Our All-Time Favorite Episodes of Cold Call

ROBIN PASSIAS: Hello, listeners, this is Robin Passias, Cold Call producer – in the studio today with our fabulous host, Brian Kenny.


ROBIN PASSIAS: And incredible audio engineer, Craig McDonald.


ROBIN PASSIAS: We are celebrating our 200th episode this week. Yes, I said 200. I can’t even believe it.

CRAIG MCDONALD: It happened so fast.

BRIAN KENNY: It’s a big number.

CRAIG MCDONALD: It’s a big number.

ROBIN PASSIAS: It is a big number. To kick things off, let’s take a walk down memory lane. We’ve picked nine episodes from the archives in hopes that you might listen to them again, or maybe for the first time if you’re a first-time listener.


CRAIG MCDONALD: If you want to dig back a bit.


ROBIN PASSIAS: Yes, either way, welcome to this special episode of Cold Call with a roundup of producer picks. So, I’m going to go first.

BRIAN KENNY: Go for it.

ROBIN PASSIAS: My first pick is from February of 2019. It’s called: The Delicious History of Hershey Chocolate. I love this case for so many reasons. First, chocolate. I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate? And for most Americans, Hershey is synonymous with chocolate. Professor NANCY KOEHN is just awesome. She’s a business historian and her depth of knowledge really brings this story alive.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, she’s great.

ROBIN PASSIAS: So, Milton Hershey started the company in a small town in Pennsylvania. And it’s fascinating to hear about how he determined that Americans would eventually want to eat and buy so much chocolate. He was inventing during a time before people ran to the store to buy a chocolate bar or bag or two. Something Nancy Koehn calls demand-side innovation. He was truly a pioneer. Here’s a clip.

NANCY KOEHN: By the time he is 30, he’s failed in two different kinds of candy businesses. He’s not yet making chocolate and he’s not yet making caramel, which will be the runway, interestingly enough, to chocolate for him. He learned, I think about a couple of things. And there are lessons that lots of entrepreneurs from Josiah Wedgwood to Steve Jobs and that is how to grow viably without growing so fast that you run out of cash and kind of hit the wall. It’s a very classic problem in Fin 1. There’s Butler Lumber, there’s Wilson Lumber, there’s all kinds of cases that students here study.

BRIAN KENNY: Fin 1 being one of our MBA courses.

NANCY KOEHN: Study about this very basic thing, which is you want to grow, you want to grow, but you can’t necessarily collect the money you need to collect fast enough to pay what you owe in terms of inputs. And so he learns that, because that’s one of the things that he gets into trouble with. So he learns how to grow at a viable pace. I think the second thing he learns, and this is really important, is he learns not to get out too far ahead. Both bankruptcies, I think help him develop something that, I studied a great deal in my first decade at the Harvard Business School. Which is: how do entrepreneurs anticipate what consumers may want before they know that they want something?

CRAIG MCDONALD: So, one of the things that I sincerely found interesting about that episode is Milton Hershey tried to do that whole town thing.

BRIAN KENNY: Company town.

CRAIG MCDONALD: Yeah. I didn’t know. I mean, I know Hershey, Pennsylvania is like the… But yeah, I never knew that until I heard that.

ROBIN PASSIAS: Okay. Brian, you’re up. What’s one of your favorites?

BRIAN KENNY: Thanks, Robin. I love that one. By the way, NANCY KOEHN has such a great voice for podcasts and radio. She’s awesome. And she’s so animated in the way she describes things. So again, I have to admit, it’s really hard to choose favorites. I was definitely a little torn. There’ve been so many awesome discussions that we’ve had with faculty over the years. I do feel like each of us deserves an honorary MBA. We’ve read now and listened to and dissected so many different cases.

ROBIN PASSIAS: I mean, our MBA students do 500 cases and-

BRIAN KENNY: They do about four to 500.

ROBIN PASSIAS: In their two years, so we’re at maybe the halfway mark.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, so we’re like second-year students now.


