Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School

In his book, Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, Philip Delves Broughton recounts his experience as a student at HBS. It is an interesting read, especially for those planning to go to business school. For our purposes, it is relevant for the insights about business and leadership that he shares from his own observations and from the experiences of leaders and notables that spoke at Harvard during Broughton’s two years.

Insights on Strategy

  • Strategy is not operational efficiency.
  • The purpose of strategy is to find a way to build and manage a business to make superior returns over the long term – to get a long term competitive advantage.
  • The first challenge in strategy is picking the right thing to do. Pick the right industry, one with a sound structure, where your chances of making a profit were highest. This is where good strategy begins.
  • You need to be selective; money is not the limit, opportunity is.
    • “Never in recorded history has the supply of capital not overwhelmed the supply of opportunity.” Joe Lassiter
  • In determining the details of your strategy, you need to develop and integrate a consistent set of mutually reinforcing activities to realize your goals. Each activity supports the others.
    • The goal is not to have the greatest marketing company in the world rather the best marketing department for your company.

Insights on Getting Things Done

  • Process is important in every aspect of a business. You need to get the right outcome doing it the right way so that you could achieve the right outcome again and again.
  • “Define a clear objective, develop a plan to achieve that objective, and systemically monitor progress against the plan.” Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War)
  • But, be truly honest and face reality. See the true truth and not the facts or statistics that you want to see. As a South Vietnamese officer once told McNamara during the Vietnam War:
    • “Ah, les statistiques. Your secretary of defense loves statistics. We Vietnamese can give him all he wants. If you want them to go up, they will go up. If you want them to go down, they will go down.”

Insights on Success in Business

  • “Principled leaders make a difference in the world. To be a principled leader, a person must have many skills and qualities, including the highest standards of integrity, sound judgment, and a strong moral compass – an intuitive sense of what is right and wrong.” Kim Clark, Dean of Harvard Business School
  • “To be a success, you need a reasonable degree of intelligence, a strong work ethic, the ability to get along with others, a desire to build something important, and the ability to keep one’s ego in check.” David Rubenstein
  • “The only thing you cannot afford not to do is learn.” Hank Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs
  • “To make real money, be a principal or a decision maker, not a service provider.” David Rubenstein
  • The real secret to making money is in wanting (absolutely and without reservation) to make money.

Insight from Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans

  • It all starts and ends with culture, environment, philosophy. It is all about who we are versus what we do.
  • The biggest challenge “was just getting people to pay attention. It’s seventy percent of the battle.”
  • Always be alert to a better way of doing everything, never stop innovating.
    • There is nothing more important you can do than to ingrain a culture where everybody is looking and has the power to make changes.
  • Return calls and E-Mails in a timely way.
    • That would put you 99.9% ahead of your competitors. People are shocked, people are in awe. They can’t believe it. And we can’t believe that people can’t believe it because we think everybody should do it.
  • Beware the victim or whiner and its effect on your company.
    • “If I had my favorite bowl of ice cream over here and a bowl of feces over there, if I took one speck of feces and put it in the ice cream, would you eat the ice cream?”
  • As a leader, stay in the bowels of the business; know what is happening on the front line.
  • It all comes down to people who are excited enough about an idea to make it happen.

Advice from Harvard Business School on Life in General

  • When we look back, the big things will look small and the little things will look big.
  • Comparison is the death of happiness.
  • We have so many choices, and yet so few people seem happy about that. It makes them anxious. And more anxious.
  • We are all we have. No one else will rescue us.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Business Acumen, Growth and Strategy, Perform / Execution and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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