Ahead of the Curve: Two Hellish Years at Harvard Business School

As you may have noticed, I'm obsessed with tell-all business books. I think it's due to my desire to know what makes these leaders as successful as they are. How do they weather the stress? How do they harness their demons? So, Ahead of the Curve, a blow-by-blow look at Harvard Business School (HBS) from the inside, was like catnip to me.

The author, Philip Delves Broughton, was already a successful journalist before attending HBS, his latest assignment being the Paris bureau chief of the London Daily Telegraph.

First off, the depiction of Harvard life is priceless and Broughton's smooth, candid prose propels you through the story. His journalistic capability for keen insight, pacing and anecdote is well on display here and it makes for both informative and entertaining reading. In short, it has the readability of a Gladwell text but with real experience and emotion behind it.

On one hand we are walked through an opulent, country-club like campus populated by young business stars from the world over and guest lecturers from the best companies in America. A wide web of alumni open doors at the slightest knock, exhaustive case studies cover every aspect of business from operations to finance to leadership logistics and field trips are made to such prestigious locations as the Google headquarters. It appears to offer everything.

On the other hand, the students indulge in booze luges (really) and ridiculous 'Skydeck' commentary by the back row is used in order to passive aggressively keep students in line. Even though the students ask for their grades not to be revealed to potential employers, the administration OK's it, the desire to uphold the HBS reputation greater than the desire to strengthen the overall learning experience. To that end, HBS as a 'brand' is ridiculously trumpeted and endlessly bought into. When one of the professors confesses that he believes business leaders should be leaders in all avenues, including government, Broughton knows a line is being crossed.

Most interesting is when Broughton questions the very foundations business is built upon, such as its mostly unwavering faith in figures. He says:
Numbers and money follow, he said. They do not lead. After so many months of agony with Excel and watching the ex-bankers let their fingers pirouette across their keyboards, Gilbert's words were like a drink of cold water. They cut to the heart of what had nagged me about finance: the fact that every model we built seemed rooted in backward-looking assumptions and diminished the essence of every business, the very people who ran it.
Due to the monumental pressure to achieve and the horror stories of fellow students who had already worked in business (working until 4pm, sleeping in the car home, showering, getting back in the car and returning to work, for example), Broughton understandably spends time questioning whether he can become the product that HBS typically spits out.

I found his insight into the trend of companies desiring their employees to be deeply 'passionate' about their work to be particularly amusing. After all, it's not enough to be in business, it has to be about something higher. But really, how many of us can be truly passionate about our work, and even if we are, how many of us can be demonstratively so for a good portion of the time?

This is a superb book, cleanly written and penetrating. Broughton may not have become a top-notch banker upon graduating but he's a hell of a writer. Highly recommended.

Ahead of the Curve / Philip Delves Broughton / Penguin Press / Trade PB, 2009

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