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An Investigatory Report: Ahead of the Curve-An Alumni’s Perspective

I want to start by saying that I really, really expected to enjoy this book. Written by a fellow Englishman from a relatively respectable newspaper, taking a wry look at his time at the West Point of Capitalism, highlighting a few of the hypocrisies and pretensions of MBA students and maybe even taking a few shots at the administration. Sounded great to me. My first warning sign was a review that quoted Mr. Delves Broughton’s description of HBS as a ‘factory for unhappy people.’ Wha… huh? Unless ninety percent of my HBS friends and acquaintances are complete anomalies, there’s something disturbingly wrong with this assertion. If HBS is a factory for unhappy people it needs some serious process improvement. The author seems to be extrapolating to the whole school from the one data point of his experience, which is ironic given the dim view he takes of consultants doing just this. So, I read the book. To give you an idea of my overall impression… well, let’s just say that my working title for this review was ‘extremely dull and incredibly sad’ (with apologies to Jonathan Safran Foer). I disliked his writing style (it reads like a book-length ‘what I did on my vacation’ fourth-grade essay) and disagreed with most of his opinions about HBS. It seems that all poor PDB got out of HBS was the subject of a book and a sense of deep loathing for corporate America. Actually, he seems to have started with the loathing, which does beg the questions of why he bothered at all. OK, so I admit I’m over dramatizing for the sake of making this review more readable (an approach this book would have benefited from) but I finished the book with an overwhelming feeling of depressing negativity www.replicabestsale.co.uk. Ahead of the Curve is basically structured as a simple beginning-to-end narrative taking us through the experiences of an older than average business school student from a non-traditional background, who is married with a young child. Even within the relatively diverse HBS class I found this an aggressively atypical experience, but even so I expect that someone curious about business school would probably find much of it informative. On a superficial level, reading this book was a pleasant trip down memory lane, and parts of it even made me laugh (particularly his visualization of the wonderful phrase Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal). Sadly, the book doesn’t stop at telling the slightly staid story of his experience, but instead lurches off periodically in two very contradictory directions: summarizing parts of the course in order to explain exactly what it is HBS teaches; and gleefully exposing the glaring hypocrisies and flaws of the institution that is the Harvard MBA, and by extension, US business practices. The book, like the author, seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis. For a non-MBA, his descriptions of some of the fundamental concepts of the degree could actually be quite useful, although I should imagine that there are a quite a few course heads scrabbling around for replacement cases on the assumption that next year’s students will have memorized the summaries from this book. He throws in a fair bit of the financial and management jargon to try to demystify the subjects and explain what he is learning, although it is hard to tell whether he is genuinely as clueless as he seems or if he is just hamming it up for effect (come on, seriously, ‘Is OCRA a vegetable?’). However, a lot of his attempts at introducing the subjects he is being taught tail off frustratingly into self-deprecating jokes about how he just doesn’t get it, or slightly pathetic sour-grapes comments about how little relevance the subject has to ‘real’ management. His criticisms of HBS, while often fair and in many cases overdue a public airing, fell similarly short of my expectations. He brings up some very valid points about the HBS administration’s view of the student as ‘product’ rather than ‘customer’ and the much-quoted explanation of ways of fiddling the Financial Aid system might even be true and image-damaging enough to effect some change. His highlighting of the handling of the student body’s views on grade disclosure is also valuable, although I felt it lacked a sense of dramatic outrage. On the other hand, he makes an bizarre attack on Paul Gompers, whining about how the professor could only spare fifteen minutes from his busy schedule to look over what was patently a half-baked business plan, and then didn’t even applaud his courage in coming up with it. A somewhat unjustified assessment of a man who has helped more of my friends start or fund new companies than anyone I know of except, well, Tom Eisenmann. Unfortunately, much of the most interesting and outrageous dirt he skipped completely: he makes no attempt to poke fun at the self-importance of student societies; the haplessness of the SA doesn’t get a mention and he didn’t even go to Priscilla. In fact, he seems to abhor socializing. Smart comments about how he’d rather get to know people over a nice cup of coffee than at a booze luge doen’t make up for the fact that he completely misses the opportunity to dissect the insane psychological experiment that is the section dynamic, or find out why half the class is behaving as though they’re in high school and secretly hooking up with each other in hot tubs in Vermont. Maybe it didn’t help that the last book I read was ‘I am Charlotte Simmons:’ a wonderfully readable and clear-eyed fictionalization of US college life that evoked at least as many memories of my time at HBS as Delves Broughton’s book tag heuer replica for sale (and much better ones at that). Much of PDB’s descent into disillusionment just made me want to shake him (presumably because of my ‘smug, superior HBS attitude’). Early in the book there is a discussion of how unpleasant he finds business culture, as typified by two consultants he works with on a team-building exercise. As a fellow Brit, I think a lot of his initial shock was due to the unfamiliarity of American culture overall, and this comes out in the fact that he initially seems to get on better with Europeans and South Americans. The cultural differences go deep, but he jumps on this as another example of how something is deeply wrong with ‘the business world’ (along with closing factories, outsourcing jobs that families rely on and producing irritating venture capitalists). He explains how he really doesn’t want a management job, although only after bemoaning at length that all of the postings in the Job Bank require consulting or banking experience. Tellingly, one chapter begins with his ‘dream job ad,’ mentioning being paid vast sums of money to do very little in a sumptuous office and requiring knowledge of Ancient Greek rather than Excel; an attempt at humor which actually struck me as painfully true. This really was the kind of career he expected HBS to provide him with when he applied, and his mud-slinging seems more like the disappointed temper tantrum of a child in Disneyland seeing Mickey take his head off than the wise observation that the emperor is not, in fact, wearing new clothes. Aside from the negativity and inconsistent themes, the main reason that this book fails to hang together is the lack of any emotionally engaging anecdotes or sympathetic characters. He is deeply disappointed when people decide, after two years of deriding the Wall Street lifestyle, to go back into banking. But he makes no attempt to understand their motives, assuming it is just the money breitling superocean replica. He mocks his fellow WestTrekkers for their enthusiasm for the Bay Area, but never tells us how many of them actually got their dream job at ‘the next Google.’ Pretty much every person mentioned in the book is a one-sentence, one-dimensional illustration of a point. PDBizzle, as one of his section mates apparently nicknamed him, comes across as a reporter not a writer. Ironically, for a guy who has a real problem with the hubris of many of his classmates, PDB ends the book with his summary of the five things HBS should do differently. The one he thinks is most important is that HBS should stop saying it is “Educating leaders who make a difference” and have a more humble, realistic aim. His suggestion? ”Educate students in the management of business.” Um, it’s called Harvard Business School. The clue is in the name.

September 8, 2008
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