2 April, 2003
Mr. Kumar Mangalam Birla
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
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
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.
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.
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.
challenge is that of keeping an open mind, and not being
saddled with a rigid position.
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.
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.
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?'.
1 therefore is: Being team-spirited is critical to success
in professional life.
2: Learning to take care of the details
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.
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.
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.
God is in the details.
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.
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
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!
3: Respect different cultures and learn from them.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.