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Archive for October, 2008

Bill Gates at HBS: “It’s not about dollars, it’s about innovation power”.

Here’s a fascinating talk by Bill Gates at the HBS Centennial Business Summit. He talks about philanthropy, volume opportunities in poor markets, the attractiveness of firms which do good things to new hires. He calls it creative capitalism. “It’s not just about dollars, it’s about innovation power.”

Facebook reviews

Here are some of the Facebook Reviews of Ahead of the Curve:

Liked it. Nice mix of first person narrative and overview of basic business school concepts. Was interesting to read in light of current economic crisis. Ending got a little preachy. But overall, I liked the story.

Good book. Great account of PDB’s time at HBS.Quote-right

Wow… this was perfect timing for the financial crisis. I liked it.

“I really enjoyed this book. The author discusses his experience at HBS from an outsider’s perspective and shares his insights of the struggles many people have between buidling a career and buidling a life. Having recently jumped off the corporate Hamster Wheel I found it easy to relate to his frustrations, anxieties and concerns of what to do with”all that education”. I would suggest this as interesting read for anyone contemplating pursuing and MBA or struggling with a decision as to whether the investment will ultimately be worth all the time, hardwork and money. The best parts of the story seemed to definitly collect towards the back third of the book. Very relevant in light of all the has gone on in the US capital markets over the past year.

“An interesting read for an inside look at the B-school ivey league. The book is composed of three intertwined threads.”

“The first thread is, the narrative of the author’s story: rising quickly through the ranks as an international journalist, reaching a plateau as the Paris bureau chief for a major European newspaper, and then deciding to toss it all and go (with his wife and kid) to B-school. He describes the decision process and then walks the reader through a variety of his life experiences at Harvard. The second thread is a debrief on each of the classes he took at HBS. Throughout the book, the author will diverge from the main narrative and describe the classes he was taking — the professors, the way the class was conducted, and a summary of the core content of the course. A nice refresher for those have been through B-school, and a good look into the curriculum and subject matter for those yet to do so. The final thread is the author’s own internal monologue as he struggles with the value system presented to him at HBS. He is surrounded by students who want to get rich, alumni who come to the school to talk about how they got (and are continuing to get) rich, and a school environment that expects the same from its graduates. At the end of the day, the author feels HBS is asking him to make a “bad trade” in life — exchanging time with his family and friends for wealth and status.

This was a great look at the two years of Harvard Business school. After I started the book I wanted to pick up and head to Cambridge and start my Harvard MBA.

PDB writes with candor and clarity about his experience at HBS. The overall message about the school is a positive one, but his commentary on American society and its capitalistic striving (which to some extent is distilled into an essence at HBS) is devastating.

It makes you wonder if getting an MBA from Harvard is worth it. Is the HBS “brand” name value worth having to endure two years of apparent academic mediocrity, recruiter-sponsored alcohol binges, and inane pranks? Maybe that was just the author’s experience, but the tale of his two years at Harvard should be required reading for anyone considering attending HBS, or any business school.

I could put this book down. Ive been considering going for an MBA, but not sure Im competitive enough, “A-type” enough, disciplined or single minded enough to make it through and make something of it afterward. Here’s a guy who felt the same way throughout 2 years at Harvard Business School with the most competitive of MBA students. Delves Broughton was cheif journalist for Paris branch Daily Telegraph before going to grad school; his perspective is insightful and informative. He doesnt miss the bigger questions of how these MBA students and gradutes fit in the world, the choices to be made between family life and work, the role of business (vs government or the public) as a globe changing force.

First, some disclosure: Philip and I were classmates at HBS, did a project together (which he doesn’t directly mention in the book), I’ve had dinner at his house, and I consider him a friend. If you choose to ignore my perspective because of the above bias, I wouldn’t blame you, but I want to make sure that myths (generated by some press coverage) of what this book is about are dispelled: by no means is Ahead of the Curve a tell-all insider-guide bashing of the HBS experience. In fact, I suspect that some of the negative reviews are written by folks who either didn’t read the book or didn’t read it all the way through.

What the book is instead is a rather touching introspective memoir on Philip’s personal experience at HBS as an outsider – someone who, because of his age, career background, nationality, but most of all personality did not fit into the traditional HBS mold. Despite that, the reader comes away clear on the fact that Philip learned a great deal from HBS, respects its educational method tremendously, made some very good friends, and overall came away a bigger person after it. I want to elaborate on that last point – Philip was already a fully formed individual before coming to HBS: a father, a husband, a successful journalist, a well-traveled man. To feel growth after HBS, where the average age is ~5 years younger and the average experience is much more junior is a BIG DEAL.

