I am a sucker for any “Drop Everything and Pursue My Dream” story. That’s why I was interested in reading Philip Delves Broughton’s book about leaving a successful career in journalism to attend Harvard Business School. Here’s a guy (as John Madden would say) who was Paris bureau chief for the Times of London, married with a one year old son, who chucked it all for a cramped apartment in Cambridge and whopping student loans. The book is his engaging account of his two years at HBS. It reminded me of Scott Turow’s enjoyable 1977 book, One L., in which he describes his first year at Harvard Law School. Both capture the essence of Harvard’s mystique as well as laying bare some of its problems.
There is no question that Broughton respects the Harvard Business School, his professors, and his fellow students by the end of his two years, but the upshot is that HBS isn’t perfect. My favorite parts of the book are those in which he exposes the seamy side of things—fueled by equally hyped-up doses of insecurity and ambition in his fellow students. A bit of a fish out of water, he doesn’t fit into their cliques of heavy drinkers, former military officers, or unabashed salary seekers.
Ahead of the Curve was a particularly interesting read for me in view of the recent economic meltdown and the retrospective skewering of corporate leaders that seems to be today’s national pastime. Many of these CEOs come to speak at HBS while he is there, and Broughton eagerly attends these sessions to see for himself what these captains of industry are like in the flesh. He comes away impressed by their drive and accomplishments but troubled by the consistent trend he sees of broken marriages and troubled family lives. Just one example he cites is of a Goldman Sachs exec who delivered a session on values and leadership, then confesses that he has four ex-wives.
The reaction at Harvard to Broughton’s book has been all across the board based on responses in The Harbus, an independent newspaper for HBS students. Some of the responses seem to fit into this category: “I didn’t have the same experience or opinion of HBS, but maybe there’s something to be learned from the book.” The official response as delivered by Carl Kester, Deputy Dean for Academic Affairs, is a bit, well, uptight, and overly defensive. It is worth reading, in my opinion, as an example of how not to react to criticism–attempting to pick apart errors of fact one by one and completely missing the the overall message of the book. (On the other hand, the lead paragraph is excellent. He should have stopped there).
If you are looking for a tidy ending—sorry. While the majority of his fellow classmates seem content to line up in the cattle chute to lucrative banking or consulting positions–what he refers to as “MBA McJobs”, Broughton doesn’t follow suit. He makes a couple of seemingly half-hearted attempt to land one of these jobs but he just isn’t in to it. When you get to know Broughton through the book, the fact that the ending doesn’t tidily wrap up with him in his dream job is testimony that he is different from his classmates in just one more regard. I did find this entry on his blog which provided me with a satisfactory postscript to the book.
Broughton was also kind enough to respond to my email inquiry in which I: 1. assured him I wasn’t a Harvard administrator-stalker, and 2. asked him what he is doing for a living with his Harvard M.B.A. He said that soon after publication of the book he returned to New York and worked on some business development projects for a variety of media and financial firms. I was also happy to hear that he is still writing. Last week I received an email from Broughton (sent to his distribution list) that says “I’ve just completed a thriller I always wanted to write and am now writing my next business-y book. It’s about salespeople around the world – how come they can do what they do, when it’s so hard for the rest of us?”