Ahead of the Curve/What they Teach you at HBS
I went to Harvard Business School in 2004-2006 after ten years as a journalist, not to write a book, but to learn about business. But then having gone through it all, I realized a book is what I needed to write. Ahead of the Curve/What They Teach You at Harvard Business School (different titles in the US and the rest of the world), came out in 2008. It was a New York Times bestseller, an FT and USA Today business book of the year, and has been published all over the world. Harvard Business School was upset about it – and made its feelings abundantly clear in private and public ways – but thankfully most of my peers at the school found it to be honest and fair. It wasn’t everyone’s experience but it was mine. The most gratifying thing about the whole experience has been hearing from readers all over the world. Some said it inspired them to go to business school, others that it put them off, some that it made feel better about their experience. I heard from many parents, husbands and wives of MBA students who said the book helped them understand what their children/spouses were going through, and the questions they might be asking themselves about how to make a buck and stay emotionally healthy in this economy.
Quotes from reviews in the U.S., U.K. and Australia – further down is the full text of the reviews
“Absorbing and entertaining.” – The Financial Times
“Funny and insightful…Philip Delves Broughton got his money’s worth from Harvard Business School.” – Bloomberg
“Horrifying and very funny memoir…It is hard to account for the odd position that Harvard holds in the American imagination, and Mr. Delves Broughton’s excellent book only deepens the puzzle.” – The Wall Street Journal
“For those who know little about contemporary management thinking… he has put his class notes to good use by providing an excellent layman’s guide to the big ideas of the literature.” – The Economist.
“He sets the scene brilliantly, capturing an essence of HBS that is part cult, part psychological morass, part hothouse… For anyone planning to attend this remarkable institution, Delves Broughton’s book is invaluable… A quite brilliant book” – The Literary Review (UK)
“He sketches out the Harvard curriculum and his fellow travelers with skill and wit…While it is not the kind of book that non-business readers will naturally reach for, it deserves a broader audience.” – The Times of London
“Funny and revealing insider’s view, revealing because he is genuinely fascinated by the world of business, and his fascination is infectious.” – The Sunday Times of London
“An insightful and entertaining, behind-the-scenes glimpse at a powerful institution.” – Business Week.
“Extremely dull and incredibly sad…pathetic sour grapes.” HARBUS, the HBS student newspaper
“Broughton makes a better writer than corporate drone. If you’re thinking of following in his footsteps, I’d invest in this book first.” – The Washington Post.
“Searingly funny account of life at Harvard Business School.” – The Evening Standard (U.K.)
“A fascinating book…a disturbing meditation on American business, the limits of meritocracy and the terrible personal sacrifices people are willing to make in pursuit of a buck. Even better, once done, you’ll think – with good reason – that you might know as much about business as any B-school grad.” – The Boston Globe
“Ahead of the Curve is a cautionary tale for those who believe that the grass – and their future paycheck – would be greener if only they could jump the fence into the rarefied world of the Masters of Business Administration.” – The New York Times.
“For those people who are considering a Harvard MBA, this book has plenty of detail about the content of the courses, the assessments and the lecturers. But Delves Broughton has produced a book that is much more of a philosophical journey – often very funny –than a mere course guide.” – Sydney Morning Herald
Below is the full text from a selection of reviews of the book:
The Financial Times (reprinted in the LA Times) July 30th 2008.
“A cynic in Harvard’s ‘cauldron of capitalism’ ” by Della Bradshaw
When Kim Clarke, then dean of Harvard Business School, greeted 900 new students to the school in 2004, he warned them not to become cynical. The advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears with Philip Delves Broughton, journalist-turned-MBA. Delves Broughton wrote an occasional “MBA diary” while there. Now, in this autobiographical portrait of two years spent in the “caldron of capitalism” – his phrase – the former London Daily Telegraph reporter writes with journalistic ease about everything from the nitty-gritty of the classroom experience to the problems of getting a job. What makes this absorbing and entertaining is the combination of journalistic detachment and personal alienation that Delves Broughton, a Brit in an American system, feels as he struggles to come to terms with what it means to be a Harvard MBA. All business schools pride themselves on recruiting “poets,” the non-traditional students who bring a different perspective to the classroom, usually populated by engineers, bankers or information technology specialists – or in the case of Harvard, according to Delves Broughton, by the “three Ms”: Mormons, military and McKinsey. For these “poets” – including him – the hard-core financial subjects are often unfathomable, he discovers. What he finds almost as difficult is to avoid succumbing to the standard Harvard mold. This struggle begins in the opening days of the MBA program when Richard Ruback tells the anecdote of an MBA student arguing with a school administrator. The student proclaims he is “the customer” and should be better treated. No, says the administrator, “you’re the product.” Professor Ruback’s comment to the author’s class: “I guess you’re somewhere between.” Delves Broughton spends his two years at the business school trying to avoid becoming “the product” and to resist the lure of money and power. He certainly succeeds. Without giving too much away, Delves Broughton, outsider to the end, is the only one of his cohort of 90 students with no job on graduation. Two themes stand out. The first is the extent to which students use their two years at HBS, frequently described by the school as transformational, to enact their aspirations and change their working lives. The answer in Delves Broughton’s cohort would seem to be “very little,” with most graduates succumbing to the inexorable pull of the lucrative banking and consulting sectors, which many of them went to Harvard Business School to escape. The other is that of ethics. During his time at Harvard, U.S. business schools faced a dilemma after one applicant found a way to hack into the applications website and discover whether he had been accepted. He published the relevant Web addresses online and many others followed suit, leaving an electronic trail. Harvard, like other top schools, rescinded any offers intended for these applicants. A straw poll in Delves Broughton’s class shows that about three-quarters believe Harvard’s decision was “excessive and self-righteous.” The incident is carefully juxtaposed with a story about car parking. One January morning Delves Broughton decided to spend $5 to park his Toyota in the student car park. To his surprise, many of the other cars were BMWs or Lexuses – one was even a Porsche. The author inquires of a fellow student why this should be. The answer comes that many accepted students at Harvard clean out their bank accounts, by buying pricey cars or by transferring funds to their parents, to get financial aid. In spite of everything, Delves Broughton is glad he went to Harvard, where he learned an enormous amount about business and a good deal about himself. Where he becomes cynical relates to the Harvard ethos and what the business school sees as its “mission,” which is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” It suggests, he argues, that business has a right to impose its will on the world. “Business needs to re-learn its limits,” he concludes, “and if the Harvard Business School let some air out of its own balloon, business would listen.” It is probably a message Harvard does not want to hear.