The book really has two elements to it. One is a witty description of the HBS stereotypes, fun stories about interactions, and, ultimately, a fascinating tale of what it’s like to be immersed into the HBS experience. The second (one that I didn’t find as exciting having gone there) is a reasonably in-depth description of the cases and educational method. The first element is a joy to read and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Moreover, it’s quite an experience to observe Philip’s thought process and see how life touches him. Highlights include getting stuck in a white wedding limo in the parking lot at the Google headquarters and frantically taking notes on a loose-leaf sheet of paper during a McKinsey interview. The second element is geared to the book’s main target audience: potential b-school applicants. To be honest, I was shocked by how well Philip recollects the cases and formulae from HBS. I certainly got quite a refresher!

In the end, Philip chooses to opt out of the post-HBS grind, having fully opted into the experience while there. Funnily enough, too many people do the opposite. They float through HBS, barely read cases, sign up for courses on Tue-Thu so they can travel all second year, and then opt into a grueling i-banking or hedge fund job. Personally, I think Philip has come out a better person having learned much from what HBS has to offer and still chosen to pursue life in his own manner. He’s the type of graduate HBS should be proud of – I certainly am proud to have gotten to know him while there!

Despite everything I wrote above, I must point out that PDB is a writer and as such, he left plenty out that didn’t fit his theses. For example, I was a part of a team of three with him on a first-semester project in our second year. Of the three of us, exactly zero has jobs we accepted after graduation. Of course, all of us has unusual ambitions, but comparisons are driven by one’s choice of peer groups. Philip stands out dramatically when compared to i-banker types, but he may not be so unusual amongst others, albeit smaller, HBS groups. One of his section-mates, for example, joined a record label in a creative role after school for a salary of at most 1/4 of what he would have gotten had he gone back to his investment banking career.

Overall, Philip gives a balanced perspective on HBS. He gives an even more balanced perspective on himself and it was a joy to follow his personal travails. Yes, he does omit descriptions of some of the more “out there” folks from HBS, but no, he doesn’t break any sacred bonds of the HBS classrooms. If you went to HBS and are fuming based on the press coverage of this book, please read it first before forming an opinion. And if you think about going there, PLEASE READ IT!

A review from an HBS employee…

I’ve taken a lot of grief from Harvard Business School over my book Ahead of the Curve. Threatening letters, personal insults…all to be expected when you “moon a giant”, as business strategists like to say. So it was interesting to come across this review posted on Goodreads, by a current employee at HBS, called Adam. I’ve added my reaction at the end.

If I didn’t work at HBS I wouldn’t have touched this book with a 10 foot pole. But I do work at HBS and I know many of the players mentioned in this book and I was there for the stir this book created when it was released. Needless to say the institution was less than thrilled. However, I found the narrator, whose writing a memoir of his experience as a HBS student, very credible and honest. He’s willing to admit his own flaws and his own struggles as much as he is willing to expose the perceived fault of his classmates, teachers and ultimately the institution that is HBS. I also felt a tinge of self defense as it feels like he’s trying to prove to someone how much he learned in business school. Perhaps it is his classmates who took high paying jobs after graduation while he struggled to find work, clearly an embarrassment for him. Or perhaps it was the faculty or his family or his former journalism colleagues. I’m not sure who it is but his description of the subject matter of the classes, the hard core business principles, felt to me like he needed to show that the experience was worthwhile.

If you read this book you must do so with an understanding of the lens through which this person saw HBS, a 30+ married father (with 2 kids by the time he graduates from the 2 year program) who left a journalism career of significant substance at the London Telegraph to attend business school. This lens is much different than that of a 26 year old who enrolls in HBS after a few year working on Wall St. There is clearly a clash of world views within the classroom at HBS and he certainly falls in the minority as he is surrounded by younger, less mature peers who are closer to their halcyon college days and aren’t afraid to act that way. Being a little older prove a challenge when surrounded by the hunger and drive of younger peers who are striving to earn enormous salaries out of the gate.

Also involved in the clash of world views is the idea of “selling out”, sacrificing your personal life to make huge money. This is probably the true crux of the book. Despite countless CEO’s and Alumni who come into the classroom and stress the idea of protecting your personal life because the money that big business offers is not worth the sacrifice of not watching your kids grow up, many of the students at HBS ignore the warnings and head for the high salaries anyway. This life couldn’t be painted clearer to the students yet most head off to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars and to 90 hour work weeks anyway. This theme came up again and again and the author clearly fell in the minority as he struggled to find a path that would allow him to use the business education he was getting while also being a visible father and husband.

