What if a British journalist, one who had a good career working for top British and American newspapers and was even a New York and Paris bureau chief, decided to do a 2-year MBA at Harvard Business School and then write about it? Ahead of the Curve [Two Years at Harvard Business School] is the result of exactly such an endeavor and it’s quite a revealing and poignant book. Rather than glamorizing or demonizing the business school and MBA experience, Philip Delves Broughton goes in with an open mind and tells it like it is. Not surprisingly, the book is a bit of both. Broughton is a journalist who after a respectable 10-year career in which he covered 9/11 and was a bureau chief in 2 world cities, senses the changing tides converging on the media industry and decides to take a chance by going to HBS. Broughton claims in the foreword he did not intend to write the book and I believe he really went to HBS intending to find a new career path, and not as a kind of experiment or deliberate book-writing venture. His detailed notes and observations though probably show that once inside the program, the idea to write a book came to him. And it’s good for us that he did, showing the pressures and expectations that HBS MBA students are exposed to. Only among Wall Street types could a US$200,000-a-year salary seem like a failure. Investment-banking is apparently considered a second-tier career, as hedge funds and private equity are the hot sh!t . One of the book’s strong points is that we get a mini-lesson out of reading it. Technical aspects of business and finance are described in detail and actually seem interesting. We learn a lot about such vital business topics as valuating a company or estimating the risk of a stock (beta). Famous personalities are brought in or appear in real-time via video-link to speak to the students like private equity giant Blackstone Group CEO Steve Scharzman and Hong Kong’s Victor Fung, a former head of logistics giant Li and Fung.
While the HBS MBA program seems really fascinating to be in, being a top-notch elite program where everyone is supposedly the cream of the crop in the US and overseas, Broughton seems less than thrilled about his experience, and rightfully so, it seems. Despite billing itself as a valuable tool with which to launch new careers, the program is unable to help Broughton with his non-business background get much opportunities, whether internships or jobs after graduation. Also, the way to succeed in finance or consulting, it seems, is to do exactly what successful people in the field don’t recommend, which is focusing solely on the job and not on your family or pursuits outside of work. Despite this, many of his classmates eagerly chase after these same demanding but well-paying jobs. Personally, however, he also expresses massive doubts about the program’s self-importance, urging HBS at the end to drop their claim to leadership in society until they figure out how to contribute to society beyond just personal enrichment. It’s good to see he wasn’t taken in by the “dark side” of the grand pursuit of money and status. Whether you agree with his stance or not, this is a good glimpse into an institution that considers itself the elite of the world of business.