Monday, February 15, 2010

A Note on Ahead of the Curve
Ahead of the Curve by Philip Delves Broughton.

I read this book because I wanted to compare the Harvard MBA experience with my own. Broughton was the head of the Paris bureau for the Daily Telegraph when he decided to make a change in his life. Like me, he was older than his fellow students. He also was culturally from a different place than many of his fellow students. He tries to minimize this in the book, and indeed he befriends classmates from drastically different backgrounds from himself. But it was an issue for him, just as it was for me.

Harvard is famous for using the case study method, but I didn't realize how exclusively it was employed. No textbooks, just cases. We used cases, but we had textbooks and I used them and still use them as reference books. I can't imagine not being able to do this--that seems like a pretty drastic difference from the Rice MBA way. On the other hand, Rice uses formal teams more than Harvard did. Broughton deals with teams in some of his classes, but for me it was always important to get on a team right away in virtually every class. That's tricky if you are shy. In the first semester, we had no choice--we were randomly assigned a team. In the second semester, we were assigned teams for our big company projects based on our interests and strengths (it was a little less random). In the second year, we could pick our own teams in any given class. It was always important to get smart, committed people on your team--at least, that was my strategy, and apparently it was Broughton's as well in his "Dynamic Markets" class. (One of my favorite memories of B-school was when a woman in my international finance class shot across the room to ask me to be on her team because she wanted to be on the same team as someone smart! Little did she know... But we ended up on the same team in many classes subsequently, so I must have done OK.)

The book discusses his classes, and many of the professors must have been made uncomfortable by his assessments here. But what is more interesting is his simultaneously inside yet dispassionate look at the culture of getting a job. This is as big a part of the MBA experience at Harvard as it was at Rice, and as it presumably is everywhere. Broughton is married and has a baby, so he is unwilling to take the soul-killing banking jobs that so many of his classmates are primed for. No 100 hour weeks for him, thanks.

But at the same time, he finds it hard to compete. He didn't have the math background many of his classmates entered with, and had never done spreadsheets. This puts him behind for finance right from the start. In general, he finds getting a job hard. He decides not to work over the summer in an internship (the standard practice) when he can't get one in Boston. And although he interviews 10 times (!) for Google, they won't make a decision, and he finally asks them to no longer consider him. (Sounds insane, right? I had a classmate who interviewed 11 times with BlackRock before they decided to pass on him.) You would think that Broughton's obvious worldliness compared to his classmates would be a plus. But that's not how corporate HR departments look at MBAs. They want round pegs for round holes. I was lucky in that regard--my job listing didn't come through HR but through a department head, and he hired me because he liked my number crunching skills, my background (which was mostly irrelevant to the job--which was perhaps a plus), and my interview.

Ahead of the Curve was highly entertaining and probably should be read by anyone going for an MBA--at least, a traditional full-time MBA. I imagine the experience is quite different for those getting "executive MBAs."

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Anonymous Philip Delves Broughton said...

Thanks for the review. I appreciate it. Delighted you enjoyed the book - and found it resonant.

With best wishes,


5:02 PM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

You're welcome. It was a completely enjoyable read--I really wish I had read it before I got my MBA.

5:17 PM  

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