Della Bradshaw is the business education editor of the Financial Times of London.
The Times of London July 31, 2008
What They Teach You at Harvard Business School by Philip Delves Broughton, review by Robert Cole
A TWO-YEAR DOSE of hot-housing at Harvard Business School left Philip Delves Broughton short-changed. Ninety-eight per cent of his year group found high-flying jobs as executives or entrepreneurs. Two thirds went into finance, management consulting, or technology firms. Broughton has written a book about his experiences. The £19,000-a-year fees sound less excruciating in the context of the £70,000-a-year average starting salary for Harvard MBA graduates. But unless his book becomes a perennial bestseller, Broughton will fall well below par as far as earnings are concerned. And he seems to have failed on two counts. The author left daily newspaper journalism for the Boston boot camp because he wanted a career change. Yet he is still writing. Broughton is a good writer, however, and one of the lessons he learns is that effective and satisfied MBA-ers succeed in an industry they know. He sketches out the Harvard curriculum and his fellow travellers with skill and wit. He is sympathetic to the business-school ethos, but tells how he struggled with differences between lying and bluffing, subterfuge and strategy. In one delightfully barbed passage he tells of how he was lectured on the importance of “passion” in “a listless monotone” by an executive he imagined venting frustration with “a string of violent expletives and punches to the kitchen wall”. Broughton says that students often teach themselves and insight comes in spite of, as well as because of, the professors. Getting people to pay attention is 70 per cent of the battle, according to one visiting speaker. A classmate on sabbatical from Wall Street tells the author: “You can’t get upset about these valuations not being right … they make no claim to be exactly right. They are negotiating tools.” Broughton discovers that making the best decisions with incomplete information is another goal. A “shark”, he learns, is business lingo for someone who gratuitously and publicly discredits others. Harvard Business School counts directors of nearly half the British companies listed in the FTSE 100 among its alumni. George W. Bush and Henry Paulson, the US President’s Treasury Secretary are others. Broughton’s work is a handy introduction for those who crave the mega-bucks and mega-power that HBS brings many of its graduates. But while it is not the kind of book that non-business readers will naturally reach for, it deserves a broader audience.
The Sunday Times Of London August 3, 2008
by Christopher Hart: the inside track on the world’s most famous MBA course
In 2004, the journalist Philip Delves Broughton walked away from what sounds like a peach of a job, Paris bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph, to enrol in Harvard’s world-famous MBA (Masters in Business Administration) course. As a reporter he had managed to get himself blacklisted by the French foreign ministry for asking impertinent questions of the preening, poetry-writing Dominique de Villepin: surely a career high for any self-respecting hack. But he had serious doubts about his future in journalism, and indeed about newspapers themselves. “I wanted control over my time, my financial resources, and my life, and I imagined that a general competence in business would stand me in better stead.” So off he went to Harvard Business School (HBS), where a coveted MBA represents the “union card of the global financial elite”. Harvard MBAs run the World Bank, the American Treasury, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble. Even George W Bush is an alumnus. To some indefinable extent, Harvard MBAs run your life: “The hours we work, the vacations we get, the culture we consume, the health care we receive.” And they are supremely confident they should. The result of Delves Broughton’s time there is this funny and revealing insider’s view, revealing precisely because he is genuinely fascinated by the world of business, and his fascination is infectious. Yet feelings of unease emerge even before he arrives. He reads a student guide on What to Bring. “Don’t bring that guitar . . . Don’t bring any books from literature or history classes . . . Don’t bring your cynicism. Do bring all the diverse rest of you. We can’t wait to share the experience.” Immediately, his bolshie British bullshit- detector thrums into life: “Who were these people? And why did they talk like this? Why can’t I bring my cynicism? Or my books? Aren’t they a part of the ‘diverse rest of me’?” “Your calendar will be jam-packed with amazing, fun things to do,” warbles the guide. Amazingly, despite this terrible threat, he persists. Instantly, he is swamped with work: company case studies, spreadsheet analysis, books called things such as Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado, intended to make him feel he’s doing something terribly daring and manly. He is surprised at the large presence of earnest Mormons and unimaginative former-military men in this cauldron of capitalism. But gradually this begins to make sense, for HBS is pervaded with an oppressive atmosphere of unquestioning obedience and creepy religiosity. There is the confessional My Reflected Best-Self exercise, to encourage students “to create a developmental agenda for leveraging their reflected best-self” and “work maximally from positions of strength”. Approved results sound like this: “I do not take on the negative energy of the insecure . . . I stay centred . . . I try to model the message of integrity, growth and transformation.” Delves Broughton is quietly incredulous that people actually talk about themselves like this, in public, straight-faced. The weirdest and creepiest episode is when a student writes to the entire school, confessing to a “regrettable property- damage incident”, a gorgeous euphemism for urinating against a neighbouring student’s door. “His behaviour had made him realise he still had work to do figuring out exactly who he was.” Ye-es . . . or maybe he should just resolve not to pee against people’s doors in future. Even more creepily, Delves Broughton finds that he no longer responds to such tosh with a healthy snort of laughter. “It was serious, right? Leadership. Core values. Transformation. Being true to oneself.” It takes his wife — his American wife — to inject some common sense. “These people are freaks.” The total bill for his time at HBS is $175,000. Was it worth it? For all its vast reputation, power and pomposity, you feel that HBS neither understands the complexity nor acknowledges the chaotic unpredictability of the world economy any better than anyone else. More conclusively, it encourages its little alumni to major in hypocrisy. You go there for one simple reason: to make shedloads of money. Fine, so it’s no crime in itself to want to be absurdly and pointlessly rich, although it’s certainly no virtue. What sticks in the gullet is graduates’ self-flattering delusion that they’re on some kind of crusade, their “very American” insistence, as Delves Broughton puts it, on being not only “the most powerful, the richest and most successful”, but also “the most morally good”. At the same time as learning how to manipulate billions in order to profit, say, from ordinary people’s fretful indebtedness during a recession, you can believe that you are a philanthropic leader of men. Yet these are people whose answer to their own question, “How will I know how much is enough?” is, “When you’ve got your own jet.” Any notion that such jet-setting plutocrats are truly concerned about the rest of us, or the planet, or the future, is laughable. Yet to support this sense of righteous mission there’s a whole new raft of jargon, not just daft but pretentious and nauseating. These money-loving graduates must nurture “heightened self-awareness” and “a strong moral compass”, they must “foster integrity strategies”, acquire “leadership and values”. But why the hell would the rest of us want to be led by these spreadsheet-reading, PowerPoint-presenting swots who’ve devoted the best years of their lives simply to making moolah? The final, oddly moving moment of epiphany comes to Delves Broughton as he is wandering through a rainy Boston and pauses to read the plaques on the Old North Church. One is to “Paul Revere, 1735-1818. Patriot. Master Craftsman. Good Citizen. Born on Hanover Street. Lived on North Street. Established his bell foundry on Foster Street and died on Charter Street.” The brevity and quiet pride, the pioneer hardiness and unshowy self-sufficiency of Revere’s plaque seem in powerful contrast to the bloated and blustery style of the town’s world-famous business school, its restless, rootless, money-driven alumni now “disappearing to the ends of the earth in search of opportunity, worrying about work and life”. On reflection, “I felt better not being among them.” Philip Delves Broughton confesses that his first few months out of Harvard Business School were difficult. While fellow students stampeded down Wall Street snapping up jobs (‘some filed as many as 30 applications and found themselves with 30 interviews in one week’), he found himself falling back on his journalism while ‘waiting to become a titan of business’. Two years on, unnerved by classmates straining ‘so hard to secure jobs they knew would make them miserable’, Delves Broughton is finally putting his MBA skills to use. After flirting with an idea for a ‘very high end laundry firm’, he’s now setting up a cutting-edge podcast company with a friend. ‘It is a turbulent frontier world, and enormous fun to inhabit, whatever becomes of our venture,’ he says in a tone noticeably lacking in HBS get-up-and-go.
Bloomberg August 4th 2008
Harvard MBA Leaves With Great Access, Nice Book, No Job: Books Review by Caroline Baum
What do some of the world’s most successful business leaders, savviest entrepreneurs and reviled felons have in common? A Master of Business Administration degree from Harvard Business School is an elite calling card. It opens doors, provides a network worthy of Who’s Who and can be the first step on a path to untold riches. (So what if former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling ended up in jail?) Intrigued by the opportunities open to someone with this golden degree, journalist Philip Delves Broughton quits his post as Paris bureau chief for London’s Daily Telegraph to attend HBS. “Ahead of the Curve” is the funny, insightful story of his experience. Delves Broughton, class of 2006, was one of 895 students selected from a field of 7,100 applicants, a 12.6 percent acceptance rate. Once you’re in, though, it’s “almost impossible to fail,” the author writes. Students in the bottom 10 percent are given “every kind of support.” The only involuntary way out is failing to show up for class and being “mean to everyone who tried to help you.” That doesn’t mean the program isn’t without its challenges. The competition is intense, the workload daunting and the pressure to secure a $400,000-a-year job with a hedge fund or private equity fund never far from students’ consciousness. Students are taught business using the case method, adapted from the law school. Instead of listening to lectures, they learn business principles by analyzing real situations in class. Professors “cold call” students to present the assigned case, intensifying the pressure to be prepared. The first year’s required curriculum — 10 courses, five per semester — covers the fundamentals of business, including finance, accounting, marketing, organizational behavior, leadership and corporate accountability. The second year curriculum is elective. Some students come to HBS with a purpose: Their companies send them, or they want to make a career change. Others come to find themselves. Our narrator falls into the second category. He struggles with technology (Word is the only Microsoft application he’s ever used), concepts (liabilities are the money banks have, assets the money they don’t) and a constant sense of being behind his classmates, many of whom have started companies, run factories, served in the military and worked as consultants and public servants. Where Delves Broughton excels is in applying his journalist’s eye for detail. He’s at his best — and most hilarious — when describing his classmates and, by design or default, deprecating himself. For some members of his class, accustomed to 80-hour workweeks, the 55 hours of academic work expected of students seemed like a vacation, he writes. One veteran of a private equity firm “did not expect to learn much, but she was looking forward to sleeping, working out and taking long vacations.” HBS is all about leadership, starting with the school’s mission statement: “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Even lowly positions at student clubs are advertised as “leadership opportunities” and carry the title of vice president. “One day we, too, might be part of corporate America’s bulging vice-presidential class, so we may as well get used to the weightlessness of the title,” the author writes. Delves Broughton wrestles with the prospect of corporate life. He tries to reconcile the advice of the business luminaries who come to HBS to share their wisdom — do something you love, the money will follow, family comes first — with the reality for most graduates. “The degree enabled them to get jobs that robbed them of their private lives,” he says. The consolation is that the money they accumulate eventually allows them “to live the lives they wanted.” After many job applications, dozens of interviews and a series of rejections (McKinsey & Co.) from employers he didn’t reject first (Google), Delves Broughton comes up empty-handed. (“You went to Harvard Business School and couldn’t find a job?” he imagines people thinking when they meet him.) That doesn’t mean the two years and $175,000 for tuition and living expenses was for naught. In the end, he realizes HBS isn’t about getting a job. “It was about putting up the structure for a more interesting life,” he writes. That may sound like a rationalization, but if this book is any indication, Philip Delves Broughton got his money’s worth from Harvard Business School.
Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg News columnist.
