Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School

As a person considering business school, this was an obvious read for me. A timely insider account is worth quite a lot -- and given the current economic crisis, people definitely want to examine the worth of a Harvard MBA and its role on Wall Street.

Philip Delves Broughton wrote Ahead of the Curve to chronicle his two years at Harvard Business School. He didn't come from a finance background -- in fact, he was Bureau Chief for The Daily Telegraph in Paris -- and he insists that he didn't go to business school with the intention of writing a book about the experience. With two kids (one of which was born during the course of his time at HBS) and a wife, he decided to take the plunge and to to business school because he saw the Harvard MBA as his "in" to the business world. It certainly doesn't take an MBA to know the prestige of the Harvard brand, and as Broughton saw newspapers as a dying medium, he knew it was time for a change.

Broughton gives a very honest and clear account of his personal experience at HBS (and the fact that it's a personal experience is important to keep in mind)... Discussing his classes, explaining the case method, going over the general structure of his time as a student, quoting the professors and administration in depth as they talk about the students' futures as the elite of the business world. He shares basic business ideas and examples of cases and projects. (The first big group project of "Crimson Greetings" where a group simulates the running of a greeting card company affirmed all of my worst fears about group projects in b-school.) I could have done with a lot more on the actual goings-on of b-school and his classes, but I thought he made good use of his time and I never felt like he was spending unwarranted time on these scenes.

But time and time again, he reminders the readers that he is not one of "them"... He is different from a majority of his classmates and don't you forget it. He's older and he comes from an incredibly different background, so he automatically puts himself in the position of observer, even as you want him to succeed in classes where his lack of business experience means he's clearly got to catch up. (This is perhaps important for younger people reading this who are looking to Broughton for a description of life at b-school... You definitely need to remember that he's a very different person from the average single 27-year-old that applies.) He's ever the reporter and he's often asking whether or not anyone else is concerned with how tactical they've become in their time at HBS. He gives an example when he takes a class that is attended by both HBS and Kennedy School students -- the professor asks whether or not a company should sell and automatically, Broughton gives the business school response of "yes" without taking into account the personal feelings or emotions of the business owner. He realizes just how much his mindset has changed as he approaches business decisions and it rather frightens him. Of course, with the amount of discussion he gives to being an ethical and moral person in business, I was rather surprised that he gave the b-school response at all. He's very concerned with the idea of not selling out and becoming a consultant, sacrificing his time with his family for money. While he came to business school to make a better life for himself and his family, to bring about a career change, and to speak the language of business, Broughton also emphasizes that he didn't get a summer job and he didn't receive any job offers upon graduation. From his perspective, he simply wasn't willing to give up his family for a career, but he points out that a great many of his classmates were. They accepted finance and consulting positions in droves, convinced that these with the doors to opportunity that Harvard had given them.

While Broughton clearly doesn't approve of these sacrifices and choices (more on his classmates later), I think it's important to note that this is very much Broughton talking here. He is a man who wants to be a good husband and father, which is honorable, but that means he often quotes the speakers who say they didn't get enough time with their kids. Those quotes rang true for him and influenced his decisions. While Broughton might have thought that HBS was pushing him to a future of earning lots of money and disappearing from his family, any credible reader knows to take this with a grain of salt. HBS is clearly interested in giving its students the ability to make decisions for themselves, and supplying them with the contacts and opportunities to join the business world. HBS is concerned with creating business leaders, and while HBS might describe itself in grand and prideful language, I often wanted to tell Broughton to give it a rest on the critique. You go to HBS for the brand and the alumni network, and if you don't know that when you go in, then you haven't done your research. And there's a reason for the prestige, even if sometimes it is a circle of business elite Harvard alums giving the leg up to other alums. Harvard clearly teaches confidence, and when entering the business world, that seems to be one of the most valuable lessons. (In light of recent economic events, that's scary, right?)

In the end, Broughton never seemed to "buy in" to HBS the way that some alums do (which I suppose one could hardly do if writing a book about the experience, or it would just be a "yay Harvard!" piece), but he clearly left the experience with a new way to view the world. He became an entrepreneur in thought and deed, and he would certainly tell you that he did manage to keep his soul in the process, even though some people might see this kind of expose as a bit of a betrayal of HBS. He's rather critical in his closing remarks about how he would change the HBS administration, and he talks a lot about the Harvard hype, but despite his disapproval for the career choices of his classmates, he does a rather good job of describing the diversity found in the class. He attributes a great deal of his learning experience at Harvard to this exposure to people from many different backgrounds, and he ends the book with many quotes from people in his class, summarizing the things they took away from Harvard (and they seem to have a great deal more good to say about HBS than Broughton).

So... My opinion on his opinion on HBS? Ultimately, I thought this was a good book when you understand that this is a single person's experience. In my mind, this is about on par with asking people who are currently in business school about their experiences. (The trade off to not being able to ask specific questions comes with the fact that no sane b-school attendee would be able to speak at such length about their courses.) If you're considering business school, definitely read this book.

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