What I Learned at Harvard Business School

An opinionated journalist goes to Cambridge for his MBA and finds "a factory for unhappy people"

Editor's Rating:

The Good: An insightful behind-the-scenes look at Harvard B-school.

The Bad: Some characters are less than fully realized.

The Bottom Line: Entertaining and thoughtful.

Ahead of the Curve:Two Years at Harvard Business School

By Philip Delves BroughtonPenguin Press; 283pp; $25.95

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.

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