Wall Street Journal AUGUST 5, 2008
Bookshelf Back to School, Turning Crimson, by Andrew Ferguson
As Paris bureau chief for the London Daily Telegraph, Philip Delves Broughton had one of the most desirable jobs in newspapering — indeed, one of the last remaining desirable jobs in newspapering — and he did it well enough to earn the admiration of boss and colleague alike. He shared an apartment on the Left Bank with a charming and beautiful wife and a burbling baby boy. He dined with heads of state and traveled widely on his employer’s dime. Despite the volatility of the journalism business, his professional future seemed exceedingly bright. So he quit and went back to school to study accounting. Of course, these weren’t just any old accounting classes. As he tells us in “Ahead of the Curve,” his horrifying and very funny memoir, he entered Harvard Business School, joining 900 other strivers as a member of the Class of 2006. At 33, he was older than most of his classmates and wiser to the ways of the world but much less handy when it came to regression analysis. Half-Burmese and Oxford-educated, Mr. Delves Broughton knew of Harvard — and particularly of HBS, as it is known in our acronym-crazed era — mostly as a brand, and he emerged with an ambivalence toward the brand that most Americans will understand. Like our common language, like our love for baseball and bleached flour, our resentful mistrust of Harvard is one of the things that have traditionally bound Americans to one another, from the snootiest Yale graduate to the lowliest stevedore. Meanwhile, everybody is trying to get in. It is hard to account for the odd position that Harvard holds in the American imagination, and Mr. Delves Broughton’s excellent book only deepens the puzzle. Some of what he found won’t be surprising, particularly the sense of entitlement for which its students and faculty are famous. The self-regard must get handed out with the matriculation packets. Most graduate business schools, you might have noticed, award MBAs. HBS, according to the dean, specializes in “transformational experiences.” Asked to account for a Wall Street Journal poll of corporate recruiters that ranked HBS 13th among business schools, the dean shrugged off the poor showing as sour grapes. What did you expect? HBS grads reject so many routine job offers that of course recruiters are going to resent the school. Mr. Delves Broughton was prepared for the number-crunching nerdiness, the intense competitiveness and the unrealistically high levels of self-esteem. But there was much more. “HBS,” he writes, “had two modes: deadly serious and frat boy, with little in between.” The future titans of American industry celebrated the end of their first week of classes with a party at which everyone was expected to dress as his favorite hip-hop star. The central attraction was a “booze luge,” an ingenious and super-efficient means of chugging vodka. At midsemester came the Priscilla ball. “The men were to dress as women and the women as sluts. . . . One man looked like Virginia Woolf in a white boa and black wig . . . while another wore a skimpy Heidi outfit and women’s underwear, which failed to contain his errant . . . ” — well, you get the idea. And it cost only $120 to attend. If Mr. Delves Broughton was surprised at the frat-boy excess, it is the other mode, the serious, non-frat-boy one, that the reader may find more disconcerting. The jargon-choked faddishness and fatuous therapeutics of pop business books and the modern workplace have seeped into HBS too. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, no serious student, even a serious Harvard student, should have to suffer through New Age group bonding games, as Mr. Delves Broughton and his classmates are forced to do. Another required “personal development exercise” is called “My Reflected Best Self.” He quotes the instructions: “The Reflected Best-Self Feedback Exercise differs from other performance mechanisms in its explicit focus on understanding how key constituents experience individuals when they leverage their strength constructively.” Mr. Delves Broughton remains appropriately appalled at this, but as the semesters wear on and he unspools his story, he shows signs of succumbing to a version of Stockholm Syndrome — a hostage identifying, if not with his captors, then at least with his professors, even those who pretend to teach “leadership skills.” His prose, usually breezy and ironic, begins to sprout words like “team-focused.” By the end of his two years in Cambridge, Mass., he writes, “I was happy I went.” He knows how to do a regression analysis, and he has learned how to make an Excel spreadsheet do everything but play canasta. He hasn’t found a suitable job yet, though, and readers will be happy to see that he retains a hint of skepticism about the whole HBS enterprise — enough, at least, to include this wonderful bit of data from a study by a banking analyst who tried to track the American equity markets in relation to the number of HBS graduates who chose to go to work in finance each year. If the figure was less than 10%, the market went up not long after. More than 30% and the market was headed for a crash. In 2006, Mr. Delves Broughton reports, 42% of the HBS grads went to work in finance. Right on schedule.
Mr. Ferguson, a senior editor of the Weekly Standard, is the author “Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.”
The Economist, August 7th 2008
Harvard Business School Factory for unhappy people
Mormons, military and McKinsey are the three Ms said to characterise the student body at Harvard Business School (HBS). Philip Delves Broughton, a British journalist, was none of the above, yet he was prepared to spend $175,000 for a chance to attend this “factory for unhappy people”. He never completely fitted in, perhaps because he largely shunned the prodigious alcohol-driven networking for which MBAs are famous, or perhaps because he did not really want to devote his life to getting rich. Yet his engaging memoir suggests he found it a positive experience. Mr Delves Broughton did not set out to write a book about the course. Nor is this probably the book that HBS would choose to mark its 100th birthday, which it is celebrating extensively this year. Yet anyone considering enrolling will find this an insightful portrait of HBS life, with detailed accounts of case studies and slightly forced classroom fun, such as the students on the back row—the “skydecks”—who rate the performance of their peers. (“HBS had two modes, deadly serious and frat boy.”) For those who know little about contemporary management thinking, as Mr Delves Broughton did when he arrived in 2004, he has put his class notes to good use by providing an excellent layman’s guide to the big ideas of the literature. He is a fan of Michael Porter, the nearest thing management theory has to a rock star and, more surprisingly, enjoys a course on co-ordinating and managing supply chains because he “liked the dirt-under-the-fingernails quality of the subject”. Despite this, the author fails to secure a fabulously high-paying job that would give him the private jet which was the “benchmark for being truly rich” while he was at HBS. Yet he had only himself to blame, spending his summer writing a novel when all his classmates were doing the internships that are the essential first step to that dream job. He graduated healthily “unintimidated by business and its practitioners”, not least by HBS itself, which had two failings in his view. First, it pushed the idea that its alumni would be equipped as leaders capable of solving all the world’s problems, rather than merely doing a decent job of running a company. “Business needs to relearn its limits, and if the Harvard Business School let some air out of its own balloon, business would listen,” he grumbles. His second worry was that so many of his classmates seemed destined for careers that would leave them no space for a happy personal life. He opted for more time with his family, rather than follow in the footsteps of the “Goldman Sachs executive who came to talk about leadership and values…I just remember this look of total defeat on his face when he said how he had four ex-wives.”
