Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan

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Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan

Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A Harvard Business School graduate offers her views on the most useful business ideas she picked up from her business school and time with a leading management consultancy. A well-structured overview of some key management ideas, although perhaps lacking the depth to enable the reader to fully grasp the issues.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 250 Date: July 2009
Publisher: John Wiley and Sons
ISBN: 978-0470822395

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Harvard Business School has an almost unrivalled reputation for schooling some of the greatest business leaders (and George W Bush!). Former graduate, Emily Chan, who went on to work for leading management consultancy Boston Consulting Group and who is now a director in a family direct investment business in Hong Kong, promises to offer the secrets she learnt there. Does she succeed?

There's arguably a timing issue in a book of this nature. With the current global economic problems, it's perhaps not the best time to be championing the lessons taught in the bastion of Western business education that counts many of the bankers, politicians and business leaders that have caused the problems amongst its illustrious alumni.

But while the book is clearly written, logically well laid out and, insofar as it's possible to discern the character of the writer in a book, I warmed to her endearing style, I couldn't help but be somewhat underwhelmed by this book. First published in her native Chinese, I cannot comment on its value in that market and certainly there's nothing that is wrong with what she is saying, but my question relates to the Western market. The business publishing sector is incredibly crowded and does this book add anything not available elsewhere (in management speak, is there anything that 'differentiates' to this book)? I'm not so sure.

The book breaches one management issue that she ignores, namely don't over-promise and under-deliver. There's not much that's confidentially Harvard. Set out into three main themes of Personal, Operations and Strategy, she gives a whistle stop tour of things she's either learned at Harvard, picked up at Boston Consulting and read in the Harvard Business Review. In only one chapter does she offer comment from the Module Notes provided to students - which is interesting - but much of the content is not specifically Harvard, nor confidential. I studied a large part of the strategy content at A-level, let alone at business school. Of course, that doesn't make it wrong, but my question is, what is she adding (or in business speak again, where's the 'added value'?)

It's a little like sitting in a PowerPoint presentation of key management areas. Ms Chan is a process driven person (not surprisingly as she is an engineering graduate by training) and that's her focus. But there's a 'soft' side to management that is largely ignored here. In fact, she doesn't even seem aware of it. At one point she mentions that at Boston, her boss was also her mentor. That raises 'soft' business issues that the two shouldn't be the same person. It's a small point, but it illustrates her apparent blindness to the softer issues.

To give another example, it is clear that Harvard doesn't offer courses on irony. My jaw still aches from contact with the floor when I read in her chapter on Human Resources, just after discussing business legend Jack Welch's best practice on personnel, that she writes I have someone on staff in my company now. He is extremely loyal and hardworking. But he is not efficient and keeps making mistakes ...... I have been thinking about firing him for the last two months. Now I'm no expert, but giving your staff appraisals through the medium of a published book may not be considered best practice.

It's fair to acknowledge that I have an MBA so it's perhaps not surprising that her subject matter isn't new to me. All these areas are widely taught - and certainly not specific to Harvard. Rather worryingly, the one bit that was new to me in her book made little sense until I looked it up in another text book. I suspect that, for the most part though, her thoughts are pretty clear to someone new to the subject.

The truth, which to be fair she acknowledges, is that the true value of Harvard is not so much in what is taught, but in the people you meet while spending two years there. You are going to be set up with contacts for life. But there's no short cut for that in reading a book.

So while this is a decent summary of key management issues, it doesn't tackle the challenge of implementing the ideas, nor does it do any more than the countless other general management books out there already do. What I found most frustrating is that Ms Chan has a unique perspective that she is not telling here. What are the challenges and limitations of Western management thought in the Asian markets? Now that's a book I'd love to read.

I would like to thank the publishers for inviting The Bookbag to review this book.

For a less wide ranging, but more in-depth and very readable source, I'd highly recommend Managing by Henry Mintzberg, while Tim Hindle's Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus covers some of the latest management thinking and is a useful reference tool.

Buy Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan at Amazon.co.uk.

Buy Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Harvard Business School Confidential: Secrets of Success by Emily Chan at Amazon.com.


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