Things they don’t teach in MBA

2 April, 2003Mr. Kumar Mangalam

BirlaCorporate Dossier

Having traversed this trajectory, and learnt my lessons, I thought I would share with you six things that I believe an MBA does not or rather cannot teach you. There are no tailor-made solutions to the issues I raise. Rather, the intent is to draw attention to them, and make you aware of them. The shortcomings I talk about are generic – they apply across the board, across countries and institutions. The real world puts you at the deep end and you realise that the ground realities are radically different.
Lesson 1: Learning to work as part of a team
The first lesson, I believe, relates to the skills required to be able to work in teams. We tend to be very individualistic. This is partly an outcome of our educational system, which necessitates cut-throat competition. It puts a premium on individual achievement and brilliance, at the cost of team or organisational effectiveness. Individual stars are fine but, by themselves, they cannot create the brilliance of a galaxy.
In business, one constantly has to interact with people, and work in teams. Most business situations cut across a range of product, geographic and functional areas – and a full range of competencies needs to be deployed to deal with the situation at hand. No one person has all the answers. Naturally, teams are the predominant setting for work.
At different points in time, depending on the business needs, you may have to be engaged with multiple teams, move out of one team and connect with a new team. The challenge that confronts you in repeatedly emotionally switching on and off in such environs – and how to deal with it proactively has hitherto not been inked in textbooks. I believe that being able to work in teams requires a whole new set of skills.
First, one has to learn how to be a good listener. The greater the complexity of the issue, the greater is the tendency to view only facts and figures, neglecting the anxieties, expectations, the conflicts that underline the issue. In such a process, people need to unravel agendas, appreciate apprehensions and relate to the emotionally charged response. When this does not happen, the solutions that emanate are sub-optimal. Working within a team also requires learning the art of compromise and tact. One has to be able to spot good ideas and suggestions and weave them together.
The challenge is that of keeping an open mind, and not being saddled with a rigid position.
Progressive business leaders welcome constructive dissent as a process that leads to significant improvements in the quality of decisions made, as value-added inputs are embedded in it.
Learning to cope with the disappointment of not having your views factored in a team situation is necessary, as is getting on with ‘business as usual’. B-Schools cannot tutor us on how to manage our emotional perspective.
I believe teaming is all about ‘attuning’ to others. Teaming is about bonding, about camaraderie and about creating a symphony. It is about not thinking ‘what is in it for me’ and instead graduating to ‘what is in it for us?’.
Take 1 therefore is: Being team-spirited is critical to success in professional life.

Lesson 2: Learning to take care of the details

My next take is on the question of what business schools refer to as the ‘helicopter view’. A management education encourages students to take the broad view, a top-down approach. This is fine, as far as it goes. But even the best perspective has to be backed up by action on the ground, and this requires getting down to the nitty-gritty.
At B-Schools, most of us develop a magnificent obsession with ‘strategy’. We romanticise it because it seems so cerebral. What we conveniently overlook is that one arrives at a ‘strategy’ only after having paid meticulous attention to the minutest details. And this is required because without delving into details, a strategy can be fundamentally flawed.
One of the favourite exercises of Jack Welch – ex-CEO of GE – was to pick out an issue and do a ‘deep dive’ on it. He would spot a challenge where he thought he could make a difference – and then he would throw himself into the details of that. For instance, when GE began its push into the medical imaging business, Jack Welch would dive into the minutest details of the business and operations – right down from the quality of the X-ray tubes to buying the right components.
Take 2: Remember… God is in the details.

Lesson 3: Learning to work across cultures

The third issue that I wish to raise is that of working across cultures. Up to about a decade ago, most businesses in India were, by and large, inward looking, and oriented predominantly towards the domestic market. But globalisation has changed all that. Now we have to look at global competition, global benchmarks and global markets. And when business boundaries dissolve to this extent, people have to be able to bridge different cultures.
Today, there are many more organisations that offer you the opportunity – and more than that – require you to work in other areas of the world or with people who come from diverse cultures. It is for this reason that some of the best employers in the country are those who will reward you for your ability to straddle across different cultures in a seamless manner. And this need is much more pronounced now than it was a decade ago.
Let me mention the story of two businessmen, a Japanese and an American. The American was enthusiastic about finalising a business deal, and he kept on saying that his thinking – and the thinking of his Japanese counterpart – were in parallel. Yet, the Japanese was not happy, and he thought the deal had floundered. Why? Because, to a Japanese, the word ‘parallel’ connotes two straight lines that never meet!
Take 3: Respect different cultures and learn from them.

Lesson 4: Learning to make use of the gift of judgement and intuition
I come to the fourth point – about learning to make use of an asset that we have, but don’t normally think about. In fact, this is an asset that, again, our education system conditions us to downplay, if not neglect. I am talking about the use of intuition and gut feel, what we call the ‘sixth sense’. Actually, intuition is not as random as we make it out to be, nor can it be called unscientific; part of intuition is our knowledge and experiences, processed and distilled, and stored in our sub-conscious. Of course, intuition cannot be a substitute for facts, logic and sound analysis – but it can be a complement to our analytical and logical thought processes.
Earlier in my career, I always felt that management is a science. But as you go up the management ladder, you enter an arena where it evolves into an art and here there is nothing for you to go by except your gut feel, your intuition. Newcomers into an organisation often develop some kind of derision towards older and more experienced persons, who may not be in sync with modern concepts and tools. There will always be a generation gap. To be successful, esteeming the experience and expertise of seniors in an organisation is vitalTake 4 – then – is: Listen to your sixth sense. Also understand the touch and feel factor of the experienced.
Lesson 5: Using failure as a stepping stone to success
Let me turn to the fifth factor – the fear of failure. I believe that we have to get used to failure and learn how to get the best out of it. Too many of our organisations penalise or look down on those who have failed.
Regrettably we attach undue importance to failures. Many among you would have gone into depression at not being chosen on day one or day two for your summer placement or at having missed being selected by your dream company.Please do bear in mind that failure is by no means the end of the world. It is, in many cases, a precondition for success. Failure is the crucible in which success is created. It has to be seen as a learning experience, a process of trying out alternatives and eliminating them.
Take the example of the space shuttle Columbia. Shuttles have been America’s space workhorses for now well over twenty years. Even as space shuttle Columbia crashed, America will be embarking on the mission again, but only after thoroughly scrutinising its failure and factoring the lessons learnt. I have often wondered whether we should expel the word ‘failure’ from our lexicon and instead talk of ‘failed attempts’.Take 5 is: There’s no success without failure.

Lesson 6: Learning a new, more holistic definition of success

Finally, I come to the last issue – that of the need for redefining success. Just as it is important to cope with failure, we all, in fact, each one of us, needs to reflect on what success really means and how do we measure it. Too many of us define success in terms of designation, how much we earn, the perquisites, and whether we are working in a ‘prestigious’ organisation or not.
I believe importantly success is how far you have traversed in life – from the starting point of the journey to where one is placed today. Using this metric, many of you will discover that you have come a long way indeed. If we probe even more, we might realise that perhaps it’s not just success that we’re really after. What most of us want is to be happy.Take 6: Let’s define success more holistically. ConclusionI have walked you through six lessons that I believe cannot be adequately stressed in a business school education. I hope that just being aware of these will help you get started on acquiring those aspects of learning that may be missing. Each of us has different learning needs – we are better in some areas, while lacking in others. So it’s up to each of us to take stock of ourselves, and identify which of these learnings we fall more short of – so that we can work to bridge the gaps. Look on your workplace as a continuing MBA that will help plug the gaps not learnt formally.I welcome you all to the real world. And don’t forget to have fun along the way.

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