Business Week Books August 7, 2008
By Louis Lavelle What I Learned at Harvard Business School An opinionated journalist goes to Cambridge for his MBA and finds “a factory for unhappy people”
Philip Delves Broughton is not what anyone would describe as a typical Harvard Business School student. In 2004, when he left his job as the Paris bureau chief for Britain’s Daily Telegraph to get his MBA, he was 32—a bit older than most other students—and had a two-year-old son. He had studied Latin and Greek literature, history, and philosophy, but knew little about business. Businesspeople, he thought, were “gin-swilling, golf-playing, dull, predictable slaves to money.” By the time he had earned his MBA two years later, Broughton’s understanding of business was considerably deepened, but his opinion of the business world was not much different. One may wonder if he went to Harvard largely in order to write about it. But it seems that he sincerely wanted to change his life, thinking he’d profit from “a general competence in business.” All the same, the main beneficiaries of his experience may be his readers. In Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, Broughton provides an insightful and entertaining, behind-the-scenes glimpse at a powerful institution that he sees as generally succeeding in its mission of transforming students into business leaders. But he views HBS as failing them in almost every other way. It is, in his persuasive account, a “factory for unhappy people.” Why this should be, despite the obvious successes and accomplishments of graduates, is a complex subject that Broughton dissects with a reporter’s eye for detail. In his retelling, the 895 members of his class were men and women of modest talents but outsize ambition. Boastful, insecure, and occasionally charming, they were destined for careers that required them to sacrifice family and friends for the success they felt they so richly deserved. As one of the handful of students who came to HBS in 2004 with few ambitions of his own—he had no idea what he wanted to do—Broughton was well qualified to describe how Harvard in particular, and B-school in general, does such people a disservice. With a second child on the way, he struggled to find a career path that would allow him to spend time with his family—a requirement that kept him from joining the droves in pursuit of consulting and investment-banking careers. The pressure to follow conventional paths is a recurring theme, with classmate after classmate either battling the forces of conformity or succumbing to the siren song. In the end, Broughton spent the summer after his first year in Cambridge working on a novel instead of an internship and graduated without a job after interviews at Google (GOOG) and McKinsey. Today, he retains one foot in journalism while pursuing a few “entrepreneurial ventures.” Broughton found little to criticize and much to praise about the HBS case study method, which gets students to find fixes for company problems. It’s a testament to the method of the Harvard faculty that Broughton managed to become conversant in the language of business with so little prior exposure to it. But ethics is another matter. Many of Broughton’s classmates came to HBS ethically challenged, he says; some qualified for financial aid by depleting their savings with the purchase of expensive cars. But HBS didn’t much alter their attitudes. In 2005, for example, 119 HBS applicants were caught attempting to hack into a Web site that stored admissions information. For those who had been accepted, Harvard retracted its offers, and its dean called the behavior “a serious breach of trust.” But in Broughton’s “corporate accountability” class, it was Harvard that was faulted—75% of the class sided with the hackers. The author gives insight into daily life at Harvard and the “fear of missing out” that leads many students to attend every event, no matter how trivial. But in the end he didn’t seem to find it “transformational,” at least not in the way HBS hopes it will be. If anything, exposure to business in all its forms deepened his cultural bias against it. He came away appalled by the power that business wields in our society and by the ability of an institution like Harvard to perpetuate that state of affairs. “Has society allotted too much authority to a single, narcissistic class of spreadsheet makers and PowerPoint presenters?” he asks. Broughton leaves no doubt about what he thinks.
The Washington Post August 24 2008
A Reluctant Master of the Universe, The story of a reporter who decided to try his hand in the business world. Reviewed by Bryan Burrough .
In 2004, the 31-year-old Paris bureau chief of London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Philip Delves Broughton, gave up the rigors of daily journalism. Too many long nights in dismal airport lounges and too many silly French press conferences had taken their toll. Casting about for a change in careers, he applied to business schools and, to his surprise, was accepted at Harvard. Broughton tells what happened next in Ahead of the Curve, a useful primer for anyone considering a similar path, or just curious as to how Harvard churns out all those gleaming little masters of the universe. This book should really be called “Harvard B-School for Dummies,” or maybe “I went to Harvard B-School and all I got was this stupid T-shirt,” because it assumes the reader, like Broughton, knows precisely nil about the corporate world, and because the author somehow managed to graduate from the world’s premier MBA factory without, well, an actual job. The book doesn’t work especially well as a conventional narrative. There’s no suspense; Broughton writes that it’s almost impossible to flunk out. Rather, Ahead of the Curve offers a good sense of Harvard Business School’s day-to-day workings, everything from what the other students are like to the merits of each lecturer to impressions of business titans such as Warren Buffett and Stephen Schwarzman, who revolve through the doors offering pointers on how to get filthy rich. Broughton makes a delightfully clueless guide. His math skills are crude, and he can’t operate Microsoft Excel. When the other students flock off to Wall Street for summer jobs, he can’t get one and is forced to spend three hot months in a Harvard library writing a novel that, thankfully, he tells us little about. In fact, from the outset, he is entirely ambivalent about entering Corporate America. He doesn’t really want to work that hard, he admits. He wants to spend time with his family. How on earth, you ask, did such a slacker end up at Harvard? Great story. Broughton, a fan of the finer things, was interviewing a Latin American business magnate and took to admiring the hushed surroundings, the paneled walls, the spiffy MBAs hovering over laptops in conference rooms. “I felt I had been given a glimpse of a better world,” he writes. “If this was business, I could get used to it.” And that, it appears, was the sum total of his experience when he arrived in Cambridge. There are no jaw-dropping surprises once classes begin: long hours surrounded by haughty young hedge-fund hotshots on leave from Wall Street, a frat-house social whirl marked by streams of vodka sucked off blocks of ice and an oh-so-gradual grasping of basic business principles. Broughton tells it all with solid, disciplined prose. He wastes no words and gives us just enough personal information to allow us to understand who he is. About the only places the book bogs down are passages in which he feels the need to actually explain some of the things he was trying to learn: the fundamentals of accounting, manufacturing, marketing, etc. He is especially good at conjuring up the intangible benefits of a Harvard MBA: the network of Fortune 500 CEOs available with a single phone call; the sense that, just by entering the school, he has somehow become a card-carrying member of the Davos set. At one point, he and a buddy, intoxicated by a class on entrepreneurship, scribble out a business plan for an Audible-like Internet site, and — voila! — with nothing more than an idea and a few Powerpoint slides, he finds himself taking meetings with the country’s top venture capitalists. Eddie Murphy once did a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which, donning the guise of a white businessman, he finds everyone jostling to give him free money and gifts. That was a joke; this is Ivy League reality. As his two years draw to a close, Broughton wrestles with his next move. His classmates are all taking new jobs at McKinsey and Bain and Yahoo, but despite myriad interviews, he has yet to field an offer. Part of the problem is what he wants, as he writes in a “Help Wanted Ad I Sought But Never Found” : “Absurdly profitable company seeks journalist with ten years’ experience and a Harvard MBA for extremely highly paid, low-stress job in which he can wear nice suits and loaf around in air-conditioned splendor making the very occasional executive decision. Requirements: acute discomfort in the presence of spreadsheets, inability to play golf, poorly concealed loathing of corporate life, knowledge of ancient Greek.” Broughton eventually draws interest from Google, but after 14 separate interviews, including an eight-hour marathon in a tiny conference room, he backs out, unable to reconcile his ambitions with life in a Dilbert cubicle. Luckily, Broughton makes a better writer than corporate drone. If you’re thinking of following in his footsteps, I’d invest in this book first. · Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair.