By the end he realizes it is one or the other, commitment to family and personal life or commitment to career; it can’t be both. How much HBS creates and cultivates the culture of selling out is up to us to decide? The author clearly feels one way. His younger peers likly feel another way. I’m not sure HBS does anything more than provide a means by which the students can reach the goals they set out to reach in the first place. It seems that no matter how much you tell them that wealth does not provide the ideal lifestyle they think it does, they still are going to lead their lives toward it anyway. HBS simply brings out in them their best by pushing them and allowing them to live up to their potential.

The true irony to me is that HBS is a wonderful place to work. Employees are encouraged to find a work-life balance that works for them. In fact, resources are available to HBS employees to facilitate the work-life balance. So while many of the students in the classroom shun this balance for money despite being warned about the sacrifices they will be forced to make, the staff that supports the institution itself is actually encouraged to find and sustain it.”

I think this is pretty fair. And thoughtful. The one point I’d argue with his is speculation as to why I explain “hard core business principles” in the book. It isn’t because I’m trying to prove anything to anyone. It was my publisher’s suggestion, in fact. Many readers won’t be familiar with much of this stuff and it helps to explain what we’re actually learning at HBS. We wanted the book to be informative as well as entertaining. That’s all. HBS and its proxies have attributed an awful lot of false motivations to me: I’m bitter, miserable, jealous, vindictive, trying to prove something. I think this says something about how HBS sees the world. Readers with no connection to the school or ambition to attend it, see none of this. They see the book in cleaner terms, one man’s attempt to explain some realities of the business world, both happy and less happy.

Why are these guys smiling?

Having failed to raise money from private individuals, investment funds or sovereign wealth funds, John Mack and Vikram Pandit, the CEOs of Morgan Stanley and Citibank are leaving Washington with a big check from the U.S. government so they can remain solvent.  No wonder they’re feeling pleased with themselves.

So much for learning from history

The New York Times just re-ran this oped published in 1990 in the wake of the Drexel Burnham collapse and the Savings and Loan fiasco. Some highlights:

“The credit system suffered further from the Government’s willingness to allow deregulation to proceed in the absence of adequate new safeguards, improved official financial supervision and stricter rules of financial conduct. Instead, from Main Street to Wall Street, excesses multiplied through the employment of novel financial techniques and liberalized credit standards that were unthinkable even two decades ago.

Hardly anyone in authority stopped to question the implications for the financial system. The facile rhetoric was that the ”marketplace” would discipline the wrongdoers in our financial system.

But relying on the market to discipline financial institutions is generally unacceptable. It is too blunt a weapon for financial institutions, which are thinly capitalized and closely linked through myriads of transactions with other institutions.”

“For many firms in the securities industry, the franchise that they once had will not be recaptured. Wall Street’s special role as adviser and investment banker to business and to other financial institutions is waning rapidly. The foundations of this role were based on trust. That trust has been shattered by conflicts of interest that were created when many securities firms rushed to participate in hostile takeovers and direct acquisitions of nonfinancial businesses.”

Well, so much for that. I recently heard Robert Merton, the Harvard economics professor and Nobel Prize winner, talking about the crash. He made the point that in a free market system, innovation will ALWAYS outstrip regulation. It’s pointless saying regulation failed. It will always be outdated in a system which rewards innovation. So regulation is not the problem. What failed was the morality and sense of responsibility among those who created this mess. They simply did not give a damn about the consequences of their actions for anyone but themselves.

Goldman Sachs family values

I just read the NY Times review of Charles Ellis’ new history of Goldman Sachs, The Partnership. Sounds like a fascinating book. Ellis credits the Goldman culture for the firm’s success over so many years. Hiring ambitious people from working-class backgrounds. “If their parents were postal clerks or groundskeepers, they were likely to work relentlessly to secure a better life – and help Goldman amass profits in the process.” Fair enough. But then this: “Tenacious to a fault, Goldman partners didn’t just work long hours; they came to think of the firm as their true family, with spouses and children paying the price.” In Ahead of the Curve, I criticize precisely this work first, family second culture. It’s fine to choose it for oneself, but what are the consequences for everyone else? I wrote: “It was disingenuous of Hank Paulson [the ex-CEO now Treasury Secretary] to say that it was up to individuals to make time in their life for their family, having been chief executive of a company, Goldman Sachs, that famously drives its employees to work endless hours. The MBAs who run these big companies are responsible for more than profits and losses, their own compensation and returns to shareholders. They set a cultural tone that affects everyone. Their disrespect for people’s time and personal lives has enormous consequences.”