CRAIG MCDONALD: At the least I tell people I’m very good at parties now. Because I just have all of this trivial knowledge in my head.

BRIAN KENNY: Great way to start conversations at parties. So anyway, I went back in my memory banks and I went to a case that I often think about because I really enjoyed the conversation so much. And the case was super interesting and it’s about podcasts. It was about podcast producer Gimlet. The case was written by John Deighton and Jeffrey Rayport. They have great rapport with each other and it was a really fun conversation. And what was crazy about this case was that it was a case about a company that produced podcasts and about a podcast they were producing. And then we did a podcast about it.

ROBIN PASSIAS: It’s a podcast in a podcast in a podcast kind of Shakespearean.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, it’s totally is. It’s about as meta as you can possibly get. John does a great job laying the case out here, but it gives you a little bit of the interchange between John and Jeffrey. Love this.

John Deighton: Well, I was just reflecting that Jeffrey and I have been following this trend toward the movement from analog to digital since we met back in what we were describing as the 1900s. This started with a case that Jeffrey did on the New York Times as it confronted the digital impact on print. My interest more recently has been on the effect of the internet, the effect of the free flow of data on entertainment companies. And I’ve looked at everything from movies to television to print. And have watched with curiosity why radio has been relatively resilient through all of these disruptions, these dislocations.

BRIAN KENNY: Jeffrey, let me turn to you on this because you’ve been studying online behaviors for ever since there’s been an online, I guess, which was after the 1900s. But tell me how has streaming affected the way people consume content? Broadband streaming in particular.

Jeffrey Rayport: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, it’s clear that what burgeoning media companies like Gimlet are aiming to become major media companies as podcasters are thinking about what Netflix has done to movies, what the web did to print, what YouTube’s done to video, what Spotify has done to music. Surely somebody in the podcast world could have the same kind of extraordinary effect. As John’s implying, audio is more complicated and it starts with this idea that we all understand what appointment television is. But has anyone ever talked about appointment radio? And this notion as John describes it, of driving a car music is the wallpaper. A question of how you actually get people to focus on this particular stream, has in some sense been a longstanding challenge. Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, in John’s case has this wonderful quote that John included in which he says, “Look, movies and television, it’s a trillion dollar digital market. And music is a hundred billion digital market. How could it possibly be true that your eyes are worth 10 times more than your ears?” So that’s kind of a conundrum, and that’s in a sense the conundrum at the heart of this case.

BRIAN KENNY: All right. Craig, over to you. What’s your pick?

CRAIG MCDONALD: Thanks, Brian. So my pick is kind of a real personal one. “Baseball’s Billy Beane Shows Companies the Power of Data” that actually had current Dean Srikant Datar. That was the first Cold Call episode I ever recorded and edited from the beginning to the end. So, the first thing I ever worked on when I came into the Marketing & Communications team, I was brought onto an already moving train and I had to catch up really quick-

BRIAN KENNY: To grab a hold of that.


And so it was a fun, exciting thing, a little scary because it was already an established show. So I wanted make sure I did it respect and did it properly. The other reason is I’m a huge baseball fan. I’m not a huge data person, but I just found the story of Billy Beane and sabermetrics fascinating. Here’s my clip, hope you enjoy it.

BRIAN KENNY: Tell us a little bit about Bill James and sabermetrics, because that was really the core of the story behind Moneyball.

