Amazon Japan had me record this two minute pitch for my book – I wasn’t entirely prepared, which accounts for the slight hostage-video quality. But there we go.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
I’ve written before about Harvard’s Orwellian reaction to my book – threatening letters, demeaning remarks to other journalists, advising students and faculty not to read it etc. etc. – but I’m feeling less alone these days.
In an article in the June Harvard Business Review a former professor of mine, Joel Podolny, says he quibbles with some of my criticisms but shares my frustration with the MBA as it is today. Joel recently left his job as dean of Yale’s School of Management to join Apple, as the founding dean of Apple University. (He even writes that I was “one of the better students” he taught at HBS, which is a relief.)
Also, Tom Peters, the author of In Search of Excellence is a gleeful critic of MBAs, and the extraordinary knots they are tying themselves in at the moment. Peters is wonderfully scornful of Jack Welch, a man I always thought was sort of an ass, but at least a successful one. That changed when Welch came to talk at HBS, when I concluded he was actually an embarrassment. And yet still, he’s idolized and is setting up his own online MBA program. Run, don’t walk, from that one.
Robert Joss, the departing dean of Stanford’s business school acknowledges in a farewell letter that a “better balance is needed” at MBA programs. He notes that the latest graduating class “will experience a closing Synthesis Seminar developed by faculty experts in organizational behavior, trust, leadership, management, and finance. The purpose of this final seminar is to have students reflect on what they have learned and what values and goals they want to live by—so they are better prepared to deal with the many gray areas and difficult decisions they will face. My hope is that they will be leaders with confidence (not hubris) and compassion, mindful of the results of their decisions on the people whose trust they must earn: employees, customers, community members, and investors.”
It sounds good, but it’s the same problem. MBA programs and business leaders more broadly talk about good behavior as if it’s some kind of amazing discovery – see Corporate Social Responsibility – whereas everyone else regards it as simply to be expected. So they end up, quite rightly, as objects of ridicule.
I read this amazing book over the weekend, Falling Hard: A Journey Into the World of Judo, by Mark Law. I’m not a martial arts fan at all, but began reading it because I knew Mark when I worked at The Daily Telegraph. The book is a history of judo told through Mark’s experience. He picked up the sport at the age of 50 and quickly became consumed by it. It’s funny and absorbing. By the end, you’re itching to put on the white pajamas and throw someone over your shoulder.
One of the main characters in the book is Yasuhiro Yamashita, arguably Japan’s greatest judoka, Olympic gold medalist and 9-time All-Japan champion. Yamashita is one of the few sportsmen to speak openly about the mental and emotional challenges he faced during his career. It’s a great story about the demands of success.
Alongside all the trophies, he faced moments of intense doubt and despair as he strove to keep his place. He was also a riveting combination of technique and humanity, which made him loved in Japan.
At 17, he was sent from home to Tokyo to live with his coach, who said: “When Yamashita came to Tokyo in his second year at high school I was worried about the media treating him like a genius at that time and there has been virtually no one who has succeeded after such treatment. I warned him straight away: ‘If you become arrogant I will break your nose, OK?…The successful players are the obedient ones. But I didn’t want Yamashita to become just a machine in order to win or to be a robot player who only moved as I ordered. I always wanted him to be someone who thinks, decides, and fights for himself”
Yamashita’s opponents said he possessed a “rhino’s torso and a cat’s feet” and said it was “like fighting a refrigerator.” He spent four hours a day running, weightlifting and doing mat work with just two Sundays a month off, but believed that mental strength, concentration and effort were more important than physical condition.
Law writes: “With the approach of a major competition, Yamashita followed the samurai tradition of scrubbing his apartment and his body so both were spotless should he die in competition. Then he hung the name of his greatest rival upon the wall to stare at.” Yamashita said: “It was often said to me, ‘losing doesn’t occur to you, does it?’ It is not true.”
To overcome his pre-match nerves, he said “I would pick up wastepaper to clean up the road. If I bumped into a beautiful lady or if it was a fine day, I would interpret these as good omens…If I find myself yawning before a contest, I take a deep breath to refresh my body. When you are nervous you always feel like going to the toilet. Do not resist this feeling. By going to the toilet you can get the poisons out of your system.” Sometimes he would go for a walk with a team-mate and sing or just sit on a bench and watch the passers-by. At home, he would climb a small hill behind his house. “I felt I could gain vital energy by taking in the fresh air and listening to the birds.” He liked to sing My Way to the birds.
