Interview with "Ahead of the Curve" Author (and HBS Alum) Philip Delves Broughton

Recently I posted my reactions to a new book about Harvard Business School called "Ahead of the Curve," by recent alum Philip Delves Broughton. Philip thought I had misintepreted his reflections in the book, and he was kind enough to elaborate on his experiences as an HBS student and let me pick his brain. Here's our email exchange about the value of an MBA for career changers, the HBS culture, teaching leadership and ethics in the classroom, being a humanities guy in an Excel world, and more:


AI: I got the sense from your book -- I think you even say so expressly -- that you weren't terribly clear in your own mind about what you were hoping to do with your MBA before you embarked on business school. It sounds as if you went to business school hoping to take more control over your life, and you assumed you'd be able to work out the specifics of a career change while you were there. That didn't seem to come together as neatly as you had hoped -- by the end of the MBA program, you were still trying to sort out what you wanted to do, and you were finding the job search harder than expected. In hindsight, do you wish you had done more planning or soul-searching before starting business school?

PDB: No, I was pretty clear about why I was going. I needed to be. I left a great job to go to business school. The challenge was remaining clear about it under the kind of peer pressure you find at a business school. I wanted to be able to pursue my own interests while controlling my own P&L. I didn't want an employer. I wanted control over my time. Now this is pretty different from a lot of people at b-school. I didn't want a "career change" so much as more power to decide my own personal and economic fate. It's different. The book is not about my failed job search. It's about my struggle to remain on the path I set out on while pulled in various directions.

AI: I've been somewhat skeptical about the value of business school, even a top business school, for career changers, for some of the reasons you mention in the book, and also because the recruiting schedule starts so relentlessly early that you don't really have any time to navel-gaze about your career once you get there. I'm thinking in particular of the hiring interview you did with the Washington Post (pretty dispiriting), and the following:

"But I was not alone in struggling to change my career. Luis, the Franco-Argentine, complained to me that many people felt HBS failed in its promise to give people a new start. 'They say this is your chance to change industry, but very few are succeeding. You see, the problem is that the path of least resistance is to do banking or consulting. Now, if you wanted to do either of those, you probably could. But if you wanted to get out of them, you really have to fight.... If you don't have experience in an industry, they don't want you, so you end up going back to the industries you do have experience in."

Do you think career changers should go to business school? If yes, what can they do to make their time there, and the job search process, less difficult?

PDB: Career changers need to do a couple of things. The first thing, as you say, is to start thinking early about what you want to change to. Even if you're not sure, you must have a vague idea. Then use every resource - especially alumni - to help you do that. The second thing is to regard your first job out of b-school as a bank shot. You go into one of the standard b-school professions - banking/consulting - in order to drop into the career you want in a couple of years. Lots of people do that successfully. But simply hoping the MBA magic dust will transform you into the dream candidate in the career you're after is delusional. The final thing I'd recommend, is to go to places where people know you already, your home town for example - then your career to that point, plus the MBA, plus trust and familiarity will make a career change easier.

AI: In hindsight, do you think you were naive about the HBS culture (I know I was pretty tough on you in that regard in my initial blog posting), and what HBS would be able to do for your career change? Aside from reading your book, what would you recommend applicants do to educate themselves about whether business school is a good idea for them, and whether a particular school is a good match?

PDB: I wasn't so much naive as ignorant of what HBS would be like. I didn't come from a profession where lots of people went to business school. I wasn't surprised that people were like they were - but given all that we heard from the most successful business people, Buffett/Paulson/Whitman, about work-life balance, I thought people should have taken that stuff more seriously. As I say in my book, I made a lot of very good friends at HBS and admired a lot of my fellow students. Anyone reading the book as a whole - and not just the reviews - will see that. I think the best thing to do to educate yourself is find people who have been to business school and ask them. Also ask people you admire - would I benefit from this? Match only really matters if you're fortunate enough to get into a bunch of schools. Otherwise, you go to the best one you can.

AI: You write about some of the difficulties you had as a humanities guy with no quantitative or business background. How can other humanities or liberal arts types best prepare themselves if they think they want to pursue a management or business education?

PDB: Oh, this is just practice. I hadn't done math since I was 16. I had never opened Excel. You have two years to figure this stuff out, which I did. It's a hassle at first, but short of taking an Excel course before getting on campus, there's not much you can do. You pick it up pretty fast once you're there - but just have to swallow your ego while you're trying to catch up.

AI: HBS says its mission is "to educate leaders who make a difference in the world." In your book, Ben asks, "I wonder why the school can't just admit that its job is teaching people how to run profitable businesses? Why does it even think that leadership is best taught through courses on business? I mean, if it is really leadership they want to teach, why don't they have us taking history or religion courses or spending the weekends with the Marine Corps?" Do you agree? Do you think leadership can be taught in a classroom?

(I do know your thinking process changed, and that you found that valuable: "Despite my frustration at being so far behind my classmates technically and in my basic knowledge of business functions, I knew that my intellectual apparatus had toughened. I saw things in the world that I had not seen before. I looked at facts and numbers a different way" -- but that's arguably different than leadership skills.)