The Evening Standard (London) August 15th 2008
By Chris Blackhurst
Early on in Philip Delves Broughton’s searingly funny account of life at Harvard Business School, the British reader and TV viewer is brought up short. The MBA students are in their first year, studying RC — Harvard code for Required Curriculum — when, as part of the course, they play “Crimson Greetings”. They’re divided into separate “universes”, or teams of 10 students, and their task is to build and run a greetings card business. Whichever team creates the most profitable card business wins. For anyone who has seen The Apprentice, the exercise is eerily familiar. On Sir Alan Sugar’s programme they do the same. But nobody there says: “We need to do a deep dive on production to improve our metrics.” As Delves Broughton says: “I kept wondering what a young Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch would have made of this course. Not much, I imagine.” Sugar, undoubtedly, would be the same. But then entrepreneurs of that calibre are born, not made. What the Harvard MBA is about is instilling in others what to a few comes naturally. So decisionmaking and risk-assessing are packaged into formulae and processes — management by numbers. There’s nothing wrong with that. Every generation has its brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators but when they leave the stage others have to pick up where they left off. That’s what an MBA does. It makes the challenge of running an organisation successfully more achievable — not in a gung-ho way but with analysis and thought. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought of doing one myself, even at Harvard. Heavens, I seem to have met plenty of Harvard MBAs in my time and have found myself thinking how come they’re sitting on that side of the desk earning a fortune when I’m not. All credit to Delves Broughton, also a journalist (he was the Paris bureau chief of The Daily Telegraph), for having the gumption (and the cash — the fees aren’t cheap) that I lack. The result is confirmation that if you want to go into business but don’t have it in you automatically, an MBA is a pretty good place to start. And as the lecturers keep reminding the students and the students keep reminding each other, there is nowhere better than Harvard. It’s this last bit that gives the book its hilarious edge. Partly, it’s the Brit-observing-Americans-intheir-own-backyard thing such as when he’s told before he arrives: “Don’t bring that guitar … Don’t bring any books from literature or history classes … Don’t bring your cynicism. Do bring all the diverse rest of you. We can’t wait to share the experience.” And the glorious (to the eye of a cynical Brit) incident when a student drank too much at the end of a semester party, Holidazzle, urinates on a student’s door and then writes to the whole school, admitting to a “regrettable property damage incident”. His behaviour, he said, “had made him realise he still had work to do figuring out who exactly he was”. In the main, it’s the arrogance and pomposity of the place that sees itself as the world’s number one that provokes laughter. In one episode, the Dean berates the Wall Street Journal for having the temerity to rank Harvard 13th among business schools. His explanation is that the Journal poll was among recruiters, many of whom find it hard to recruit Harvard Business School graduates. The reason? “Harvard MBAs, he said, often choose between several job offers so left many companies disappointed and complaining to newspapers.”
The Boston Globe Book Review August 26th 2008
Pluses and minuses of business school By Tom Keane
This is a fascinating book. At first look, it seems just another “Paper Chase”-like memoir of some bright kid’s journey through the halls of elite academia — in this case, Harvard Business School. But Philip Delves Broughton’s recounting also offers us a disturbing meditation on American business, the limits of meritocracy, and the terrible personal sacrifices people are willing to make in pursuit of a buck. Even better, once done, you’ll think — with good reason — that you might know as much about business as any B-school grad. That, however, may be less a tribute to Broughton’s clear and witty writing than it is a sad comment on the shallowness of business education itself. Thirty-two-year-old Broughton was married, a father, and Paris bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph of London when he decided to attend grad school, for reasons that he doesn’t make entirely clear. (To write this book, perhaps? Broughton says no, but, wow, he did keep good notes.) The new student, rusty after many years in the real world, found himself flailing, struggling with remedial math, trying to figure out Excel and intimidated by nomenclature and ways of thinking far removed from journalism. He’s up to the task, though, and Broughton’s journalistic talent is such that as he is illuminated, so are we. It’s not clear from his book that Broughton will ever really enjoy being in business, but he certainly enjoys learning about and writing about business. But academics, we quickly learn, is not really the reason one attends HBS. Masons supposedly once secretly ruled the world; today, apparently, it’s HBS alumni. The school is less a learning experience than it is a club, and membership in the club — “You’ve won,” says one second-year student as he welcomes Broughton’s class to the school — is the ticket to wealth and power. Ultimately, this poses a near-existential crisis for Broughton. After the first semester, jobs become HBS students’ singular focus. Yet Broughton, more in love with his wife than his wallet, is less obsessed. The job hunt goes badly: He is rejected by mutual funds, McKinsey (the giant consulting firm), and The Washington Post (which tells him journalists don’t make good businesspeople). He spends months failing to start up his own podcasting business. In one of the more amusing sequences of the book, Broughton recounts four months and 14 job interviews spent trying to get a job with Google, an experience so frustrating that he ends up removing Google from his computer and installing Yahoo instead. Ultimately, Broughton spends the summer between first and second year jobless, working on a book, and tending to his pregnant wife. And when graduation rolls around a year later, he is still unemployed. Much of this is a consequence of his discomfort with the state of business these days and the unacceptable compromises a career demands. Fully 63 percent of his classmates end up in consulting or finance. Those fields not starting up or actually running a business are the hot areas that attract the best and brightest. That neither actually involves creating or managing anything, however, is worrisome. (Broughton particularly disdains the consultants, “taking something so obvious… and overcomplicating it so that MBAs could charge a fee for offering it.”) Business tycoons who regularly speak at the school to adoring audiences glory in their success even as they, almost braggingly, acknowledge their miseries. “I’m barely talking to my son,” reveals one senior investment banker. Those tradeoffs loom far larger to Broughton than they do to his classmates. Broughton’s telling assessment of HBS: It’s “a factory for unhappy people.” His book, on the other hand, is a revelation.
