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Two years in the cauldron of capitalism

When Philip Delves Broughton abandoned his career as a journalist and joined Harvard Business School’s MBA course for two years of taxing case studies and excel shortcuts, he couldn’t have told you what OCRA was, other than a vegetable, or whether discount department stores make more money than airlines.

Two years and 500 case studies later, he had met the world's most influential entrepreneurs and analysed the biggest business conundrums. But he and his fellow students faced a bigger question still - how would they juggle their lives, their jobs and their bank balances?

"What They Teach You at Harvard Business School" (Penguin Books) is a witty, informative and controversial memoir. Philip Delves Broughton provides the reader with a revelatory account of what the financial elite learn within the hallowed walls of the exclusive Harvard Business School.

MBA Channel asked him about case studies, GMAT, daily life and unhappy people.

What surprised you the most in Harvard?
How seriously they took what they do. It was unlike any academic institution I've ever known in terms of sheer professionalism. I was also surprised by how intense it was, both academically and personally. I found myself working much harder than I thought I would and also being forced to examine myself, my abilities and ambitions, in a far deeper way than I imagined.

Can you point at specific differences between students from different countries? Goals, driving forces, behavior...?
Some stuck together - Latin Americans - others didn't - Brits. Non-Americans seemed to regard the idea of business culture as faintly absurd. They had a clearer division in their minds between work and personal life - and felt Americans let the two spill over into each other. Europeans were regarded as very old school - everyone was fascinated by China, India and Brazil. The Chinese and Indians had little time for the skill of talking up in class, valued by the school. They tended to feel business was more about competence than the ability to talk in public.

The "case study" is a key aspect of Harvard's fame. Do you think that it's worth it?
Mostly, yes. The challenge for business schools is making what they teach as close to the reality of business as possible. This is inherently difficult, because you're in a classroom setting. The case study is a way of looking at real problems. Sure it's unreal - no problem gets solved in 80 minutes by 90 students. But I found it fascinating to see so many situations - 700 or so over two years - and learn about so many different industries. Where the case study is less effective, in my view, is in very practical areas, notably finance, where more traditional methods might be more useful in learning some basic, hard skills.

How much sense makes an MBA in general? Would you make one again?
Yes I would. It's not for everyone. If you're a natural born entrepreneur, you might not need an MBA. If you're in a business which doesn't value it, it's probably not for you. But for someone like me, who wanted to learn about business as something to bolt on to what I'd done already as a journalist, it was fascinating. It's also pleasant to take two years off from work to go to graduate school.

You wrote that Harvard is a "factory for unhappy people". Why?
That was a quote from a friend in my year. What he was saying was that many of our classmates were extremely ambitious people who often found themselves making choices about their careers which they knew would hurt their personal lives. Being very ambitious can be a curse. And being subject to all the peer pressure you feel at a place like Harvard can make people miserable. There was a very high level of anxiety there and I think many graduates carry that with them. This shouldn't be a surprise.What's the most important lesson you learned?
Entrepreneurship is a way of life, not just a way to make a living. The supply of money always exceeds the supply of good ideas - and people to make them a reality. Never run out of cash.

Did you like your daily life?
Very much. It certainly beat working. The people were generally pretty nice, the facilities at Harvard are incredible - great cafeteria, gym, library - and the work was stimulating.

Do you love or hate Harvard?
I don't feel that strongly. I thought it was 80% terrific and 20% weird and stressful. That's pretty good for almost anything in life.

You had 730 points at the GMAT. That's a lot...
There was a guy in my class who had worked at UPS, the parcel delivery service, who got an 800...

How were reactions on the book? From Harvard, faculty, students...?
The official reaction was negative. HBS has been childish and critical of the book. Weirdly Orwellian for a supposedly liberal educational establishment. Some students have lashed out at it accusing me of sour grapes, which couldn't be further from the truth. Many of my classmates and older alumni have contacted me to say they love how honest it is. No one has said it's not authentic. Business is not all wine and roses. It's tough, it places big demands on one's personal life, but can be exciting and interesting. That's what my book says. More interesting reactions have come from people who aren't so tied up in whether or not its pro/con HBS. Lots of people have written to me saying they love it as a book about trying to find a balance between professional success and one's personal life, as well as an insight into the higher realms of commerce and business thinking. They couldn't care less what Harvard thinks of it. Quite rightly.

You graduated without a job after interviews at Google and McKinsey. What went wrong?
Nothing went wrong. These companies were smart enough to spot what I was denying to myself. I didn't want to work for a big company, but got caught up in the herd mentality at HBS. I never envisaged working for one of these companies when I arrived on campus, found myself applying because I felt I should and was rightly rejected. Once I'd graduated and decompressed, I was mighty relieved not to be working for one of these companies.

What are you doing today?
I'm writing. Worked for a film company in New York last year, financing and distributing documentaries and movies. Helped a friend with a private bank start-up this year. Now collaborating with another HBS on a business news venture. Some things work, some don't, but it's always interesting. And I write my own pay check and control my own time. Which is what it was all about in the first place.

From 1998 to 2004, Philip Delves Broughton served successively as the New York and Paris bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph. He led the Daily Telegraph's coverage of the 9/11 attacks on New York and his work has also appeared in the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times and Spectator. In 2006, he received an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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