Two Years at Harvard Business School

Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at the Harvard Business School by Philip Delves Broughton was published just a few weeks ago and already it is difficult to find students on campus who have not heard of it. Indeed the book has raced through the entire business world – in August it was the #1 most read book review on According to a recent Harbus poll (with over 200 student respondents) nearly nine in ten EC’s are familiar with the book and half of the class of 2009 have plans to read it – if they have not already. Whether they have read it in full or just the reviews most have a strong opinion.

Philip Delves Broughton was 32, married and a father when he left his job as the Paris bureau chief of the Daily Telegraph to join the HBS class of 2006. Now two years after graduation he has published a book detailing his experience and providing commentary on the school, its students and faculty, and the appropriate role of the MBA in society.

Most students became familiar with the book through the many reviews and articles that were forwarded to them by friends, classmates and colleagues. With articles in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, BusinessWeek – to name just a few – the print media has devoured the opportunity to expound on such meaty material from a school insider. More than a few reviews, the Journal for one example, seem to have relished the opportunity to perpetuate the author’s observation on the apparent “sense of entitlement that the students and faculty are famous for.”

Others reviewers, however, went deeper to question the author’s motives in attending HBS in the first place. Although Delves Broughton states clearly in the preface that he did not go to HBS planning to write a book, Tom Keane of the Boston Globe challenges him. “Wow, he did keep good notes,” referring to the numerous and lengthy quotes of his fellow students’ comments in the classroom.

After reading one, or sometimes a few reviews, a number of students choose to stop right there. In fact, over half of those surveyed have no plans to read the book at all. The author’s apparent sensationalist telling gave Matthew Perkins (OG) pause. “I don’t plan on reading it. Like any good journalist, Mr. Delves Broughton has focused on writing about the things that will sell his book – namely anecdotes about drunken episodes at Priscilla Ball, the flashy wannabe leaders of tomorrow – rather than providing serious thought about the value of an MBA in general, and the pros and cons of attending HBS in particular.”

But many students decided to shell out the $25.95 and read the book. “We don’t have a lot of conversations about the school,” said Prash Ambekar (OB), “and when we do they tend to be positive. I wanted to hear a negative, different take on the school.”

Another student, Scott Harper (OH), expected going in, based on reviews he’d read, that he wasn’t going to agree with the author. “I’m a huge fan of the school. I wanted to know what he said about it so that I could intelligently defend my own views.”

Students who have read the book have had very mixed reactions. The Harbus poll shows that 60% feel that the book was generally an accurate portrayal of the school – not an altogether convincing majority. Also, just over half were in agreement with the author’s opinions about HBS as an experience and as a school. Indeed, as this poll shows, students’ feelings on this are spread widely and evenly across the board.

Many student readers immediately found Delves Broughton’s descriptions of cases and activities familiar. Butler Lumber, Porter’s Five Forces, Best Reflected Self, CareerLeader, the andon cords at Toyota, FOMO, Erik Peterson, and even the Harbus makes an appearance in the book.

More than his anecdotes on the curriculum or the place itself, Tiffany Singleton (OB) was struck by his accuracy in describing HBS as a dichotomy. “HBS can be exhilarating in one way where you are around very smart engaging people with different backgrounds. And at other times it can feel like an incredibly lonely place where you begin to question who you are as an individual.”

Some students had trouble reconciling Delves Broughton as a singular spokesperson for the MBA experience. As Prash Ambekar put it, “I don’t disagree with his telling of it. It’s just not a complete picture of the school as I know it. Reading it was kind of like watching a Michael Moore movie, you know that it is going to be extremely biased, but true.”

Another complaint was that perhaps some of the author’s more memorable experiences were rather unusual. Scott Harper found that, “Extreme stories are held up as general examples. The stories are probably real but not representative of most people’s overall experience. Sure, I can believe that there was a booze luge – but students tend to talk about that sort of thing precisely because it happened only once.”

Says Jaime Mendez, “He was clearly someone who did not buy into the experience – and now it is this one person’s point of view that represents a broader picture of HBS. I have trouble with that.”

The author is not, what one might consider a typical student. He admits that he was a bit of an outsider. He “felt odd always to be one of the older people in the room,” and “spent very little time socializing.” Delves Broughton has a unique, literary background. He chose not to go forward with a summer internship, but instead spent time writing a yet unpublished novel. After the EC year he was not able find a suitable job and abandoned his search (presumably to write this book) with a “wonderful” feeling.

Would HBS students recommend the book to a friend? The poll indicates a significant split in their thinking. Slightly over half would recommend the book. “The factual information about the program is very accurate and interesting to know for someone who has not been a part of the HBS experience,” said one student. “And the last 40 pages of the book, when the author opens up into his own opinions is a worthwhile read.”

Tiffany Singleton, however, recommended caution. “I would be very careful reading this book while going into the program. Everyone should have their own experience and the book has very strong views about one very particular experience. However, the author highlights an experience that is not often talked about.”

Personally, as chance would have it, I was introduced to Ahead of the Curve well over a year ago when I was working in the publishing office at Simon & Schuster. At that time the book was only a proposal and a few sample chapters and it went under a different title. In its infancy, the book proposal was a fascinating firsthand account of what I was about to experience as an incoming student. I was sad to see it bought and published by another house.

But now with my RC year complete, I was dismayed reading the finished book.
The last chapter is titled “A Factory for Unhappy People.” This may be Delves Broughton’s opinion formed through his time at the school, but it grossly inconsistent with my personal experience and it saddened me to see a place I find so dear to be so publically berated.

At the end of the book Delves Broughton argues for the change of the school’s mission statement – “to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world.”

He admits that “Business schools no long produce just business leaders. MBAs determine the lives that many of us will lead, the hours we will work, the vacations we get, the culture we consume, the health care we receive and the education provided to our children.” But he then suggests that “business needs to relearn its limits, and if the Harvard Business School would let some air out of its own balloon, business would listen.”

Prash Ambekar disagreed with Delves Broughton’s assessment. “The mission statement is what sets the school apart from everyone else. I want it to be something to aspire to. HBS is one of best run schools in the world and it is clear the school is doing whateve
r it can to live up to those high expectations.”

Other students, such as Scott Harper, were considerably more harsh. “The only thing more prideful, disgusting, and less attractive than bragging about one’s HBS MBA experience is talking at length about how that experience was not good enough in some way or another.”

September 8, 2008
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