Tom Keane is a Boston-based freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The New York Times August 17, 2008
A Journalist in B-School Wonderland by Harry Hurt III
Philip Delves Broughton lived out a fantasy. In 2004, dismayed over the gloomy state of newspaper journalism and his own career prospects, Mr. Broughton, then 32, quit his job as Paris bureau chief for The Daily Telegraph of London and enrolled in Harvard Business School. As he recalls in “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School” (Penguin Press), his motives were a mixture of idealism and self-interest. “I went there to recover from writing, to stop looking at the world around me as a source of potential stories,” he says. “I wanted to learn about business in order to gain control of my own financial fate, and more important, my time. I was tired of living at the end of a cellphone, prey to an employer’s demands.” “Ahead of the Curve” is a cautionary tale for those who believe that the grass — and their future paycheck — would be greener if only they could jump the fence into the rarefied world of the Masters of Business Administration. Much of the insider information about Harvard Business School and its case-study method has been reported previously in other books and magazine articles. But Mr. Broughton goes beyond the regurgitation of classroom notes on management techniques to offer a sociological critique of the school’s stated mission “to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” “Business schools no longer produce just business leaders,” Mr. Broughton says. “M.B.A.’s determine the lives many of us will lead, the hours we work, the vacations we get, the culture we consume, the health care we receive, and the education provided to our children.” So who are these future leaders and where do they come from? Although Mr. Broughton changes names and biographical details in describing his 895 classmates, he pulls no punches in his characterizations. Many of his peers, he says, hailed from one of the “three M” backgrounds: Mormons, former military officers, and former McKinsey & Company consultants. There was also a large contingent of so-called “international” students — Indians, other Asians, South Americans — most of whom had actually gone to colleges and/or high schools in the United States. A second-year student who delivered a welcoming speech “told us that simply by getting into H.B.S., ‘You’ve won,’ ” Mr. Broughton reports. “From now on it was all about how we decided to govern our lives. There was something creepy about his Kennedyesque cadences and his well-practiced call to arms. But what he said would be repeated throughout my time at Harvard. H.B.S. was a brand as much as a school, and by attending, we were associating ourselves with one of the greatest brands in business.” Mr. Broughton stresses that “in many ways, I loved my two years at Harvard.” His teachers were, “for the most part, inspiring and committed,” he says, and “smart and considerate” is how he describes his classmates. “For me, and everyone I knew, Harvard changed the view of our futures and the possibilities available to us through business,” he observes. Yet among his fellow students, he also saw evidence of “arrogance” and an obnoxious “sense of entitlement.” Lacking a financial background, Mr. Broughton had to struggle to keep up in class. He says that before enrolling, he had never even opened the Excel program on his computer, much less created a spreadsheet. During lectures in the introductory finance course required of all students, he often felt as if the professor were speaking to him in unintelligible “dog whistles.” And he was puzzled by an accounting course in which the professor made distinctions among book accounting, tax accounting and “the search for economic truth.” Along the way, Mr. Broughton says, he discovered that his classmates generally operated in only two modes: “deadly serious” and “frat boy.” He describes parties at which students slurped vodka poured down a channel in a block of ice called “the booze luge.” He recounts serving as the auctioneer at a charity fund-raiser during which he obligingly stripped off his shirt and tie and allowed himself to be handcuffed to a “muscular bond trader” as his classmates brayed with delight. Mr. Broughton also details a scheme for acquiring “financial aid BMWs”: Upon being accepted at the business school, some students deliberately emptied their bank accounts to buy BMWs for themselves. Since they were not required to list vehicles among assets on their financial aid applications, they often qualified for extra financial aid. “So basically, Harvard buys you a BMW,” a classmate informed Mr. Broughton. AS fate would have it, Mr. Broughton says he ended up as the only person in his 90-member class section not to receive a job offer upon graduation. Married and the father of two young children, he shelved an entrepreneurial idea for opening a high-end laundry in favor of doing some media and film consulting and returning to his journalistic roots to write this book. Mr. Broughton says he was glad to have learned “the language of business, the modes of thinking.” But he also contends that “business needs to relearn its limits” and that the business school should revise its stated mission of educating leaders for the world at large. “H.B.S. need only promise to educate students in the process and management of business,” he says. “It would be a noble and accommodating goal and would dilute the perception of the school and its graduates as a megalomaniacal, self-sustaining elite.”