Yamashita was also a great believer in gathering intelligence. He would watch his opponents’ training sessions, but conduct his own in private, whenever possible. He would watch video endlessly and regard every encounter, whether in the bar, reading the paper or watching television as an opportunity to gather information. “In order to build up the analysis, I would listen to everyone’s opinion. Before the fight I imagined how the fight would be conducted.” This is basically what negotiation classes teach. Except in most negotiations, there’s no risk of a cauliflower ear.
I’ve been reading lately about the plight of the MBA class of 2009. Many are coming out of school with changed expectations and having to hustle to find work, any work, to pay off those loans and get their careers moving. The supposedly easy, lucrative jobs aren’t there anymore, so they are being forced to make choices. What do they really want to spend their time on? What offers the best chance of making a buck? How do they discover their true value in the marketplace?
I know this is no fun, because I found myself in a very similar position in 2006, after graduating from Harvard Business School with no job. What I’m about to say is not advice, because I’m in no position to give it. It’s just an account of my own experience which may or may not resonate.
My problems when I graduated were not linked to the job market, which was still booming. Most of my year had several job offers. My problems were with myself and my own rather self-indulgent approach to a career. I coveted the financial rewards supposedly due an MBA, but couldn’t face doing the work. I went through the mill of interviews with famous firms, but I was non-committal and it showed.
I remember playing soccer and rugby as a boy and coaches saying the only way not to get hurt was to fully commit. To hurl yourself at an attacking winger’s churning legs in a rugby tackle, to go hard for the soccer ball. If you flinched, you would get a knee in the eye or a boot in the face.
I got banged up in the business school marketplace by not committing.
And yet when I looked back to why I had gone in the first place, it wasn’t to get a big job. It was to have control over my time and my financial destiny. But somehow, in the process of getting my MBA, I had become distracted. I started to want what everyone else wanted and began to hold my own deeper desires in contempt.
I came to ignore what was most important to me: that I should be valued for what I produced, not for how many hours I spent in an office or how well I got along with a boss.
I wanted to be rewarded for my uniqueness, not for my ability to conform.
But it’s hard to hold onto that vision when you’re under pressure, when everyone around you says that with your background and qualifications, you should be doing a certain kind of work, when you have bills to pay and friends and family who unwittingly burden you with their own expectations.
I remember the summer after graduation talking to a friend who had graduated from Yale’s architecture school. I asked her, what do I do? She told me to go back to doing something I knew I was good at.
When she had come out of Yale, most of her peers had taken jobs with big, famous architectural firms. She knew she didn’t want to do that, and flailed for a while. To make some cash, she went back to her old job, working for an interior designer, managing multi-million dollar renovations. It had little to do with high-concept architecture. But it was hands-on, she was great at it and she was well paid. It felt good, she said, to be reminded of her value. And after a few months, she had the confidence to start her own small architectural practice, which now earns her a living.
So I took her advice, and went back to writing. I would take the subway every morning up to the Avery Art and Architecture Library at Columbia University, which offered free Wi-Fi and air conditioning, and contacted my old journalist friends. They were happy to throw me some work, a few hundred bucks here and there, enough to cover health insurance at least. And I began writing the proposal for a book about Harvard Business School, which became Ahead of the Curve.
I wrote quickly, because I needed to make some money. I hustled in a way I had never had to with a full time job on a newspaper, which I’d had before.
The advantage I had in writing my book proposal was that I had stirred the interest of a literary agent. During the summer between my two years at HBS, I had spent three months writing a novel. It was an odd thing for an MBA student to be doing. I should have been doing an internship somewhere. But as I said, I wasn’t committing. And I really wanted to write this novel. I had begun it while living in France and had a storage box full of notes and research. So finally, I took the time and did it. And when I’d finished it, I sent it out to a bunch of agents and publishers. And waited.
All said no, except one. Or rather the assistant of one, whose job it was to read these unsolicited submissions. She liked it and passed it to the agent, who finally emailed me months later, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, to say she was enjoying my book and that I should get in touch next time I was in New York. It was much more exciting for me than my second year MBA job search.
I met the agent for lunch and she told me that first novels were impossible to sell and that if I ever had a non-fiction idea, I should get in touch.
It was disappointing about the novel, but after graduation, I sent her my proposal for a book about getting my MBA. She liked it and set about selling it. Five months after leaving HBS, I had a publishing deal. Five months after that, I received the first installment of an advance.
In the meantime, I made a living writing, raising sponsorship money for a PBS documentary and consulting to an online news service.
It wasn’t easy for my family. Even those closest to me wondered what I was doing, why I had walked past the rewards a Harvard MBA was supposed to offer.
But each time I made a dollar in this ramshackle, chaotic way, that was unique to me, I was excited in a way I never was when I received a monthly pay check.
