Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Into Harvard Business School

I remember my first job. Two months of ‘sales’ – ad space and subscriptions – for two small time trade publications that shall remain nameless. Going from company to company, making cold calls. Finally I faked a bad tummy to stop going to work and then resigned. I was 20.

When I got into copy, I knew I had found my place. It was a struggle to unlearn everything I had learnt about writing, to write to sell rather than to be self indulgent, to be coherent rather than veiled. But I knew with a certainty that this was what I wanted to do with my life.

Still, adapting my writing to the demands of the market didn’t come easy to me. I was, after all, weaned on a diet of Byron and Ibsen, not Drucker or Kotler. But over the years I figured out that it was all about identifying customers’ motivations and speaking to their needs or even creating needs.

The best copywriters have an instinctive understanding of people’s needs and motivations and address them. They don’t need an MBA to get into their customers’ psyche. However there have been times when I have acutely felt the disadvantages of not having a business school education. Especially with some clients who take exception to my rather simple, conversational style of writing copy. They, I know would love their brochures dense and heavy, laden with management-speak.

All this introspection is the result of the book I am reading at the moment: Philip Delves Broughton’s ‘What they teach you in Harvard Business School.’ The title itself is a reference to Mark McCormacks management tome, What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School. Phillip Delves Broughton was a journalist with 10 years of experience. At some point he felt like he had plateau-d and wanted to explore new opportunities, maybe even think about going into the media business for himself.

What they teach you in Harvard Business School is neither a management self help book, nor is it an out-and-out expose. I would say it is a journal or memoir of the author’s time at the one of the world’s most respected institutions. Many things in it resonated with me. Broughton is not from the world of management or finance; he is no ambitious young turk, he is English – and he uses his outsider’s perspective to great advantage. He is highly and genuinely critical of high-powered, soul-less ambition, meaningless jargon, fatuous networking and yet, manages to see the entire HBS experience with enough wide eyed wonder to convey the excitement of being in its rarified atmosphere. His descriptions of how the HBS system works, as well as interesting titbits on the classes, fellow students and the professors give me a vicarious thrill. The numerous case studies described in the book (again, through Broughton’s fresh eyes, unsullied by any sort of management experience) are absorbing. The descriptions of behind the scenes machinations, hyper competitive peers, and mammon worship are to be expected, but still manage to surprise. And the best thing is he manages to do so without the slightest whiff of a sour grape.

Broughton in some ways is very old-school – preferring calculator to spreadsheets. He talks of going to Yahoo and his experience there reminded me of my own reaction to a visit to a top IT firm. After being shown rec room after rec room, cafeterias, outdoor green zones etc, I remarked to my boss that the company clearly didn’t want their employees to have a life. I was dismayed rather than impressed, and that was how Broughton seems to have felt as well. I especially love his consistent bewilderment at the literature that comes out of HBS - from the alumni or the institution itself - indecipherable management gobbledygook.

As he grapples with excel and finance, and does poorly in his summer placement interviews, I can’t help but think that’s its okay to be not so good at some things. In this world where multi-tasking is celebrated, it’s important to remember that we each have our strengths, and it's best to play to them.


sb said...

I've ordered this book from the library. You have got me interested ...

Pop Culture Curry said...

Hey Shai! Thanks for stopping by... (hehe that rhymes!) Here's your's a book within a book...and it's about a wizard! :)) Happy guessing!