Srikant Datar:It’s very interesting. Bill James actually worked as a warehouse clerk, but he was fascinated by baseball. It was interesting to him that no one seemed to use that data systematically. So that I would say is one important part of how sabermetrics comes about around the Society for American Baseball Research. That’s where the word saber comes from, and metrics are the kind of data that these folks who were very interested in statistical research were looking at. James then starts producing these baseball abstracts as he calls it, and they were very thoughtful treatises on what else you could do with the statistics that were available in baseball. But I think James does two things, and I’d love to just use a couple of quotes from the case around what James does. He says, “The problem is that baseball statistics are not pure accomplishments of men against other men, which is what we are in the habit of seeing them, as they are the accomplishments of men in combination with their circumstances–context matters. And so, when you’re thinking about wins, it’s just not that a person’s a very good player, but you got to think about how would you put that in the context of a team and what you’re doing.” And his other interesting question was, and which I use a lot in my course, is anytime you’re thinking of using data, there’s a lot of data available. But do you have a very good question to ask? And until you have a very good question to ask, data can help you to some extent, and you certainly can use data to think about interesting questions, but it’s much more effective when you have a good question to ask. And then you can really look at the data and say, “Does it make sense or not?”

ROBIN PASSIAS: Next up for me is one from September of 2020 with Professor Francesca Gino. It’s called, Is Happiness at Work Really Attainable?

BRIAN KENNY: We’d like to think so, wouldn’t we?

ROBIN PASSIAS: I mean, the title itself is intriguing. How often do you think about it? I think about it all the time. In this episode, the protagonist, Simon Cohen, founder of Henco Logistics, joined the conversation to talk about how he transformed a small Mexican company into a major player. Cohen credits the firm’s focus on employee happiness as the key ingredient to its success in an approach he developed following a personal crisis. And here’s how he describes it.

Simon Cohen: I think that this slogan, “high performance, happy people” describes it all. We are completely engaged with results and with being high performers. And being a high performer brings you happiness and happiness will bring you great results. So for me, if you are happy and you’re enjoying your job, then you can be better at what you do and then that will bring great profits to the company. So that’s like the hypothesis that I want to prove with my concept of “high performance, happy people.” I truly believe that having a great life, being stable at home, then you can be stable at work. So we basically focused on people’s stability outside of the office. They can have a good life, they can get good salaries, that they have enough time for them and for their families, and then they can perform better at the office. Yeah.

ROBIN PASSIAS: Okay. Brian, what’s next for you?

BRIAN KENNY: By the way, that’s a great example of when we bring the protagonist into the conversation, how it really changes the dynamic of the discussion. And our faculty do this a lot. They’ll bring the protagonist into the classroom after they’ve discussed a case, and it gives the students an opportunity to hear directly from the person who faced whatever the challenge is about how they dealt with it. So we love to do that on the show too, and we do it as often as we can. And so that was a really fun one to do. My next pick goes back to an episode that we did to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the show. You may recall. So, this is going back a couple of years and we had none other than the Dean of the School at the time, Nitin Nohria join us on the show. If you’ve ever heard Nitin speak, he’s a very, very compelling speaker. We gave him an option to pick whatever case he wanted to discuss. Whether he wrote it or not, he chose one that he hadn’t written about Rob Parson. And Rob Parson is a really interesting example–that’s a pseudonym–but this is somebody we’ve all worked with a “Rob.” This is a person who is absolutely crushing all the targets that he has. He’s in a sales role, but at the same time, he’s totally crashing where it comes to the culture of the company that he works at. It’s quite a dilemma. What do you do with this person who’s a high performer in some regards, but really in many ways detracting from the performance of other people around him? I chose a clip from this show that I think Nitin does a great job kind of laying out the case, but he goes beyond that and he talks about what makes this an enduring case. So here’s a sample.

NITIN NOHRIA: I always start by asking students, would you recommend that Rob Parson be promoted or not, to managing director? It’s a very simple question because the answer ends up being yes or no. People will sometimes hum and haw, and one thing I’ve learned about a cold call is that everybody thinks that a cold call is just the opening question. But for me, a cold call is all the follow-up questions that lie behind the first question that you ask someone and an opportunity to really get one person to open up as many issues in the case as you can possibly get them to open up.

BRIAN KENNY: I do think once people hear more details of the case, they’ll understand why that question isn’t as straightforward as it sounds because it’s pretty complicated. When I invited you on the show, I invited you to choose any case you wanted to talk about. And you chose this one, and I found that interesting because this is not one of the cases that you wrote. So I’m curious as to why this was the one that you wanted to discuss.

