Barbarians on the Charles

Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School
By Philip Delves Broughton
The Penguin Press, 288 pages, $25.95

Most of the graduates of the Harvard Business School go on to lucrative careers in banking or management. Not Philip Delves Broughton, author of Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School; his big postgraduate move was penning a tell-all account of his experience at HBS. The fruit of his labors is simultaneously invigorating and infuriating—and finally pointless.

His most surprising revelation is the utter banality of the aspiring millionaires and billionaires: The author’s HBS class consists almost entirely of students fed to the school through the so-called “three Ms” —Mormons, Military, and McKinsey (the consulting firm). Although there are a few students like Mr. Broughton—formerly the Paris bureau chief for London’s Daily Telegraph—who break the mold, the majority of them are interchangeable. At times it seems as though the setting of Ahead of the Curve could easily be a second-tier party school in western Pennsylvania rather than an internationally renowned business school with a $2 billion endowment.

At one hip-hop-themed party early in his first semester (“booze luge” included!), “the music was absolutely deafening, precluding the need for anything approaching a conversation. All we could do was smile awkwardly … and cheer on.” (And you wonder why George W. Bush chose HBS?)

The book illustrates the deep-seated dichotomies and schizophrenic contradictions at the vaunted institution. For a school with the lofty mission to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” HBS has some embarrassing alumni (former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling), and its amoral curriculum teaches students just as much about the inhuman corporate practice of downsizing as it does about ethical global leadership.

The author is very much a stranger to this cutthroat ethos, and his struggles to come to terms with it mark some of the book’s finer moments. Toward the end of his two-year stint, he asks himself, “But why on earth had I put myself through Harvard Business School, of all places, an institution whose purpose was teaching people how to amass and deploy vast resources?” The answer, it appears, was to write a book about it, and that’s somewhat frustrating.

 

WHAT DO YOU SUPPOSE the good people in the admissions office would have said had he notified them of his intent to write a book chronicling his adventures? In his preface, Mr. Broughton informs the reader, “I did not go to Harvard Business School planning to write a book.” He adds, “This … was never intended as an inside raid.” Intent is all well and good, but there are countless moments recorded here that Mr. Broughton could only have experienced under the presumed, though unofficial, cloak of privacy.

While the author is generally fair to his subjects, there are some embarrassing incidents for classmates, professors and guest lecturers. During a school-sponsored trip to Silicon Valley, students were visited by venture capitalist Tim Draper, who generously offered his insights to the aspiring business leaders of tomorrow and concluded his lecture by performing a motivational song he’d written himself: “When the song reached the chorus, Draper began waving his arms and shouting, ‘All together. Come on. Sing!’” A private lecture becomes an opportunity to ridicule a New Age financier. Mr. Draper can console himself with his billions, but other Broughton foils are not so fortunate.

Mr. Broughton saves his best shots for a classmate whom he clearly disliked, and though he altered the names of some of his fellow students, it still seems like a breach of trust. His pen becomes a weapon, and he aims it squarely at “Linda”—”a small, angry New Yorker who had been a management consultant … who said her real passion was racial and sexual equality.” During one group exercise, Linda became a caricature of a squealing tyrant, referred to by one of Mr. Broughton’s pals as a “one-conversation Nazi.” Mr. Broughton lets that characterization stand.

There are many incisive moments in Ahead of the Curve. It offers an interesting glimpse into the cloistered universe of a business school, but it’s still just one person’s perspective. No other student or professor is given the opportunity to round out the picture. Mr. Broughton’s book reads a little like a diary chronicling the initial phase of an early midlife crisis: It suffers from the self-centered nature of the enterprise.

Oliver Haydock is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at ohaydock@observer.com.

Barbarians on the Charles