Book: Harvard Business School opens high-powered doors

— -- By simply being accepted into Harvard Business School, Philip Delves Broughton and his 900 fellow MBA candidates entered an überclass. For HBS is a brand as much as it is a school, Delves Broughton writes in Ahead of the Curve, his absorbing firsthand account of the intense two-year MBA program. And by attending, he says, they were associating themselves with one of the greatest brands in business.

It's hard to argue. Delves Broughton entered HBS during heady times. It was 2004, and the school's influential alumni list included the president of the United States, the mayor of New York City, the president of the World Bank and the CEOs of Procter & Gamble and General Electric. Alumni also held about 20% of the three top jobs at Fortune 500 companies.

Two years and hundreds of case studies later, many graduates hoped to land lucrative private-equity and hedge-fund jobs with cash-laden firms such as Blackstone or Bain Capital, where they could expect to earn about $400,000 their first year on the job. A rung or two down the ladder were the investment banking and consulting jobs, typically with lesser salaries but at $200,000, nothing to sneeze at.

Though he didn't come to Harvard with a business background — had never so much as created an Excel spreadsheet — Delves Broughton was no stranger to career success. Born in Bangladesh and raised in England, he was in charge of the New York bureau for the Daily Telegraph of London during the 9/11 attacks and later became the newspaper's Paris bureau chief before deciding an MBA would give him more control of his finances and his time.

What becomes clear to Delves Broughton is that the high-paying jobs come at a price, demanding dues-paying long hours at the expense of family and personal life. More than once during his stay at HBS, visiting business royalty and dignitaries would speak with regret about lost family time, including HBS alumnus Henry Paulson, who had recently left his job as CEO of Goldman Sachs to become Treasury secretary.

As a banker in Chicago, Paulson told the class of 2006, he had spent far too much time in the office when his children were young. Eventually, his wife ordered him to be home in time for their bedtime, he said.

Delves Broughton struggles throughout the program with the inevitable comparisons to his peers, who eagerly pursue jobs he can't quite see himself being happy performing. He also has an apparent distaste for outright profiteering and is conflicted by the notion — driven by HBS' own mission statement to educate leaders who make a difference in the world — that business people should be running everything from politics to education, health care and the arts.

His book chronicles the nuts and bolts of the coveted degree — the required curriculum, the sections, the posh campus, the fear of getting cold-called by a professor when a large percentage of your grade hinges on class participation. He was pleased to have learned the language of business, how to fund good ideas and the importance of designing a process to achieve results.

And he's now the beneficiary of arguably one of the most valuable aspects of the Harvard MBA: access to that influential network of alumni. Delves Broughton writes that at HBS you felt you were never more than two degrees of separation from the world's most powerful people. There was always a classmate, he says, who knew the prime minister of India or who worked for the president of Mexico or whose father ran Latin America's largest construction business.

Some of the biggest names in business show up, and Delves Broughton provides a few highlights from their appearances:

•Warren Buffett. The billionaire ridiculed the fact that despite an average gross domestic product of $40,000 per person, the U.S. couldn't afford health care for seniors. He also believes luck plays a big role in life. "If my friend (Bill) Gates had been born 200 years ago, he would have been some wild animal's lunch."

•Tim Draper. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist (and Harvard MBA) said all you needed to be set for life as a venture capitalist was one success. After that, he said, you just had to sit there while hundreds of people pitched ideas and you picked the best of them.

•Meg Whitman. When a class was shown a film of the then CEO of eBay — and another Harvard MBA — addressing an HBS class in 2001, Delves Broughton writes, the room perked up when she turned to the topic of career advice. After imparting her nine-point personal philosophy, she delivered a remark that dovetailed with a theme running through Delves Broughton's book. "Remember this. And this is something that I have not been particularly good at," she said. "You probably won't look back and wished that you'd worked harder."

Michelle Archer is a freelance writer based in Seattle.