Applying to Harvard Business School Q & A with HBS Alumna Katherine Johnson

September 16, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

We are delighted to announce that Katherine Johnson, HBS MBA 1999, has joined Fortuna Admissions as an admissions coach. Katherine is a skilled marketing professional with a strong background in developing award-winning TV, digital, social, and branded entertainment campaigns for major brands. She previously served as the Senior Vice President at the Oprah Winfrey Network and also headed up Turner Entertainment’s client development and marketing practices.

Katherine firmly believes that her MBA from HBS played a significant role in her professional success and development in the media and entertainment industry. She is an active member of HBS’s alumni network and serves as a mentor to current HBS and Duke University students and graduates looking to pursue careers in integrated marketing and the entertainment industry.

We asked Katherine to share her advice for candidates interested in HBS as well as other MBA hopefuls interested in pursuing a career in entertainment, media and marketing.

Tell us why you decided to get an MBA in the first place, and what made you choose Harvard?

I had already started my career at Turner Broadcasting when I had the opportunity to work with a brilliant senior executive who had an MBA from NYU Stern. He was someone who stood out and impressed everyone with his business knowledge and strategic approach to running his division. He attributed much of his career success to his MBA and strongly encouraged me to consider an MBA to broaden my knowledge base and skillsets and to open up many doors in the future.

I applied to several top programs and was admitted to HBS, Wharton, and Kellogg. I chose HBS based on its strong reputation in general management, its brand name recognition around the world, and I also loved its location in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

What was most valuable from your business school education?

I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate at Duke University and had never received any formal training in business or finance; the HBS experience provided me with vital training and insight, and I returned to Time Warner a few years after HBS far better qualified to function as an executive, and was privileged to assume a corporate role in their global marketing group. There is no doubt that the business skills I gained at HBS allowed me to succeed in my new role; I felt confident in my ability to evaluate complex consumer data, budgets and financial statements and to develop sound revenue projections for various business units and partnership ventures as a direct result of my MBA experience at HBS.

I also believe HBS taught me to think more strategically and to become a better manager. I had an opportunity to move to Brazil after graduating from HBS and I had the confidence to work for an online start-up business and to consult for other businesses outside of the entertainment and media space. I don’t think I would have had the skillset or confidence to take risks like these without my MBA.

What was your experience like as a student at HBS?

Incredibly exciting and, of course, a bit intimidating at the outset. In my first finance class it became clear that many of my classmates had gained much more on the job experience than me in finance, having worked at companies such as Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and other similar organizations. I knew I would have to work harder than most, but this “baptism by fire” was truly a blessing in disguise. My total focus and dedication to task, (necessary to survive at HBS) allowed me to learn in ways I had never thought possible, develop vital skillsets, and enjoy a life-changing experience. I found the professors to be inspiring, and I was fortunate to learn from some of the best minds in business: Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Lynda Applegate, Teresa Amabile and Das Narayandas. I still vividly recall and value my first year General Management class with world-renowned Professor Clay Christensen.

He offered great perspective on management and leadership, telling our section, “many think of management as cutting deals and laying people off and hiring people and buying and selling companies. That’s not management, that’s deal making. Management is the opportunity to help people become better people. Practiced that way, it’s a magnificent profession.”

What should prospective applicants know before they decide to apply to HBS?

Applicants need to understand the case method of study, as it is the hallmark of the HBS program and may not be a good fit for every student. At HBS, students must be able to think on their feet and feel comfortable speaking up, as class participation can dictate up to 50% of a student’s grade in a class. In the case method there are no textbooks and students are called upon in class to express their ideas, point of view, and analysis in front of everyone. I tell applicants that they need to know themselves before they apply in order to decide if HBS would be a good fit for them. HBS will stretch you in ways that are at times uncomfortable. You will not be the smartest person in the room, you will surround yourself with new personalities, you will take risks and you will fail. However, you will be much better as a result.

Do you have any other advice to applicants working on their HBS applications?

As they start working on their applications, it is important to think about what unique role they will play and what contributions they will make to their classmates. In what areas are they an expert and what kind of useful information will they be able to share with others? HBS Admissions is looking to bring in a diverse class of individuals who will become future leaders, so applicants should think about what their specific role will be in the HBS program.

What suggestions to you have for someone considering a career in marketing or in the entertainment and media space?

There are plenty of opportunities for MBAs in creative industries, and those opportunities continue to grow. I would recommend a domain such as entertainment, sports, gaming, digital or content creation, but make sure it is something that stimulates and excites you, and that you would want to work on, day in and day out. If you can find and follow your passion, success will follow.

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