NITIN NOHRIA: Cases are about how much energy a case can produce. So there’s something about just the drama that happens in a classroom that makes us as case method teachers attracted to them. But more importantly, I think beyond the drama, because while the case method does have some theater in it, you also want to make sure that a case that you teach or becomes your favorite case has some very deep substantive lessons that are enduring. One of the wonderful things about this case is that while every case is a particular situation. What you’re looking for, I think what makes cases great, is when that particular situation is something that every human being has experienced in their own life. I know of nobody who’s had even two or three years of experience, whether they’ve just started as an individual contributor or have been a manager or a leader, who hasn’t encountered the Rob Parson prototype. A person who hits the numbers in terms of all metrics, that are business metrics, just hitting it out of the park. But at the same time rubs people the wrong way, is sometimes not viewed as a team player. In 360 reviews, gets mixed reviews, so does great for the business, but may have a set of behaviors that don’t always fit with the espoused values of the organization. And the question is, how do you deal with these people? It’s a problem that every manager will face, and in some ways that’s what makes this case one of my favorites because every audience that I know you know can ask the question, “Have any of you had a Rob Parson?” And every hand goes up.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay, Craig, back to you. What’s next on your list?

CRAIG MCDONALD: My second one was when Emeritus Professor Ray Goldberg was in studio in January 2019 to speak about Wegmans. The case is, How Wegmans Became a Leader in Improving Food Safety. Which is about Wegmans as a brand and as a company being a leader in shifting how food safety is performed in the process. But again, I have personal connections to all of these, but I grew up in central New York. I worked at Wegmans for eight years, big part of my life. You grow up in central New York, Syracuse, Rochester area, and it’s just I mean, it’s where you go to hang out sometimes. You’d all go to Wegmans. It was a good time. The clip I picked, Professor Goldberg is talking about how community is so important to Wegman’s philosophy. Working with the community and being just great to their workers and great to the community can really impact how a business can have a purpose and do well while they’re doing good.

BRIAN KENNY: Hey, can I point out one quick thing too before we roll the clip? Ray, at the time of this recording, was 93 years old and he was still teaching and still writing at that time. So this turned out to be one of our most popular cases for several years.

CRAIG MCDONALD: I was going to say that, that this was I think one of our most popular episodes that held on for quite a while, so enjoy the clip.

BRIAN KENNY: This is not your first case on Wegmans. You’ve actually been writing about Wegmans for a while.

Ray Goldberg: I have for a very long while because they are the most admired supermarket in our country. The students in my class, when they come in and I’m looking at the schedule, I’ll say to them, “Has anybody ever worked for Wegmans?” When we’re having the Wegmans case. And two or three hands will show up. And I said, “What do you think of Wegmans?” “I’m in love with Wegmans.” And then they proceed to tell me what a wonderful company it is. But they do so much for their community, for the employees, for the education of their community, for the health of their community, that it’s hard for anyone to imagine one firm doing that. And when Danny Wegman comes to class, he’s the only visitor who stands at the front door of the classroom and shakes everybody’s hand as they walk into the room.

BRIAN KENNY: That says something right there. And Danny’s actually featured in one of the chapters in your new book. You got a little sense for what he’s like as a leader too.

Ray Goldberg: Well, he basically talks about the fact that he asked his father about the interview I was going to have with him. And the father said, “Well, what are you going to talk about?” And I said, “Well, he wants me to talk about our relationship with the community.” He said, “Well, without a relationship in the community, we shouldn’t be in business.”

ROBIN PASSIAS: That is a great episode. I plan to go back and listen to that one too. Ray is just, he’s a treasure. Finally for me, an episode from June of 2021 with Assistant Professor Emily Truelove, called Proctor & Gamble’s Lean Innovation Transformation. It’s about an incredible leader, Kathy Fish, who started at P&G in 1979 and worked her way up the ranks. The case starts in 2014 when Fish has become chief research development and innovation officer. That’s a mouthful. With the primary task of bringing this established company back to an innovation mindset, and here’s what Emily Truelove has to say.

