Book Review: Ahead of the Curve, Two Years at Harvard Business School

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press
  • Four Stars (out of five)

Reviewed by Chris Wendel

The allure of a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) attracts many, as both a catalyst for career advancement and a ticket to a lucrative career. The number of MBA’s graduated from American universities has grown from 5000 in 1960, to 100,000 in 2000.

Regardless of the explosion of MBA degrees, the most revered (then and now) is the MBA program at Harvard University’s Business School (HBS). With a long list of accomplished alumni (George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Henry Paulson, Michael Bloomberg, Robert McNamara), it’s worth noting that 20% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have their MBAs from HBS.

Ahead of the Curve is an acclaimed first person narrative of Philip Delves Broughton, writer and Paris bureau chief for the London Daily Telegraph. After covering world events, Delves Broughton took a flyer with his career and applied to HBS.

Ahead of the Curve draws you in for two reasons. 1. Delves Broughton is an immensely gifted writer. 2. As an outsider, Delves Broughton enters into one of the world’s most influential global business institutions with an open mind.

The storyline follows the two years of Delves Broughton’s life as a Harvard MBA student. Thrown into the cauldron of financial case study analysis, Delves Broughton realizes he is a woefully behind his peers in reading financial statements and the simple navigation of an excel spreadsheet. To his credit, he is able to learn on the fly and adjust his technical skills to not just keep up but to also earn good grades.

It is the HBS culture that Delves Broughton struggles with. His commentary on the motives of many of the students, professors and HBS itself creates the bulk of the book’s interesting narrative.

Delves Broughton is older than the majority of his classmates at HBS, married with two very young children. His unique background and relative lack of business experience creates an insightful experience for readers. In the beginning Broughton is at odds with students that think that a Harvard MBA is a stepping stone to comfortable careers as hedge fund managers and venture capitalists than incorporating the HBS mission to “…educate leaders to make a difference in the world”.

At first Delves Broughton gravitates towards many of the foreign students who are appalled at the late party antics of the American students and take HBS’ claim as an international program as bunk. He loathes the profit motivated attitudes of students in his class projects and discussions, until late in his second year when he catches himself acting the same way. To his credit, during the two year curriculum, Delves Broughton absorbs enough to let go and critically observe both sides of the “How can I succeed without losing my soul?” discussion.

Delves Broughton’s experience with his professors is mixed. He concludes that the superior instructors have relevant business experience. The entrepreneurial course Delves Broughton seeks out is taught by a professor who has never started or run a business. When he and a colleague come to the professor with a viable start-up business concept, the professor shows nothing more than dismissive disinterest.

After his class graduates, Delves Broughton still grapples with the next steps in his own career. Most of his classmates have taken high powered jobs with luxurious salaries. To the outsider this is no surprise, yet in the end, Broughton cannot find a position that balances his professional career and his personal life.

Ahead of the Curve may be Delves Broughton’s way of finally parlaying his Harvard Business School education into a lucrative project. The book serves as the ultimate behind the curtain experience for those pondering a MBA. Delves Broughton’s money versus having-a-life discussions also make a great read for those at a professional crossroads or those seeking reassurance in the job they presently have.

 

Chris Wendel is the Regional Director for Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center (MI-SBTDC). The MI-SBTDC assists businesses with business consulting, market research information, and entrepreneurial training. The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments is the host organization for the MI-SBTDC in the Grand Traverse region.

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