Interview: Philip Delves Broughton

Philip Delves Broughton (Photo: Margaret Delves Broughton)

Last year, Philip Delves Broughton made a big splash with Ahead of the Curve, a candid and entertaining account of his two years doing an MBA at Harvard Business School (HBS). Having read and reviewed the book, we had a couple questions about his experience. He was kind enough to answer them:

As someone without a formal business background, how did you prepare yourself for HBS? Looking back, how might you have done it differently?

I don’t think I did prepare myself. I was too busy with my career as a journalist, which I think perhaps made me interesting to business schools. I had achieved a fair amount as a reporter and foreign correspondent and gained a little management experience. I think this was excellent preparation!

I suppose I could have read more accounting and finance books before arriving on campus or figured out Excel, and this might have helped me in the first semester. But really, there was plenty of time to do all this during a two year MBA. I spent the summer before getting to HBS leaving my job in France and on holiday with my family – and once I was presented with my workload in Boston, I was very happy to have taken a long vacation.

Did you find your unconventional  background (for an MBA student) a hurdle, an advantage, or a mix of both? What would you say to prospective MBA students with a similarly a-typical business school resume?

A mix of both, as you’d imagine. The great advantage is that you will stand out among the banking/consulting crowd when you apply. It’s very important to play to your strengths when you apply – emphasize what you have done and don’t try to whitewash your lack of business experience. Another advantage is that what you study at business school will be fresh, and with any luck much more interesting than for those who have been in business jobs.

The hurdle is that you do have some catching up to do. But that just takes a little time. Perhaps the greatest challenge is adapting to the cultural change of moving from a non-business setting to a world of business school students, who may have very different priorities and interests to those you were used to. But if you’re a curious sort, this can be fascinating too. I think what business schools want to know – and what you should have clear in your mind – is how an MBA fits into your ambitions. You don’t need to have some distinct career in mind, but at least some solid thoughts about what you think an MBA will enable you to do which you’d struggle to do without it. Becoming a management consultant does not count.

Was time management a big challenge during your time at HBS?

Yes, time management was a challenge, but that’s how HBS sets things up. They want to force you to choose. They make sure there isn’t enough time to do everything, so you had better pick what to focus on. But this is not a bad thing. Far better than being left to twiddle your thumbs.

Is having a family a big disadvantage for people who want to make “the most” of their time in business school (networking, treks, etc.)?

I don’t think you can ever say family’s a big disadvantage. I think having a family can be very grounding as you go through business school. Of course, if you prioritize your family, there isn’t as much time to go out to bars in the middle of the week or go on treks, but for single MBAs, how much “networking” is actually a form of courtship, looking for suitable partners? If you’re already married, that’s time you don’t need to waste. If you have a supportive family who are going through the MBA with you, they’ll let you do what needs to be done.

Did you ever get the feeling that you were “too old” to be doing an MBA?

Sometimes. I was 32 when I started, while the average age was 27/28. But during my first year, I sat next to a guy who was 35 when he got to b-school and had flown the Stealth Bomber. It was considerably more interesting than sitting next to a 25-year-old I-banker. I also knew a number of people in their 20s who were emotionally and intellectually far more mature than friends I have in their late 30s.

Do you think people should already have a fairly clear idea of what they want to do before they go to business school? Or is it enough to know what you don’t want to do?

Oh, I think people fret about this far too much. You know, if you’re thinking of investing the time and money in business school, it helps to know what you’re buying. The MBA isn’t a silver bullet, but it can be interesting and help you build a more rewarding life – assuming you don’t let it be another excuse for doing another dull but remunerative job. There may also be other cheaper routes to your goals besides getting an MBA and these are well worth considering.

People arriving at business school are all over the spectrum on this. Some know exactly what they want from it, many are just meandering. Some find the answer while at b-school, many don’t. Both groups can have an excellent time getting their MBA because it’s an inherently interesting journey. Knowing what you don’t want is a pretty good start to figuring out what you do want. It’s weak, I know, but if there was a universal answer to this, we’d have it by now. The one thing I would say, though, is that if you do get to business school without a clear direction in mind, use the time to really think and look around, as it’s time you’ll lack once you’re spun back out into the world.

Ahead of the Curve is available here.¬† Our review of it is here.¬† Philip Delves Broughton’s website is here.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Philip Delves Broughton

  1. ralph

    I am currently reading Ahead of the Curve and I think it is a well written book.
    I expected to learn more about the HBS case study method of teaching business but I am pleasantly surprised by the in depth explanation of the experience of HBS students.

  2. Pingback: Why do an MBA? And what’s it like? « Philip Delves Broughton’s Blog

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