PDB: Yes, leadership can be taught. Not in the sense that you're teaching people how to be Churchills or Roosevelts or Napoleons even. Just in the sense of helping people think about managing organizations. Every CEO we heard from said that people management was the biggest part of their job. And this didn't mean making big speeches. It meant hiring and firing, establishing a culture, setting the right incentives - and there is a large academic component to that, in addition to any personal qualities a leader might have.

AI: You took a somewhat dyspeptic view of the HBS culture, which in parts of the book sounds like a cross between American Pie fraternity antics and some kind of EST/Maoist reeducation camp. Do you think that's unique to HBS vs. other business schools? And was perhaps your age a factor? Your non-American-ness? I got the impression throughout the book that the other non-Americans were similarly nonplussed by those parts of the HBS culture. Thoughts?

PDB: Yes, being older made me look at it differently. I was married with a child - therefore not going out to Boston nightclubs midweek. Yes, I'm British, but I've lived in America since 1998, except for 2.5 years, and my wife is American, and my grandfather, aunt and cousins are American.... so I'm not entirely "not American." Yes, I think the foreigners did find it strange. American college culture is somewhat startling to foreigners. I know it's not unique to HBS. But perhaps the contrast between the seriousness in the classroom and the frat-ishness of much of the social life was more glaring. But again, I think this exists in business culture more broadly - you have companies preaching corporate social responsibility in the morning and then doing quite irresponsible things the rest of the day. Would the more exotic nightlife of Las Vegas exist, one wonders, without business expense accounts? I think people outside business are more sensitive to this hypocrisy.

AI: In your book, your classmates come in for quite a drubbing on the ethics front. I'm thinking in particular of the "financial aid BMWs" and the large proportion of the class (3/4 or thereabouts) who thought it ethically permissible for applicants to seek access to an admissions server that they knew to be unauthorized. There seems to be a big disconnect between the values of Dean Clark and his students. Thoughts on that? And do you think ethics can be taught in the classroom?

PDB: Ethics can certainly be discussed in the classroom - but can the ethics of students in their mid-late 20's actually be changed? Not so sure. I did find the discussions thought-provoking though. I'm not sure I give my classmates a "drubbing" about ethics. I'm in no position to do that! What I do discuss, however, is the contrast between what I describe as the rather excessive - and unrealistic - piety of business ethics as we discussed in class and the reality of how most people, business students included, actually behave. HBS took ethics extremely seriously - and kind of sets itself up to be beaten up when its alumni cause the collapse of Enron, and now have their fingerprints all over the current financial mess.

AI: You write in the start of the book that it was not intended as an "inside raid." I hear that some people at HBS nonetheless took it that way. One could argue that you wanted the upside of the brand and the network, but then violated a tacit compact with the HBS community by writing an exposé. In the book you express a lot of appreciation for the power of the HBS network. Do you think you've compromised the value of that network (to you) because you've written the book? Has there been any other kind of fallout? Am I wrong entirely -- perhaps it has increased the value of your network? Why did you write the book?

PDB: I wrote the book because I thought it would be interesting and useful to do so. And because I was offered an advance by a publisher. I knew elements of my experience were shared by many of my classmates. And I think at both HBS and many big firms, one is expected either to be a 100% booster, or a bitter critic. The truth is one can be ambivalent. I say that HBS was about 80% great and about 20% weird. Most people I know who went there agree. I know some people are upset. That's fine. I don't think I violated any compact. I didn't become a Free Mason when I went there. I attended an educational establishment and paid handsomely to do so. And I wrote a book that is honest and true. For every attack I've received from the school, I've received messages from classmates and other alumni thanking me for being so honest about the experience. So I'm ok with that.

AI: You acknowledge that "the Harvard Business School classroom is a safe learning environment, a place to experiment and make mistakes...." and that's why you cloaked the identities of your classmates. You decided not to do so for professors, because you think that they have a "public role." That's not as clear to me. Don't they experiment and course-correct as well? Aren't they entitled to some expectation of privacy in the classroom?

PDB: No. They are paid extremely well for their work at HBS and earn even more from outside gigs linked to their role as HBS professors. Most professors come off well in the book. I'm only actually critical of one. They can experiment and course-correct, fine, but I was paying the school $100 per class. I think I'm entitled to do what I did with the experience.

AI: How would your wife reflect on your MBA? Is she glad you went? Any advice she would give prospective business school spouses?

PDB: My wife enjoyed it, I think. We met lots of interesting people and I was around a lot when our second son was born. The only challenge was going back to a student life and budget after living like grown-ups for so long. But that was pretty easy, and rather refreshing. Advice? Be prepared for your other half to become a navel-gazing egotist while going through the process.

And a nice bonus for people working on their Round 2 HBS essays right now: Philip also had some advice for people writing the "career vision" essay (optional this year, but in my opinion still highly recommended):

PDB: I don't think HBS wants to hear "I want to make VP at 30 and MD at 35 and partner at 40." They want to hear that you have some sense of where you want to go: do you want to be in finance, do you want to manage a factory, do you want to be entrepreneurial? Or in my case, do you want to take your proven skills in writing, journalism and being a foreign correspondent, add on some business know-how and go write your own pay check - somehow. Anyone applying to business school should be able to come up with something which is consistent with their life and professional ambitions.