Why is so much of the world managed by arseholes? When workaholic business school hot shot Ben Stillman is fired, he has the chance to find out. Not a guy to sit still, Ben jumps head first into turning his former business school into a world-class madrassa of capitalism.
Ben has ten days to rescue the launch of its spectacular glass tower, and his own career – ten days during which he will have to confront terrorist plots, undercover police, the extravagant demands of the super-rich, and the only woman who can save him from this madness.
A satirical thriller, a love story, and a wry look at modern management ideology all rolled into one – MBA is a piercing yet hopeful enquiry into the meaning of success.
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Why is so much of the world managed by arseholes? ‘MBA’ – the abbreviation for a master’s degree in business administration – is a farce set at an English business school run by globe-trotting American professor William C Gyro. When Ben, a high-flying graduate of the college, is suddenly fired for no reason, Gyro asks him to rescue the very imminent, star-studded opening of a spectacular all-glass tower.
Connie, an HR professional, has fled the private sector into the NHS. She is a part-time master’s student at a business school and has just been elected a student governor when the dean’s executive assistant – the aptly named Vanish – leaves without warning. Because of Connie’s HR background, the other governors ask her to make discreet enquiries. Here she gets her first sniff that the school may be in big trouble.
Vanish had picked an upmarket tea lounge off the high street, in a hotel with halogen lighting and fourteenth century stonework. Connie assumed he had chosen it because it was quiet and he didn’t want her to know where he was staying; judging by the price of a sandwich lunch with hand-picked organic salad from the garden, he wasn’t staying here. She would have to foot the bill and reclaim it from the college. With luck both she and the college would get something for their investment.
Richard Vanish was in his thirties, with receding curly hair and freckles ‒ much younger than she had expected. Twenty minutes into the conversation it was the years of personnel experience of which Dorothy Lines had spoken which saved Connie from snatching out of Vanish’s hands the spectacles with which he kept fiddling. Connie realised that she would have to play the conversation long, so she spliced gentle questions about Vanish’s background together with talking up the caring side of her HR responsibilities, and her innocence in becoming a governor.
As a personnel professional, Connie’s questions were only apparently gentle. The more she dug, the less impressive she found Vanish’s career. From university he had gone straight into academic administration somewhere even more sleepy than Hampton pre-Gyro, both academia and full-on administration somewhere more red-blooded apparently beyond him. In the end the only intentionality she could ascribe to his career was divine retribution; God might reasonably be enraged at any higher education system for graduating such an ineffectual human being. Vanish had gained a pass degree in mediaeval history (perhaps that was why he had chosen the hotel) without picking up any knowledge of or passion for anything, including himself.
The pallor and banality of the conversation became interesting ‒ ‘Richard, another pot of tea? Let’s be daring, I quite fancy those mini-bloomers with pork crackling’ ‒ when Connie began to puzzle how this misfit had ever become the dean’s right hand man. Vanish had started in the role two years ago, in other words after Gyro had arrived. However in the first year he had been off for six months thanks to a virus playing hell with his digestive system. Much of the time he had been bed-ridden, receiving nutrients intravenously. Connie guessed that Gyro’s plan had been to take a short-term hit for a long-term gain: accept an inadequate internal candidate into the role; pick a particularly inadequate one so he blows out very quickly; thereby overcome opposition to hiring a hot-shot on a lot more money from outside ‒ someone like Ben. However illness had been the joker in the pack. Employment and potentially disability legislation would have made firing Vanish a minefield.
‘You’re helping me build a very clear picture, Richard. Of the new dean. Of your job. Of tensions.’ Vanish had backed up some of the concerns which Frank had articulated at the shopping centre. Unquestionably Gyro had brought in big donations beyond the college’s dreams, which had paid for modernising the bedrooms, building the tower and endowing new academic appointments like the Bakhtin professorship. But as the college gained more bells and whistles, its running costs had shot upwards. ‘Clearly one of the tensions is that Hampton needs to be famous enough to jack up its fees, especially for MBAs, pretty quickly if it isn’t going to run out of money. That needs to happen within the next year or eighteen months. It’s a race against time.’ Vanish nodded.
‘But the governors are aware of that. Naturally the tension affected you, but it was not your responsibility.’ Vanish nodded again.
Connie came to the crux of the matter. ‘So there’s something I’m missing completely on timing. You ask to leave your job suddenly, over the end of May holiday weekend. When I call you this morning, you say next Saturday will be too late. What am I missing?’
Thank you, Douglas Board and Rachel’s Random Resources.
About the author
Douglas Board is the author of the campus satire MBA (Lightning Books, 2015), which asked why so much of the business world is Managed By Arseholes. Time of Lies, his second novel, is a timely exploration of the collapse of democracy.
Born in Hong Kong, he has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard and worked for the UK Treasury and then as a headhunter. He has also had a distinguished career in public life, serving as treasurer of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and chairing the British Refugee Council.
As well as writing fiction, he is the author of two applied research books on leadership, which was the subject of his doctorate. He is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Cass Business School in London. He and his wife Tricia Sibbons live in London and Johannesburg.
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