Six lessons B-Schools won't teach you

30 March, 2016 | Forbes India Marquee

Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman, Aditya Birla Group, shares six things which he believes an MBA cannot or rather does not teach

It's amazing — the difference that attention to detail can make, says Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla, Chairman, Aditya Birla Group

Most of you must feel that all the mental aerobics, the stress, the burning of the midnight oil over vexing case studies, is behind you. But let me explode that myth. The world out there, in the corporate jungle, is far tougher and rougher. You face a barrage of complex management situations and a host of managers of different kinds. The real world puts you at the deep end and you realise that the ground realities are radically different.

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.

  • 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 c;reate the brilliance of a galaxy.

    In business, one has to constantly interact with people, and work in teams 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. 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. Also, one has to learn the art and skills of constructive dissent.

    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. It''s amazing—the difference that attention to detail can make. It is said that Mr JRD Tata - when he was Chairman of Air India—went into overdrive even if he noticed a small chip or crack in a plate on which the in-flight meals were served. Even at his level, he did not consider this to be trivia. Let me mention another example. 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.
    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. When business boundaries dissolve to this extent, people have to be able to bridge different cultures. Business is increasingly getting faster and more seamless.

    Video-conferencing, tele-conferencing and the internet are deleting global boundaries. So even as you operate from India, the cultural nuances of the people you deal with have to be taken into account. Companies such as Microsoft, IBM, GE, Intel, Citicorp and McKinsey are literally melting pots, where as many as 70-100 nationalities would be rubbing shoulders with each other, as part of the daily routine.

    Today’s graduates will have to be able to understand the nuances of how people in different countries and cultures behave, how they think and what are their value systems. Let me mention the story of two businessmen, one a Japanese and the other 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! So there we have 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. 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. Let me illustrate this point. Even the most sophisticated of devices cannot tell when a musical instrument is perfectly tuned. The musician's ear is much better at that. Take-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. Do bear in mind, failure is by no means the end of the world. It is, in many cases, a pre-condition 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. We have a lot to learn from Thomas Edison, the great inventor. He just kept on failing, till he succeeded. And eventually, he did. Of his many failures, he remarked: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." The best way not to fail is not to try at all. But that is surely a recipe for stagnation. Take-5 is: There is no success without failure.
  • Lesson-6: Learning a new, more holistic definition of success
    And 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. 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, one might realise that perhaps it''s not just success that we are really after. What most of us want is to be happy. That realisation opens up an entirely new vista, and breaks us away from our self-inflicted chains. Take-6: Let''s define success more holistically.



I 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 one 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 upon your workplace as a continuing MBA — that will help plug in the gaps not learnt formally.

Finally, I would like to say that more and more, organisations are now looking for leaders, not just managers, and not leaders just at the top, but right across the organisation, at every level. Developing the skills required for leadership will call for all the different learnings I have mentioned today — plus many more. Today, career growth involves transforming MBAs into managers, and managers into leaders. This represents a quantum leap — somewhat like a caterpillar being transformed into a butterfly. I welcome you all to the real world. And don''t forget to have fun along the way.

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