Cash was king, now gold is god..

I wrote this piece for The First Post in the UK today. A Wall Street analyst friend told the other day that there was a day last week when not a single new car was sold in the United States. The average is 40,000. I haven’t been able to verify this, but anecdotally, it feels about right! Whenever I really want to frighten myself I go to Jim Sinclair’s site Mineset. Jim has been a gold and silver trader for decades – and these days he’s about as pessimistic about the world economy as anyone. Buy gold and head for the hills, is my very simplified version of his message.

What the Nobel Prizes can teach us now…

A version of this was published today on Forbes.com.

During these dark financial days, the announcements of this year’s Nobel Prize recipients have fallen like shafts of sunlight. At a moment when it seems the world’s fate lies in hands of a few harried financiers and flawed politicians, it is useful to be reminded of people who pursue lives and do invaluable work far from these fevered, self-important fields.

Take Harold Zur Hausen, 72, joint recipient of the prize for medicine for having discovered that the human papilloma virus causes cervical cancer. When he first proposed that the virus was worth investigating, he was a solitary and unwelcome voice. It took him ten years to prove he was onto something. Then he fought to persuade pharmaceutical companies to produce a vaccine – but ran into marketing departments who said there was no such market for such a treatment. 35 years after he began his research into the link between the virus and cervical cancer, he is still working to provide vaccinations to those who cannot afford it.

Luc Montagnier, 76, another recipient of the medicine prize, heard the announcement while attending a conference on AIDS in the Ivory Coast. He thanked the Nobel committee for recognizing his work on AIDS research and prevention, but refused to see it as any capstone to his career. “Even after 20 years we are still fighting this virus, very strongly, and the AIDS epidemic – I am now in an African country – is still spreading in Africa, so the fight is not finished.”

Yoichiro Nambu, a Japanese emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, belatedly shared the Nobel for Physics for his work on the “dynamics of quarks”. Now 87, he has been tipped to win it for years. He was reported by Japanese newspapers to have been a child prodigy, who mastered equations in primary school and taught himself English by tearing a page from his dictionary each morning as a boy and memorizing it on the way to school. He always urged his graduate students not to work excessively, but to break up their weeks with baseball games and mystery novels.

Then today we learned that the French writer, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio had won the prize for Literature, a snub for all those who felt it was due an American writer. Asked yesterday morning to explain the purpose of his writing, he said: “Mainly to be true to myself, to express myself in the most accurate way. I feel that the writer is just a kind of witness of what is happening. A writer is not a prophet, is not a philosopher, he’s just someone who is witness to what is around him. And so writing is a way to … it’s the best way to testify, to be a witness.”

What seems to unite these Nobel winners? They appear to be practical rather than grandiose, with a very long view of events. They believe in a man’s ability over a lifetime to help and improve the lives of those around him and possess a broad notion of what truly matters.

With the peace prize announced tomorrow and economics on Monday, the Nobels have already proved their worth in shifting our attention briefly from the economic ER to the uplands of human achievement.

Paul Newman

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul Newman, as I’m sure a lot of people have. In his obituary in the New York Times, he was quoted saying:

“We are such spendthrifts with our lives. The trick of living is to slip on and off the planet with the least fuss you can muster. I’m not running for sainthood. I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”

He also explained the logic of distributing some of the profits from Newman’s Own to charities for the hungry: ”We take the profits we make from the people who eat our food and turn those profits into food for people who haven’t enough to eat. That’s the cycle of our business, from those who have to those who have not.”

Here’s a piece from the New York Times in 1998 about Newman’s Own.The firm was expanding and hired Thomas Indoe, a former executive for Del Monte Foods and RJR Nabisco. Indoe explained why he took the job. ”I was reviewing where I was in life. I’ll never get rich here — there aren’t any stock options — but that’s fine with me. My kids look at my job and say, ‘What a neat thing you’re doing, Dad,’ versus working for a big corporation, putting money to the bottom line.”

David Letterman provided his own memories here.

My Novel – Bel Ombra

 

A number of people asked me what happened to the novel I wrote while I was at Harvard Business School. Well, I recently self-published it through Lulu.com. And you can buy it here. It’s called Bel Ombra and is set on the eve of World War Two. It’s about a young banker recruited to run a Mediterranean island for its rich owner – and finding the kind purpose his life had lacked up that point. If you’ve already read Ahead of the Curve/What They Teach You at Harvard Business School, you’ll recognize a lot of the themes.

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