David Ager’s brain is always forming connections. Speaking to him in a quiet corner of Harvard Business School on a rainy Friday, I found that our conversation came full-circle many times over—one complete linkage of the topics of teaching, inclusivity, curiosity, and changing institutions, layered together in one big conceptual cake.
That’s David for you: one master network of ideas, expounded through eloquent (though endearingly sassy) speech and wrapped up in an impeccable suit. The HBS professor is a Senior Fellow within the Executive Education program, and from 2004 to 2012, was a faculty member and director of undergraduate studies in the Sociology Department at the College. As one of the first faculty members to introduce the case method at the undergraduate level, David has taught classes such as “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: American Experience in Comparative Perspective” focusing on organizational sociology and leadership.
David hails from Ottawa, Canada, which he describes as a “city of convergences”: “when a mini Silicon Valley comes together with a little Washington, D.C. and this very interesting convergence of English and French languages, it makes for a very cosmopolitan and diverse community,” he says. It comes as no surprise that this unique city provided the inspiration for his research, which has focused on post-acquisition integration. David worked as political advisor to a cabinet minister and observed what is known as a ‘cabinet reshuffle,’ where the Prime Minister changes the composition of ministers in his cabinet. Says David, “During a cabinet reshuffle, you bring a whole managing office into this big department, and they are, in a way, the leaders from a political perspective. That fascinated me; how do you plunk in a whole new group that is at the head of this organization, and how do they quickly form links or ties or connections into the broader organization to get things done? It was my job to really manage those links. In a way, it was like a merger—one office with this other organization.” With his interest in mergers piqued, David went on to study post-NAFTA Canadian, American, and Mexican companies working in Mexico in his post-MBA research position, reviewing why so many of these attempted mergers failed because of cultural conflicts.
Many students know David as an invigorating professor whose own undeniable enthusiasm infuses the conversation and prompts discussion in what would otherwise be a daunting arena, fraught with threats of cold-calling and on-the-spot jitters. But one of the things he loves most about being a teacher is actually not what takes place in the classroom but what occurs outside of it. “It’s always great to be sitting in your office and never knowing who’s going to come in next and why they’re coming to see you. And the diversity of reasons why—sometimes it’s just, ‘You know what, I have twenty minutes to kill, and you’re in the vicinity, so I’m going to stop in just to chat.’ And we always end up talking about something really fascinating and interesting. It’s wonderful because of the diversity of ideas and questions and topics that we get to talk about—it’s a real privilege to always be surprised by who’s going to come through next into your office.”
Indeed, David is a beloved mentor to many an office hour attendee, avidly monitoring their transition from freshman to senior and continuing to stay in touch with students who have long graduated. As he says, “It’s fun to watch their continued evolution into these great leaders in society.”
Having interacted with so many students over the years, it was apt that our conversation should turn to observations about Millennials. David is perceptive, making a discerning comparison between how the move from letter to telephone and the switch from telephone to Internet have similarly impacted the way we interact. Rather than lament the harms of social media as is so often done in the news today, David seems to think that “fundamentally, many of the same things happened; really it’s about the rate of interaction and the rate at which information can flow.”
He continues, “I think a lot of people talk about impatience—that your generation is always saying, ‘I want to leave my mark right now,’ or ‘I want to see results right now’—and I think that may almost be the doing of the previous generation putting way too much pressure on Millennials, saying, ‘It’s gotta be done now, it’s gotta be done now.’” In many ways, David is young at heart; he sees the aspirations of the Millennial generation, hears their frustrations, believes in their abilities. “What I hope to see in the future and what I think I will see in the future is, one, a re-finding of leisure time in a way that we have not done—something my generation has absolutely forgotten. I think the second big thing we’re going to see is more inclusiveness. Right now there’s big talk about a large segment of the population that has no role anymore because of technology; what’s going to happen to them? I think the Millennial generation will figure out a way for people to all be included in what’s going on in society so that we don’t have a big disenfranchisement.”
David sees this Millennial generation as disrupters who will produce big change. He’s optimistic: “I think a lot of the social problems that my generation has been trying to resolve through institutions are going to end up being resolved by the Millennial generation through what I’ll call ‘non-institutional solutions.’ Eventually the solutions may become institutionalized, but I don’t believe the Millennial generation is going to use the institutions of the past necessarily to address them. And I think that’s a very exciting thing.” When one of the preeminent business minds feels this way, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. Perhaps we Millennials aren’t doomed after all.
David just returned from the Middle East a few weeks ago, and he tells me a fascinating story about the HBS program delivered there for a group of senior executives—about two-thirds men and one-third women. Typically for these programs, people are seated randomly throughout the classroom, but this time a few of the executives asked to re-orchestrate the seating layout so that they would feel more comfortable for cultural reasons. David comments, “I thought, we have to continue to remember that although on one level we are all converging, there are many different cultural norms and practices in the world. It made very real the question of what is our ultimate goal or objective? If it’s to educate leaders who make a difference, which is the mission of the Harvard Business School, then one could ask, does that also mean that we must create a learning environment where those leaders are comfortable learning? If they’re not comfortable in that learning environment, are we compromising their learning experiences? We as educators want to create a classroom environment that is inclusive and diverse, but we also want to make sure people feel comfortable. It was a powerful learning moment.”
David embraces these learning moments that come to him as much as he recommends them for others. He excitedly tells me about his latest read, Red Notice by Bill Browder, which divulges the true parallel stories of Russia’s corruption under Putin as well as the author’s own personal quest for justice through his involvement in the post-Soviet Eastern Europe investment scene. Being an active traveler, he also talks at length about Buenos Aires being a “wonderful study of contrasts” with its “combination of indigenous versus European cultures colliding together” and its “fabulous architecture” in a way that makes me want to check out the Teatro Colón myself. Yet David also loves the Galapagos Islands, where you “see the Earth in its youngness and newness”—a rare appreciation for someone who derives so much energy from people and human interaction itself. But by this point in the conversation, I have learned to expect the myriad cool experiences David has had, and so I nod my head, seemingly unfazed.
Perhaps David’s vitality can best be summed up by his never-ending curiosity, embodied by hearty, spirited laughter. He theorizes, “Others may disagree about how I think about curiosity, but I think it’s either nurtured or it’s extinguished bit by bit. If we live too much by the plan, our curiosity dies. It’s this wonderful thing that needs to keep being nurtured because that’s what keeps us asking questions; that’s what keeps us innovating; that’s what leads us to not settle for traditional institutions but to really come up with new solutions.”
And how does one do that? Naturally, David has mused about the application as well. “One thing that has served me well is to try to never immediately say no to anything—to try to be open to all different opportunities and ideas. When someone brings an opportunity to me, I try to at least give myself a chance to explore it. At least say, ‘Tell me more.’ You may still decide not to go through with it, but let’s say there were ten things you were going to dismiss, and you look at them and even just one of them turns into something really incredible, it was worth taking the time to explore.”