Each week that passed in which I managed to pay the bills was a triumph. Some weeks were better than others. But over time, I felt more confident about living a life like this, pursuing work I enjoyed, somehow making ends meet.
Insecurity and freedom are not that far from each other. Some days I felt the former so strongly I would start looking for salaried employment. Others, I felt the freedom and knew I wanted nothing else. There were days when I’d be in a library at 11 in the morning, writing or researching and feeling extraordinarily happy. Other days, I was worried sick about money and the future. Every day I didn’t have a regular job was both a commitment to a freer life and a rejection of what most people regard as security.
It still feels that way, though with a little success, the whipsaw between the two becomes milder.
There was a professor at Harvard Business School called Joseph Lassiter who gave us some great advice on entrepreneurship. He said that it wasn’t a choice of career, but a choice of life and you needed to think about setting your whole life up to give yourself even a shot at succeeding.
Your professional life would be volatile, so put yourself in a place where your personal life would be stable. Don’t move to San Francisco for the hell of it if you don’t know anyone there. Go somewhere where you are trusted. Where you have friends and family to vouch for you. Where you’ll have a sympathetic bank manager. Go home if you have to.
Explain what you are doing to the people who are most important to you. Tell them not just what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. Why it’s important to you to do this kind of work. Why you are ready to take these risks. Don’t assume everyone will understand when you take a less conventional path.
You want the reward of fulfilling work, work which is expressive of who you are. Work which rewards your uniqueness not your ability to conform. Explain this to yourself and to others. Write it down.
Before I left my job as Paris correspondent for The Daily Telegraph to go to HBS, I wrote myself a letter explaining why I was making this decision. I did it because I knew there would be moments when I would question what I was doing. It was useful to have on paper the feelings and rationale which drove me to do what I did. I referred to it a lot.
The other thing, which sounds so obvious, is to do something you know about. An academic study of successful new ventures conducted in 2000 showed that 71% “replicated or modified an idea encountered through previous employment”, 20% were “discovered serendipitously” and just 4% arose from the “systematic search for business opportunities.” The same study found that 41% of these ventures had no business plan, 26% had a rudimentary plan and 28% had a formal plan.
The lesson from this is that it’s not the plan or the search for opportunity, the things most business schools teach, which leads to success.
It’s an ability to improve on what you can do already and then execute.
Everyone knows what they’re best at, but often they think it’s of no value. I felt like that when I graduated from HBS, and I was wrong. It took a while to straighten myself out.
Whenever you take a risk in life, whether anticipated or not, the audience around you seems to be shouting two things. One half is screaming “don’t”. The other is shouting “live the dream”, “do what you love”. Neither are being very helpful.
Paralyzing fear and blind optimism aren’t the only alternatives. There is a route through the middle which recognizes that with risk comes reward, that insecurity is uncomfortable, but then so is going to the office on someone else’s behalf. There’s no universal answer here, just a personal route to navigating between these two feelings, which can only be found by setting sail in the first place.
The trigger for taking this route is not always desirable. Not everyone who ends up an entrepreneur wanted to be one. Many found they had no choice. Perhaps they came out of an MBA program in 2009 without a job. Or they could not sleep at night working for someone else. Or they were desperate to succeed on a far greater scale than their peers. Motivations can be dark, but that’s OK.
What is important is that once the trigger has been pulled, what do you do?
It’s a fact that people often wake up to the most significant facts about life at moments of tragedy. When a close friend, a sibling or parent dies, you suddenly realize that you want your own life to really count. You want to spend your time on your own terms, with the people you love, doing the work you enjoy. The greatest fear becomes the prospect of getting to the end and thinking, well, that was a waste.
For me, the tragedy occurred on September 11th 2001. I reported from Lower Manhattan that day and saw the towers fall from far too close. I remember looking up and seeing the bodies pinwheel through the air from the upper floors as people leapt to escape the heat. In the days that followed, I could not help selfishly thinking, what if that was me? What if everything were to end for me like that, without the slightest warning, would I be happy with the life I had led?
It may sound ludicrous to link my own journey through business school and back to writing to such a monumental event. But when I think about it, that was my trigger. The moment at which my motivations and ambitions changed for good. Letting them guide me has not always been easy. But it has been better than trying to deny them.
While in London in late May, I took part in a panel discussion about MBAs at ESCP, a school up the Finchley Road in North London. A subsequent article in The Independent described me as “the man business schools love to hate” and there was a woman on the panel, Jeanette Purcell, who makes her living by accrediting and defending MBA programs, who evidently wanted a fight. Anyway, they filmed the whole thing and posted this edited version of my remarks on YouTube. It was interesting to do, but the hostility my book seems to have stirred in the MBA community never ceases to amaze me. People seem genuinely angry with me for daring to say anything less than rah-rah for the MBA. The question I was asked before giving this answer was “is this a scandal-mongering book?”
