Review: What They Teach You at Harvard Business School

Philip Delves Broughton, Penguin 2010

Taking us inside the illustrious “cauldron of capitalism”, Philip Delves Broughton’s memoir of his experience taking the two-year MBA at Harvard Business School, delivers everything you hope it will. Broughton feels somewhat out of place — a creative, sensitive Brit in a class of gregarious, ultra-ambitious extraverts.

A hundred thousand MBAs graduate every year, but an MBA from Harvard Business School is often perceived as the ultimate in its class. The intensity of the course, the sense of sacrifice for the future, the workload, the pressure, the competition, the classroom humiliations; all are present in abundance in this thoroughly absorbing book.

While we might think acceptance onto the course is reserved for those with considerable blue chip executive-level experience, it appears that c-suite experience is only a vague prerequisite. It feels as if a journalist such as Broughton, or cattle farmer from Texas, or even an ambitious “mumpreneur” with a kitchen-based brownie enterprise under her belt could enter the programme and emerge as a factory-fresh executive ready for Wall Street. Personality type is a lot more important, and it’s all about being the loudest contributor in the classroom.

An introvert, should they slip covertly onto the programme, as if dressed as the opposite sex in order to pass unnoticed, is perceived in the MBA world as emotionally disabled — limited in potential. The categorisation of extroverts and introverts, so unforgivingly binary, and so blindly in favour of the former, as is so widely prevalent in business, manifests itself constantly throughout Broughton’s experience. Similarly, as described in the chapter To Beta and Beyond, the system of taking units of measure usually reserved for evaluating investment risk, and applying them to participants is terrifying, and wouldn’t feel out of place in young-adult dystopian fiction.

It all amounts to a fascinating read. Woven in are layman’s explanations of numerous business concepts that I was especially grateful for. Highly recommended.