Ahead Of The Curve Hardcover – Aug 5 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
This debut by a former journalist at the Daily Telegraph of London chronicles the author's love-hate relationship with the Harvard Business School, where he spent two years getting his M.B.A. Beginning with a confessional account of his disillusionment with journalism and conflicted desire to make money, Broughton provides an account of his experiences in and out of the classroom as he struggles to survive the academic rigor and find a suitably principled yet lucrative path. Simultaneously repelled by his aggressive fellow capitalists in training—their stress-fueled partying and obsession with wealth—and dazzled by his classes, visiting professors and the surprising beauty of business concepts, Broughton vacillates between cautious critique and faint praise. Although cleverly narrated and marked by a professional journalist's polish and remarkable attention to detail, this book flounders; it provides neither enough color nor damning dirt on the school to entertain in the manner of true tell-alls. The true heart of the story is less b-school confidential than a memoir of Broughton's quest to understand the business world and find his place in it. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
" Destined to become required reading for prospective B-school entrants. . . . As an insider's account of an influential institution, [it] hits every mark."
-San Francisco Chronicle
"An insightful and entertaining, behind-the-scenes glimpse at a powerful institution."
" What makes this a particularly absorbing and entertaining read is the combination of journalistic detachment and the sense of 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."
-Financial Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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!
I attended Harvard Business School while in law school many years ago. I was surprised to find out how many things are similar to when I attended. The student complaints were similar, too.
I thought that Mr. Broughton did an excellent job of explaining what the case system is all about and what occurs in preparing for and during a class. If you've always wanted to go to HBS, here's a chance to take a peek.
The book's strength is in exposing the values behind HBS, people seeking the highest-paying jobs despite the personal cost to family life and one's own soul. Mr. Broughton made some half-hearted attempts to seek out such opportunities, but ended his two years at Harvard with a large loan to show for the experience . . . and no job.
The book's weakness comes in Mr. Broughton's desire to teach you some of the basic concepts about business management. I doubt if you are interested. He doesn't always get it right, either.
I found myself comparing Ahead of the Curve to One L, Scott Turow's brilliant description of the bad old days of being a first-year law student at Harvard. One L is a better book. But both are powerful in explaining what it feels like to be a student in the middle of the gigantic forces moving to shape you like a vise into a new form that will be attractive to employers.
And yet... whenever he writes about something I know about, he is DEAD wrong. Since I was never a Harvard MBA student I wonder whether his depictions of places and events of which he is supposed to be more familiar are any more accurate.
Let me give 3 examples. In his dismissive account of a visit to Silicon Valley (pp 120-21) he writes "Up in the hills were town such as Palo Alto, Woodside, and Atherton..." The housing in Palo Alto & Atherton is not up in hills. It's on the flatlands skirting the San Francisco Bay, at most 100 feet above the water. In fact the city data at [...] has it located 23 feet above sea level, hardly "up in the hills".
Of his visit to Google he writes "Google's headquarters was a sprawling glass and metal complex originally built for Netscape" (pp 219). No, it wasn't. It's previous tenant was Silicon Graphics (SGI). Netscape was never in the building. There is a *tenuous* connection -- Jim Clarke, a founder of SGI, left and later founded Netscape among other companies. But Clarke left SGI long before SGI even erected the complex (and then immediately cratered as a going business). But if this sentence exemplifies the depth of his research and the accuracy of his reporting, what in the book can you trust?
In recounting a talk by Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, he writes that Dan recommended they ditch their copies of books about entrepreneurs recommended by the faculty and "read 'One Smart Cookie', the biography of Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields cookies (pp 238). She was a single mother, had three children by the age of twenty-one, and loved cookies. She know nothing about finance or business." Uh, no. Not a single sentence he remembers is true. She was married, her husband a wealthy stockbroker working in Palo Alto (not in the "hills", but on University Ave). The "little Missus" liked to bake, so as an indulgence he spotted her a store in a food mall down the block from his job. The very 1st Mrs. Fields store was right in pricy downtown Palo Alto (inside a mall later razed and now hosting a Z-Gallerie store). And if she knew nothing about finance, her husband (now ex) certainly did.
I was never in the classes the author attended. Maybe those accounts are accurate. But every time I ran across something in this book I know about, his story is just plain wrong and/or shows he didn't bother spending even a few minutes to check his account is correct. So I'm skeptical, to say the least, about the rest of the book.
He wrote his book when the school was headed up by devote Mormon economist Kim Clark, who has since left for another challenge -- making Ricks College (now called BYU-Idaho) into a top rated 4-year college.
His main conclusion is that MBA students at Harvard are insecure overachievers and "a factory of unhappy people" who, when they graduate, work too much at their jobs and don't spend enough time with their families and outside interests (p. 268) He said most of the famous CEOs who came to speak at Harvard were successful in business but failures in their home live (multi-divorces). On p. 270, he tells the story of a Goldman Sachs exec who came to Harvard to talk about leadership and values, and then confessed he had four ex-wives. However, he fails to mention that dean Clark has managed to have a successful career and a good family life with seven kids and a loving wife.
I'm citing the page numbers because shockingly this book, published by Penguin, doesn't have an index. Talk about behind the curve!
If you want to know what the author thinks of dean Kim Clark, go to pp. 5-6, 19-20, 28, 85-86, 111, 164, and 208. "Clark has whittled his life down to just four things: work, family, faith, and golf." (p. 85)
As far for his suggestions for improvement at HBS (at the end of the book), I thought he had some good ideas. One was that professors who teach entrepreneurship should not be pure academics but practitioners who have had lots of real world experience. Amen. I found that at Columbia B school, over half the professors had no experience running companies, and the micro they used for microeconomics was a standard micro text, not a managerial econ textbook.
The reason for this strange situation is that years ago top B schools decided they should compete with top academic departments by hiring PhDs who write abstract papers in top journals rather than running successful businesses.
The other major drawback to today's top B schools is that they don't teach hardly any history of finance or business, other than case studies (and those are usually from the recent past). Robert Heinlein wisely said, "He who refuses to study history has no past and no future."
What a sad commentary on today's ivy-league B schools. Fortunately, other B schools, such as Acton and Market-Based Management at Wichita State do teach applied courses by practionioners, not just academics.
The author cites a delightful statement by Jack Welch when he visited HBS: "Government generates no revenues. Government lives off taxes generated by business and people that work in business. Don't ever forget that." (See p. 233)
I could find only one sin of omission: Broughton never discussed the "Biggie" course at HBS, the macroeconomic course on "Business, Government and International Economics."
And one sin of commission: I liked his writing style, but he overdid the use of 4-letter words and vulgarities. Isn't it a sad commentary on the business, finance and academic world that top graduates can't control their tongue?