This was by far the most interesting piece of journalism I’ve done over the past year. 5000 words in The Sunday Times of London magazine about the trader accused of losing 4.9 billion Euros of Societe Generale’s money. I spent time in Paris, waded through the documents, reports and interviews around the case, and it took a while to piece all of this together. But at the end, I couldn’t help feeling that though Kerviel had perpetrated a fraud, he had good reason to think that no one much cared about what he was doing until far too late. As I wrote at the end of the piece, given all that we know of the era just past, it’s not hard to imagine that smart people saw that his trades were dangerous, but simply couldn’t be bothered. And he took this as approval. His trial is still months away, but it should be fascinating. Definitely a movie in this somewhere.
I was interviewed by Peter Day for his show Global Business on the BBC World Service earlier this month. Peter is extremely wry and dry and a lot of fun to talk with.
After the interview, Peter wrote this comment on his blog:
Matters of Degree : Inside Harvard Business School
Business schools have a pretty fearsome reputation. Graduates spend thousands of dollars on their two years studying for an MBA, but then rapidly get the money back in terms of better paid jobs afterwards, and the business schools boast about it to justify their fees.
No business school has a more daunting image than Harvard, 100 years old last year, so I was interested to hear what Philip Delves Broughton had to say about it.
He was a successful British journalist working abroad who gave it all up to go off to Harvard to see what business school was like. He has an American wife, which may have had something to do with it.
Now he’s written a book* called “What They Teach You at Harvard Business School”, echoing the 1980s bestseller by the influential sports agent the late Mark McCormack called “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.”
I was once granted an interview by Mr McC in the rain in his posh hospitality tent at Wimbledon, and got the impression that what Harvard did not teach was how to be quite as well connected as Mr McC turned out to be.
Phillip Delves Broughton very much enjoyed the Harvard experience, but his expensive two years at Business School did not turn him into business person. He’s now writing for a living, on his own rather than for a newspaper.
But he set me thinking about what business schools do, and how they go about it. Harvard is famous for its use of case studies, and I wonder whether they help newcomers master the problems of the past, not the future.
Business Schools fit out their keen young graduates with the tools of the trade : the analytical devices, the buzz words, the methodology. They give them a potentially magnificent network of coworkers to go out into the world alongside, always at hand in distant places.
They give them superb self confidence.
But maybe they also insulate their graduates from the outside world. Buffed up by a biz school degree, the new MBAs join big companies and apply what they’ve learnt. But have they really been taught to look outside the corporate shell at what is happening in the world their companies make goods and services for?
That degree “MBA” is a problem itself. Business Administration actually seems rather a lowly pursuit. Harvard is where it seems to have started in 1908; American business in the early 20th century was preoccupied with increasing efficiencies, and unlocking the scientific truths about management.
The very first American business institution, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, offered its graduates a Master of Science in Commerce degree in 1900. Maybe business administration was an advance on that, but it took more than 50 years for MBAs to spread abroad, and still no one has yet come up with a more inspiring degree title.
MBAs and their professors seem to have been anxious to get away from the practices of the first consultants, time and motion experts such as Frederick Winslow Taylor who taught at Tuck after inspiring and influencing Henry Ford. (According to the journalist and novelist John Dos Passos, he died with a stopwatch in his hand.)
MBAs have exalted the practice of management over all the other things that happen in an organisation, especially over the messy business of what happens on the shop floor.
MBAs may have influenced the cult of the financial-driven takeover that has so deformed business life in the past 30 years. Remember that according to the studies, most takeovers fail.And some of the most successful businesses have been created by people who had no business degree at all. W Gates at Microsoft for one, L Ellison of Oracle for another.
I have no proof whatsoever, but I fear that the quest for business efficiency has led to a mentality where business is compartmentalised into functioning departments that do not talk to each other. One reason the sub prime credit crunch crisis grew so fast is because few people in the banks and businesses concerned had a proper overview of what they were doing.
Business people are still trying to “Keep it Simple, Stupid” when the world they operate in is anything but simple. “Keep it Complex Stupid” is surely a more realistic watchword, one that they ought to be teaching at business schools.
Now here’s a study for business school to undertake: Getting an MBA may increase a business person’s earning power, but exactly what has the recent growth of MBA courses done for the businesses who employ them?
Now all this is just me rabbitting on, of course. But from what I gather, I don’t think Phillip Delves Broughton MBA (Harvard) would completely disagree.
* In the USA the Delves Broughton book is called “Ahead of the Curve : Two Years at HBS”.