What Happened When UC Berkeley's B-School Cherry-Picked Students Who Personify Its Values

The Berkeley-Haas school has codified a well-defined culture into a set of core brand values: namely, “question the status quo (innovate and champion bold ideas),” “students always (never feel you have learned all you need),” “beyond yourself (consider larger interests than short-term profits, go beyond personal ambition)," and “confidence without attitude (without arrogance employ analysis, trust and collaboration).” The values are oriented toward the reduction of overconfidence and self-focus, which are perceived to be excessively present among the business graduates and leaders of the top business schools.

These values are highly differentiated, have substance, are true to the heritage and are consistent with the perceptions of the school. Most remarkably, they are not simply communication tools but drive operations from the curriculum, research priorities to staff programs, and faculty hiring. The curriculum, for example, has been extensively revamped in order to introduce elements of creativity, innovation, collaboration, ethics, and social responsibility.

The latest dimension to be touched is admissions. Applicants to the Berkeley-Haas school are now asked to address the four values in one way or another in their application. The admissions class of 2011-2012 is the first class in which all were exposed to the values-influenced application. Dean Richard Lyons, the chief culture builder, challenged the admitted to consider that “the business school choice is lifelong--don’t make lifelong choices that don’t fit.”

According to Dean Lyons, the result was extraordinary. The students have an extreme level of cohesiveness (“they love each other”) and a common purpose that other classes at Berkeley-Haas did not have. It is both palpable and remarkable. The fact that they passed a culture screen and became motivated to attend because of the culture clearly had an impact.

Of course, the power of a strong culture applied to hiring has been demonstrated before by a few other organizations that are blessed with a culture that drives operations and strategy. Zappos, for example, has 10 values--including “be a little bit weird”--that guide hiring. Applicants are asked to describe something that they did that was weird. Further, new hires are given several thousand dollars to leave if they feel after joining that there is not a culture fit for them.

However, these examples are relatively rare, and Berkeley-Haas stands out as a case study for how a culture codified with brand values can make a huge difference in a competitive arena in which there seems to be little real differentiation.

This article was reprinted with permission from Prophet's Aaker on Brands

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