A Reluctant Master of the Universe

Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
Sunday, August 24, 2008


Two Years at Harvard Business School

By Philip Delves Broughton

Penguin Press. 283 pp. $25.95

In 2004, the 31-year-old Paris bureau chief of London's Daily Telegraph newspaper, Philip Delves Broughton, gave up the rigors of daily journalism. Too many long nights in dismal airport lounges and too many silly French press conferences had taken their toll. Casting about for a change in careers, he applied to business schools and, to his surprise, was accepted at Harvard.

Broughton tells what happened next in Ahead of the Curve, a useful primer for anyone considering a similar path, or just curious as to how Harvard churns out all those gleaming little masters of the universe. This book should really be called "Harvard B-School for Dummies," or maybe "I went to Harvard B-School and all I got was this stupid T-shirt," because it assumes the reader, like Broughton, knows precisely nil about the corporate world, and because the author somehow managed to graduate from the world's premier MBA factory without, well, an actual job.

The book doesn't work especially well as a conventional narrative. There's no suspense; Broughton writes that it's almost impossible to flunk out. Rather, Ahead of the Curve offers a good sense of Harvard Business School's day-to-day workings, everything from what the other students are like to the merits of each lecturer to impressions of business titans such as Warren Buffett and Stephen Schwarzman, who revolve through the doors offering pointers on how to get filthy rich.

Broughton makes a delightfully clueless guide. His math skills are crude, and he can't operate Microsoft Excel. When the other students flock off to Wall Street for summer jobs, he can't get one and is forced to spend three hot months in a Harvard library writing a novel that, thankfully, he tells us little about. In fact, from the outset, he is entirely ambivalent about entering Corporate America. He doesn't really want to work that hard, he admits. He wants to spend time with his family.

How on earth, you ask, did such a slacker end up at Harvard? Great story. Broughton, a fan of the finer things, was interviewing a Latin American business magnate and took to admiring the hushed surroundings, the paneled walls, the spiffy MBAs hovering over laptops in conference rooms. "I felt I had been given a glimpse of a better world," he writes. "If this was business, I could get used to it."

And that, it appears, was the sum total of his experience when he arrived in Cambridge. There are no jaw-dropping surprises once classes begin: long hours surrounded by haughty young hedge-fund hotshots on leave from Wall Street, a frat-house social whirl marked by streams of vodka sucked off blocks of ice and an oh-so-gradual grasping of basic business principles. Broughton tells it all with solid, disciplined prose. He wastes no words and gives us just enough personal information to allow us to understand who he is. About the only places the book bogs down are passages in which he feels the need to actually explain some of the things he was trying to learn: the fundamentals of accounting, manufacturing, marketing, etc.

He is especially good at conjuring up the intangible benefits of a Harvard MBA: the network of Fortune 500 CEOs available with a single phone call; the sense that, just by entering the school, he has somehow become a card-carrying member of the Davos set. At one point, he and a buddy, intoxicated by a class on entrepreneurship, scribble out a business plan for an Audible-like Internet site, and -- voila! -- with nothing more than an idea and a few Powerpoint slides, he finds himself taking meetings with the country's top venture capitalists. Eddie Murphy once did a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which, donning the guise of a white businessman, he finds everyone jostling to give him free money and gifts. That was a joke; this is Ivy League reality.

As his two years draw to a close, Broughton wrestles with his next move. His classmates are all taking new jobs at McKinsey and Bain and Yahoo, but despite myriad interviews, he has yet to field an offer. Part of the problem is what he wants, as he writes in a "Help Wanted Ad I Sought But Never Found" : "Absurdly profitable company seeks journalist with ten years' experience and a Harvard MBA for extremely highly paid, low-stress job in which he can wear nice suits and loaf around in air-conditioned splendor making the very occasional executive decision. Requirements: acute discomfort in the presence of spreadsheets, inability to play golf, poorly concealed loathing of corporate life, knowledge of ancient Greek." Broughton eventually draws interest from Google, but after 14 separate interviews, including an eight-hour marathon in a tiny conference room, he backs out, unable to reconcile his ambitions with life in a Dilbert cubicle.

Luckily, Broughton makes a better writer than corporate drone. If you're thinking of following in his footsteps, I'd invest in this book first. ยท

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair.

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