Book Review: An Outsider at Harvard

Philip Delves Broughton
Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School
Penguin, 2008

Ahead of the Curve is a first-hand account of how a relative outsider – a British journalist named Philip Delves Broughton – got into and graduated from Harvard Business School. It is a quick and amusing read that will be of interest to people considering business school, particularly those without the “conventional” MBA resumé.

At HBS, Delves Broughton’s resumé probably qualifies as unconventional. In 2004, he quit his job as Paris bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph. His experience at the paper – including leading the coverage of the September 11 attacks in New York – combined with good GMAT scores helped get him into HBS, probably the most famous business school in the world.

For much of the first half of the book, Delves Broughton plays catch up to the jargon and spreadsheet wizardry of his business-seasoned classmates. Eventually he does catch up, showing that with some hard work, there is hope – even someone who spent their university years reading Greek classics rather than macroeconomics.

Paddling upstream, Delves Broughton is joined by a mixed bag of classmates, which he describes in tones suggesting awe and contempt (and all points in between). His interactions with other students and teachers is what adds to color, humor, and – at times – a touch of ugliness to the book. There are the infantile drinking games, classroom one-upsmanship, and zealous and overbearing fellow students that complicate the already awkward team exercises at orientation. There’s also the campus parking garage full of luxury cars that some students allegedly bought by scamming the financial aid system (though HBS denies this).

Obviously, out of a class of several hundred students with world-class ambition, there are bound to be a few stinkers. One alum, Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling (HBS Class of 1979),  went on to famously shady dealings, which  cast a shadow over the world of big business, at least until the onset of the financial crisis last year cast an even longer, darker one.

Towards the end of the book, Delves Broughton reflects on how Harvard business education teaches students to look at the world; and what it means to release some 900 Harvard MBAs into society each year. The author even catches himself making a ruthless, hard-nosed judgment on a Costa Rican case study in a second-year class – apparently a wake-up call that he’d lost touch of the human angle he’d so cherished as a journalist.

Delves Broughton tells us, however, that some fellow MBA grads left HBS with a greater appreciation of what is now called “corporate social responsibility.” Nonetheless, many students go back to the sectors they came from – private equity, hedge funds, investment banking, etc. – despite going to business school precisely to escape that line of work.

“How many people in our class wrote in their applications that they wanted an MBA so they could do micro-finance in Uganda and are now going into investment banking,” asked one of Delves Broughton’s fellow students at HBS.

Compromise and balance are themes that thread through the book. Many HBS guest speakers and alumni, for example, seem to regret having sacrificed their families and personal lives for a big career on Wall Street. Unfortunately, Broughton does not tell us much about he got through two years of business school – itself a very demanding regime – while also balancing his family life.

But Delves Broughton’s is candid in describing the arduous process of landing a summer internship and post-MBA job. He admits feeling the pressure on second-year MBAs to get something – anything – before graduating. These chapters make for fascinating reading for those of us who wonder whether it’s possible to use business school to transplant one’s career, say from journalism, into a something entirely new, like venture capital.

Ahead of the Curve is not the first “insider” account of HBS. But it, along with the many MBA student bloggers around the world, is an intriguing snapshot of business culture in the aftermath of the Enron scandal, in an increasingly globalized world, on the eve of a major financial crisis.

Broughton’s claims he hadn’t planned on this book when he applied to HBS, but it is not hard to imagine such a book taking shape quickly in the mind of any journalist surrounded by such ambitious personalities. Vivid descriptions and reconstructed discussions suggest that Broughton’s senses were on alert during his two years at Harvard.

Meanwhile the school went through the trouble of officially rebutting a handful of “errors and mischaracterizations” in the book, so one is left to wonder how soon HBS will accept another journalist into its midst.

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You can read our interview with the author here.

In the UK, Ahead of the Curve is published as What They Teach You at Harvard Business School: Two Years Inside the Cauldron of Capitalism

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