, but I’m also a target. I don’t have the answer, but we have your back.”
There’s hardly a more complex system than a system of humans. Looking at the current GSB curriculum, I’m delighted to see the evolution toward students practicing the curiosity needed to lead in daunting, ambiguous environments. If we are to make a dent in our warming climate, create sustainable companies, and enable more people to thrive in the age of AI, we will need to pursue mastery in uncertainty — in our world and in ourselves.
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