MBA Mission Interviews Author of “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School”

Earlier this year, Philip Delves Broughton, an HBS graduate (’06) and former New York and Paris Bureau Chief for the Daily Telegraph (London), caused a stir when he released a book detailing his experiences at HBS. In “Ahead of the Curve” Delves Broughton revealed both positive and negative sides of his experience at HBS, but drew attention because so many considered this to be a broad representative experience. Recently, we interviewed Delves Broughton to better understand his intentions and motivations as well as others’ reactions to his book.

The first part of our two part series follows below. We will publish the second part tomorrow:


MBA Mission: You wrote a great deal at the beginning of your book about how powerful the Harvard Business School (HBS) network is, and now you’ve written a book that has clearly drawn the ire of many an HBS grad. Have you noticed a decrease in invitations to cocktail parties?

Delves Broughton: No, no, I’ve never worried about that. I’ve just got my fundraising letter, as usual, so that hasn’t stopped. No, I haven’t heard from anyone who is hostile- but I’ve had a lot of positive reaction, because this is the truth of it…There’s often this gap between what the institution says about itself and what it does and the way it behaves, along with the kind of attention and some of the ambitions of some of the human beings inside them…

My book isn’t an anti-business book, it’s [about] how do we make this work for us as people? How do we get away from the kind of rah-rah chest bumping/chest-beating kind of act we’re seeing so much in business? I think it’s alienating for a lot of people, even people who do well…

MBA Mission: Did you feel like your experience was shared by many or by few in your class?

Delves Broughton: You know it’s my experience, it isn’t anyone else’s, but I think a lot of people see pieces of themselves in it. Not everyone is me — that’s fairly obvious. But I think a lot of people see that pressure to conform, it can be oppressive. A lot of people refer to the notion of I’m very lucky, I know this is a great thing to be doing, but yet there’s something that makes me uneasy about all this.

I’ve been really surprised at who gets back to me, and it’s not just all the liberal arts majors who like this book. I’ve had emails from Asian women immigrants who end up in business school, who in many ways are classic success stories. They read it and they say, You know what this is resonating with me because parts of pursuing success as defined by Harvard Business School make me feel very uncomfortable…You’ve got to have a sympathy or empathy towards it.

MBA Mission: Have you had any positive reaction from within HBS?

Delves Broughton: I’ve had emails from a lot of people in my classes. I’ve had email from people at the school, and you know people say the same things. They use the term “brutally honest.” I’m not brutally honest, I just try to be honest, but I think it seems brutal because a lot of people aren’t very honest about this whole business school, the institution. People are kind of afraid to say, “I’m not going to tell the truth or talk about an experience like it isn’t 100% positive.” Of course, the truth is very few experiences are, so why should all business school be 100% positive? My books accentuates that it’s about 75-80% positive and about 5% not so positive…

I think that an institution like Harvard Business School. . .essentiality the problem is that people either expect you to be 100% cheerleading for it, saying this place walks on water, or you have to be one of these people who likes kicking it. It’s very hard for people to see you as neither, and that’s what I am..

MBA Mission: Is HBS secure as an institution?

Delves Broughton: I think all business schools are insecure about one key question: can business actually be taught? It’s not like law or medicine where you need to go to school to succeed. So what is it they’re teaching? Do they have a place on a university campus? The other strange thing about HBS is that it often acts more like a corporation, fiercely protective of its image as if guarding a stock price, and less like an educational establishment, open to criticism and inquiry. Which is probably a sign of some kind of insecurity.

MBA Mission: You spend a lot of time discussing work life balance versus the intense demands of corporate America. Is balance an HBS problem or is this a problem of the world as it is today? Would balance issues not occur in any business school?

Delves Broughton: To an extent, yeah, and I hope that my book has kind of a broader resonance. I’m trying to describe through my experience. I know these problems exist for a lot of people, you’re right. Here’s the thing. It’s that I think writing about Harvard Business School is so interesting because here you have 900 people who essentially have all the choices in the world….These people in theory could pick and chose the life they want. In many ways they accept the fact that their personal lives are kind of going to have to go to hell… Why do they feel like that? I think that more people should stand up and say that they demand more out of their professional and personal lives. I sort of wish institutions like HBS were more aggressive about this.

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