Telling The Story
A Master Mentor - by Julia Love
Tony's Story Continues
Yet despite what Brown described as his "checkered undergraduate career," a University of Connecticut political science professor, Max Thatcher, saw talent in him and enrolled him in an honors course. The course revealed a thirst for intellectual inquiry that Brown had not known he had in him.
"I was always the anti-intellectual, and I got in that class and I not only enjoyed it, I learned and I became good at it," Brown said. "Max Thatcher made a huge difference in my life."
When Brown entered the work world he forged relationships with three mentors who helped shape him for decades. Brown, in turn, has been a mentor to countless Duke students over the years.
Brown, who returned to the Hart Leadership Program this semester after three years leading the Robertson Scholars Program, spends about 15 hours a week meeting with current students and hears from at least two alumni every day. Many, like Luke Roush, are more than a decade removed from his class, but the bond remains strong.
"He really is able to get to know his students at a deeper level than most college professors are able to do. He's got an inside track as to how people are wired and what they value," said Roush, who is now vice president of global marketing for Transenterix, a surgical devices company. "When it comes to weighing in later on in life in ways that are meaningful, he's just in a better position to do that."
Brown explained that when he graduated from college, he felt like he had a choice between two insurance companies that were hiring. It never dawned on him that he could have a career outside of corporate America.
After graduating from Harvard Business School, Brown rose to the position of CEO of the Covenant Group, a Hartford-based insurance company, at age 37. Many of Brown's friends and associates were not surprised when he turned to teaching, though he was. When he reviewed his career at age 50, he realized that though he had spent years working in the insurance and investment banking industries, the core businesses had never inspired him.
"All of the accomplishments that I was proudest of had to do with people," he said.
So Brown set out in search of a new career in which people were the core purpose and decided that education would be a good fit. Having risen to the top of the corporate world, Brown reasoned that a role in educational administration would be appropriate, accepting a position as vice president of the University of Connecticut. But he found that the skills that made him an effective leader in the corporate world did not translate perfectly to the realm of higher education.
"I had to wean myself from the conventional mindset of leading organizations," he said. "I learned that you don't have to be in a leadership position to lead... and effective leaders aren't effective in all situations."
As it turned out, teaching leadership was Brown's calling. The hands-on role in the classroom thrilled Brown and gave him the direct, person-to-person relationships he craved.
An opportunity arose to teach a course on business leadership at Duke in the fall of 1993. Brown remembered being surprised that students would sign up to take his class. Students have jumped at the chance to take his courses ever since.
Roush had three and a half years of college behind him when he enrolled in Brown's course, but he found that the professor's approach was unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
Students recalled Brown racing around the classroom with a Diet Coke in hand. Brown explained with a laugh that he has never felt like "prisoner to his chair," and he does not hold his students to a double standard. Yet Roush noted that the content of Brown's course was also unique.
"He always answered students' question, what does this mean for what I'm doing here in the real world?" Roush said. "I feel like his class did that in really unique and special ways."
Brown's real-world sensibility is so great that his courses' impact can be felt in concrete ways beyond the classroom. Founding the Enterprising Leadership Initiative, which helps students gain skills in social innovation, Brown inspired members of his classes to create The Center for Race Relations, Common Ground, The Durham Giving Project, Rival Magazine, Crayons2Calculators, The Girls Club and Student U, to name a few. When Brown put his work with the Hart Leadership Program on hold to become president of the Robertson Scholars Program in 2006, 25 percent of the existing service organizations on campus were created by his students.
Brown explained that he leads a class like he leads an organization.
"That's what I've been trained to do," he said. "I'm very clear about what it takes to engage and inspire group members-and to hold them accountable."
Many students who enroll in Brown's course today are already standouts at Duke. But Brown said he finds it most rewarding to spot a student who is not performing to the best of his ability, as Thatcher did with him.
"It's great to feel you've made a difference in the development of superstars, but they're going to be superstars anyway," he said. "The real satisfaction comes from somebody who comes into the course on the margin. You can see them grow up and blossom."
Brown paired Dan Kimberg and Amanda Dorsey, who both graduated from Duke in 2008, for a class project. He attended their wedding earlier this month.
"[Tony] brought us together.... We certainly both learned a lot from him, and that helped us as we grew as a couple," said Kimberg, who is the director of Student U, which he founded with Dorsey in Brown's class. "I once asked Tony how he had time for so many mentees because everyone called him a mentor, and he said that no matter how much he has going on, he always makes time for people.... He's been a crucial part of my life, and he'll continue to play a big role, as will his wife."
Brown stands by his students in times of joy and deliberation. Alumni often come to him years after graduation seeking advice at pivotal junctures in their careers, and Brown is not afraid to ask them hard questions about what a professional move might mean for their personal development.
"He's challenged me, ‘Are you sure this is on aim with who you want to be?'" Roush said.
Brown calls upon his students to draw up a personal leadership plan that tracks their development over the course of their professional life. Louis Oliverio, who graduated from Duke in 1995 and is now a lawyer at the firm Epstein, Becker & Green, said he still turns to the plan for guidance. Brown's lessons on leadership are enduring.
"Tony taught me that leadership is not always about delegation, a lot of time it's about picking up the plow," Roush said. "I think a lot of people at Duke shy away from being in sales, but Brown's class helped me realize that life is about sales. Leadership is about trying to convince people that you've got a good idea and it's something that they should believe in too."
Teaching is Brown's passion, but for some students his role has grown to become something more. When Oliverio got married, Brown traveled to Pennsylvania to attend the ceremony. Mingling with Oliverio's immediate and extended family, Brown fit right in, Oliverio said. He e-mailed Brown last month with photos of his newborn daughter.
"He's more than a professor, he's a friend," Oliverio said. "It's amazing how even though I may not talk to him for a year, it's like we pick up the conversation right where we left last time.... I don't know how he does it, remembering with all his students, because he's in touch with a lot of us."