The Bristol Press (CT) September 9th 2008
You can always tell an HBS man (or woman) By Scott Whipple
Back when the mantra at Xerox was “Office of the Future,” the young turks, dudes with Z cars and major account expenses, would from time to time petition our division president, a patient, but pragmatic man, for the company to pay their way through Harvard Business School. “You don’t need a Harvard Business School degree,” he’d tell them. “The on-the-job education you’re getting here is worth more than anything you could ever learn in Cambridge.” Well, for starters, HBS is not located in Cambridge; it’s across the Charles River in the downscale Boston suburb of Allston. Still, for those of us who will never be able to put HBS on our curriculum vitae, the next best thing is reading about the Harvard Business School experience. If you wonder what is taught and how at HBS, do yourself a favor and plunk down $29.95 for Philip Delves Broughton’s book, “Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School,” The Penguin Press, (283 pages). It reads like a novel. I’m talking page-turner. Harvard Business School may be the most influential institution in the world. As the flyleaf reminds us: “Its graduates are Fortune 500 CEOs, private equity titans, venture capitalists, even presidents. They include many of our savviest entrepreneurs (e.g., Michael Bloomberg) and canniest felons (e.g., Jeffrey Skilling). The top investment banks and brokerage houses routinely send their brightest young stars to HBS to groom them for future power. To those people and many others, a Harvard MBA is a golden ticket to Olympian heights of American business.” Core of the school’s curriculum is the case study, an analysis of a simulated business situation. Although there is never any “right” answer to a case study, the author stumbled on an epiphany: The key to the case study is to make sound assumptions based on all available evidence. I can relate with Broughton, former Paris bureau chief for the London Daily Telegraph. At HBS he had to deal with subjects that stymie me – like accounting, creative or otherwise. After reading about his experience with that discipline, I came to agree with him; i.e., “Done right, a balanced scorecard should tell the story of a business, incorporating all the strands that matter. It will tell you what a good, trustworthy manager would tell you. Done poorly, it is just a lot of money wasted generating a lot more useless numbers.” The book has so many delicious passages I wish I had the space to cite them. Here’s one: “Concerned about its elitist, arrogant image, HBS brings in a dean who lectures to Broughton’s section about changing the image of the school as stuck-up jerks. The dean places much of the blame for the dissing of HBS alumni on corporate recruiters who struggle vainly to compete for the more desirable business school grads faced with a plethora of job offers.” To dispel this image, HBS wants to get the word out that it encourages a diverse group of applicants to its “nice and comfortable environment.” Yet, as Broughton details the smug B-school culture much in the way Margaret Mead did with her Samoans, that familiar saying with slight variation danced like sugar plum fairies in my head. “You can always tell a Harvard Business School man (or woman), but you can’t tell him (or her) anything.”
Sydney Morning Herald September 19th 2008
The Pinstriped Prison by Margot Saville
WHEN I started as a first-year solicitor at the then Allen, Allen & Hemsley in 1986, we heard a cautionary tale. The previous year one foolish soul had complained to senior partner and art buyer, the late Hugh Jamieson, about the painting in his office. “That painting,” Jamieson had replied, witheringly, “will be here long after you’ve gone.” Reading Lisa Pryor’s book, The Pinstriped Prison, brought it all back: the endless photocopying, the hierarchy, the time-costing. In the book, Pryor, also an “escapee of a career in law”, says that many good students are channelled into studying law for all the wrong reasons. They do it because they got enough marks and it’s a prestigious degree that leads to a highly paid job. After graduating they get sucked into boring jobs in large law firms, investment banks and management consultancies where they work horrendous hours for lots of money. Pryor lays part of the blame at the door of the universities, whose rapidly expanding law faculties are good fee-earners. In the past 20 years the number of law faculties has more than doubled, she writes. “There are currently more than 28,000 law students in a country with only just over 40,000 practising lawyers.” It’s potentially a dry topic but in Pryor’s skilled hands the book is an entertaining read, full of colourful anecdotes about designer-clad young turks putting in an 18-hour day before winding down over a few cocktails. It reminded me a little of the lawyers in the late-’80s television series LA Law, who spent their days drinking, bonking and gossiping. What on earth, we asked ourselves, were they putting on their time sheets? Almost everyone quoted in the book appears to be miserable, which makes it a little one-sided. I would have liked to hear from a few people who actually enjoyed their jobs, which are in fact comfortable and well-paid. It’s not as if they are gutting hens on a production line. As Pryor writes, “I am tempted to grab [the malcontent] by the collar and say to him, ‘why don’t you just stop whingeing and leave?’ ” In the end, she says, the issue is not just the “mild tragedy of privileged individuals” leading dull lives. “This is about a kind of brain drain infecting our culture. Even when big-firm recruits enjoy their jobs, this siphoning of talent poses challenges for society and the economy. Many of the best young minds who have been trained in fields as diverse as law, science, engineering and the arts are using this education to provide business services for private enterprise rather than leading policy development, making scientific breakthrough or teaching future generations.” It’s probably a good book to give to high-achieving students and their parents, to show them the harsh reality of the highly paid city job. And to remind them of the almost universal truism of the job market – that interesting, creative, stimulating jobs don’t reward you as well as boring corporate ones. Why do you think they have to pay you so much money? As my wise mother would say, “You can’t have it all.” These are the sorts of issues very much on the mind of Philip Delves Broughton, who has written about his experiences in What They Teach You At Harvard Business School. In 2004 Delves Broughton, then the Paris bureau chief of the British newspaper The Daily Tele-graph, moved his wife and small son to Boston to enrol in a masters in business administration. Most books written about the study of business are deathly boring, because they are written by academics. And for those people who are considering a Harvard MBA, this one has plenty of detail about the content of the courses, the assessments and the lecturers. But Delves Broughton has produced a book that is much more of a philosophical journey – often very funny – than a mere course guide. He left journalism, he writes, because he wanted more control over his time and his financial fate. Also, the MBA “would be my path to greater knowledge about the workings of the world and broader choices about the life I might lead”. The best bits of the book are his constant struggle to avoid the pressure to apply for a highly paid job on Wall Street, knowing that it wouldn’t suit him and would destroy his family life. In the summer break, he applies for internships and suffers that all-too-familiar feeling of despair at being rejected by companies for which he didn’t actually want to work. In the end, he asks himself the same questions that business students have often pondered. “How can I succeed financially without losing my soul? Can I be good and successful in business?” And how “can I live decently, honourably and completely in a world which makes that so difficult?” I won’t spoil the ending except to say that he doesn’t sell out and forges a new career that is not incompatible with his beliefs. And, of course, he has produced this very readable book, parts of which may resonate with anyone who has ever struggled with the Faustian pact – and isn’t that most of us? So for Delves Broughton, was it all worth it? Luckily, that’s the sort of cost-benefit analysis he can now do in his head.