BRIAN KENNY: Kathy has this notion of “irresistible superiority,” which just like the sound of that-

EMILY TRUELOVE: Why do you laugh?

BRIAN KENNY: What does that mean?

EMILY TRUELOVE: Kathy developed this notion of “irresistible superiority”. And what it means is creating a product experience that is so good, people find it so good, that they find it really difficult to switch to a competitor. And she talks about how this is not just about, again, having a technically superior product. It’s really about the whole experience, the packaging, the purchase experience, the marketing, how all these things integrate together. And Kathy developed the notion early on into her role as the chief technology officer, where she wanted to figure out what is behind our billion dollar brands? What are these brands doing where people have found them to be irresistibly superior? That’s where she was kind of looking at these factors of, it’s not just the product, it’s this emotional connection. And she strove to figure out how can we actually make sure that maybe not all of our innovations, but that most of our innovations are brought up to that bar.

ROBIN PASSIAS: Okay, Brian, it’s back to you.

BRIAN KENNY: All right. Well, it’s April, Robin, and of course my mind goes to Earth Day. I would say that sustainability has been a recurring theme on this show, and that’s because our faculty think about this a lot. They study it a lot. We know it’s important to business leaders, so we’ve done a lot of episodes on it. But there’s one in particular that always stood out for me about Ocean Trust, which was a case written by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Many people will know her name. She’s kind of a legendary HBS faculty member. She’s a great case writer, and she was able to convince the protagonist to join me on the show. His name is Torsten Thiele, and believe me, I double checked and triple checked the pronunciation-

CRAIG MCDONALD: Beautiful pronunciation.

BRIAN KENNY: …of his name. Thank you. Torsten Thiele. He joined us from London, which was also very cool. We’ve done that a few times as to beam somebody in from another part of the world. And it was a very, very rich conversation about his efforts to clean up our oceans, which need cleaning. They’re in bad shape. So, I selected a sample that I think showcases both of them talking about this in a really interesting way. So here you go.


BRIAN KENNY: What sparked your interest in this case and how does it relate to your work here at Harvard Business School?

ROSABETH MOSS KANTER: So, I’m interested in the big ideas that are going to make a difference in the world. Which I think is increasingly important to people at every level in the business world, on the edges of the business world. Companies have to do that, and certainly climate change is one of those big issues, big ideas. And there are many ways to approach it and many groups working on it. So that’s what made Torsten’s initiative so exciting to me, because he was unwilling to settle for just one approach. He wanted to change the conversation, change the agenda, and then you can get lots of people working in different ways. But clearly we haven’t made enough progress by using the same old methods, same old techniques. So I’m interested in change. I wouldn’t call it disruptive change, but change that produces innovation, new and unconventional ways of thinking. What I call “thinking outside the building,” thinking outside the existing establishments.

BRIAN KENNY: Torsten, I’m going to turn to you for a minute. I want to ask you to, first of all, maybe we can just talk about the oceans themselves. How serious are the problems that are facing the oceans from your perspective?

TORSTEN THIELE: This is the fundamental issue. 97% of life on earth takes place in the ocean. So the ocean is the core to the life system of our planet. And as we are combining different stressors, both local specific stressors, but also these more global climate change stressors. We are starting to see tipping points in the ocean that are not reversible. So this is an urgent issue. It’s a very large issue, but it is an addressable issue in the sense that we can pick off these different stressors. What is becoming very clear now is that we are getting increasingly dead zones in the ocean. Which then mean that in those depleted oxygen zones, fish cannot survive. So, we get massive changes there and these changes reflect back on us. The ocean risk that increases means our coastal systems and half of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast, directly affected. So it’s a massive issue and it’s at the heart of the ocean climate debate.

ROSABETH MOSS KANTER: The amount of industry and commerce that’s dependent on the ocean is also huge. What I also loved about the case is this is so huge and there are already so many different groups and constituencies doing some part of it. But there’s nobody in charge. Nobody really owns the oceans.

BRIAN KENNY: Okay, Craig, back to you. You need to finish this up. You get the last word for your third-

ROBIN PASSIAS: The last word.

CRAIG MCDONALD: I get to bring it across the finish line.

BRIAN KENNY: A big responsibility.

CRAIG MCDONALD: I know. The last episode I chose, actually it was a pretty recent one, relatively, from August 2022 with Professor Tsedal Neeley, A Lesson from Google: Can AI Bias Be Monitored Internally? I found that the protagonist in this case, Timnit Gebru, was just an amazing person. Tsedal you could tell, had so much passion for Timnit and her work, it just really shone through the entire episode. Timnit was single-handedly more or less going against Google, trying to root out bias in AI. Yeah, this clip basically introduces the protagonist and you can hear Tsedal’s passion and appreciation for what Timnit does.

TSEDAL NEELEY: So, I’ve known Timnit Gebru since she was an undergraduate at Stanford University. So I met her when she was a freshman and I was a first year doctoral student. And you knew that this woman was going to be special. And at that time, it wasn’t clear that she would be one of the pioneering voices, when it comes to visualization in AI and ultimately AI ethics and bias. Timnit analyzed facial recognition software made by three companies. One of which she was working at at the time, and their work became a landmark study. It was called, “Gender Shades”. And it showed that the darker the skin tone that people had, the more unlikely it was that faces would be accurately recognized by AI. And they were the first to bring this to the forefront and show the extent to which there’s so many inaccuracies that ultimately hurt populations of color through the AI systems that were at play. Timnit is one of those people who sees things clearly. Everyone is talking about AI today and AI ethics and AI bias. She was thinking about this over a decade ago.

ROBIN PASSIAS: I love that one. We’ve actually had Tsedal Neeley on the show several times, and she is always passionate.

CRAIG MCDONALD: She’s a lot of fun.

ROBIN PASSIAS: But an AI bias case is definitely very relevant right now. That’s a great pick. Okay, so that’s it. Nine episodes to go back and listen to.

BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, I had more clips too, but I didn’t want to force them on our listeners.

CRAIG MCDONALD: There’s always a handful that you have to…

ROBIN PASSIAS: We had to pick a number.

CRAIG MCDONALD: Had to triage down to ones you want to use.

ROBIN PASSIAS: Thanks again everyone for tuning in today as we kick off a special week of content to celebrate our 200th episode. And thank you for your loyalty in listening to Cold Call over the years. We’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to email us, please do coldcall@hbs.edu. Tomorrow, Harvard Business School Dean, Srikant Datar, is in the studio talking about his case set in the city of Jaipur in Northern India, where a nonprofit organization devised a life-changing artificial limb. Having assisted more than a million people over 44 years, the founder must determine a strategy to sustain its impact into the future. And then Wednesday through Friday, we’re joined by professors, Debora Spar, Carrie Elkins, and George Serafeim, who will each discuss a case that’s part of a new course here at Harvard Business School that explores the central question of: What is the social purpose of the firm? I mean, we’re talking about harvesting pigs’ hearts to save lives, providing banking services to the people of East Africa, and making greener batteries in Sweden. You do not want to miss an episode. We’ll meet you back here tomorrow.

BRIAN KENNY: Thank you again for joining us. We couldn’t do it without all of you. I couldn’t do the show without you two. I think that’s pretty obvious. So it takes a team to produce Cold Call. 200 episodes is a big number, and I say that knowing that many podcasts don’t get beyond the 10 episode mark. So we love to do it. We have a lot of fun, as you can tell, working together. And we want to do 200 more so-


BRIAN KENNY: So, we’re going to keep doing that. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR Podcast Network.

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