Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What an MBA does not teach you...

There is an old Tamil saying which roughly translated states, "What you have been taught and the food you have packed will only last so much when you are out on a journey..."

Obviously, there is no course in the world that teaches you everything you need to know. And yet, there is nothing in the world that cannot be learnt. On that note, we will see what a typical MBA may not cover...

Typically, every MBA course covers the syllabus, the subjects and the groundings in most of the subjects. Add a few seminars, papers, presentations, internships, competitions in the mix and you have the mix of things you will be doing through the course.

Now there are a few things that cannot be taught. And of course, there are a few things that are typically not taught. We will walk a tightrope between these two distinctions.

For one, a course is not real life. Case studies are case studies. They don't make you responsible. Here's what I mean. It is very easy to suggest a radical approach for a company in trouble in a case study. To get it past the screaming board (or others baying for your blood) is an entire story in itself. Which is when, it gets whittled down, beaten, mangled to the final sorry thing that it becomes. And if you have to get it past in the way that you conceived it, it pretty much means putting your neck on line. Of course, this is impossible to teach, but you get a hang of it if you try to go against the grain in any group assignment. Add pressure to this volatile mix. Can a course simulate pressure? Over a long drawn out timeframe?

From then on, it does not teach you either how to set up a business, grow and run a business without compromising your values. As I said above, writing a case study and starting an actual business are completely different things. But if you wish, use your MBA to set one up. If it succeeds, great, if not, you have the learning.

How do you handle non-performers? Face it. Teams are like trains. There are one or two engines, a motorman, a backup, a guard and lots of passengers and luggage. Will you dump the luggage? Or the ballast? Or the passengers? Or will you chose to be politically correct? I don't have an answer, but there are two things people usually do. One is to suffer silently - the engine is seeing us through in any case. The second is to be politically correct - keeping everybody happy. If, and this is a big if, you manage to create engines out of your "passenger coaches", you can do it anywhere and everywhere. If you avoided this problem, don't. This is a big component of real life. And you will realize that even in the highest offices with values set in stone, handling non performers is tricky, often devious and usually very clumsy. Does the MBA teach you about people? Of course it does. It may not be a course, but teach you it does. However most of us miss the course and the lesson.

Selling is an important art to learn. Before you decide to skip this paragraph thinking it is for the marketers, remember, it is important for all specializations. Which is a pity, because most often people look the other way when it comes to lessons in selling - including marketers - because selling is what the little guys do, right? Cut the jargon - selling or marketing - not too different in a organization. Ultimately, you need a buy in. Coming up with an idea or an initiative (especially one that is 'different') is difficult. But compared to getting the organizations buy-in, it is a cakewalk. And how do you get people to buy-in? Sell. Knowing when to sell, how to sell, who to sell, undersell or oversell is an untrainable skill that you gain by experience or mentoring. Messages need to be customized, 'whats in it for me' is more important than 'this will ensure my promotion'. Think that's the only place? No. Every report you bring out, every feasibility study you create, every requirement document, every proposal needs to be sold. Try getting your class to be in half an hour early for every single day of the course. If you have managed to sell it, tell us about it.

Punctuality. The single biggest problem of the MBA would be solved if people treat it as an extension of work and not as an extension of college. Look at people saunter in ten minutes later into the lecture or presentation. Try doing that in the world of business - especially if you are meeting an American client. They won't. Meetings start sharp on time and typically end on time as well. And yes, nobody can teach you punctuality but yourself. And yes, many deadlines are non-negotiable. And many things will not get done in one all night session before the submission date. Ask those who slog for months trying to get one single project out of the door...

How to manage the boss? This is a skill that cannot be taught because bosses like subordinates come in a million combinations. If you have a boss that does not have to be managed, either your boss is good or you are lucky or badly wrong. But at some point in time, this will be your test. Can it be taught? Well, if you take the profs as your boss, especially if they are leading through an initiative, potentially yes. Put into a nutshell, a large majority of people skills are built over time and there is no single correct answer. You have to keep at it and learn as you go.

A corollary of this is "how to be the boss". A lot of people lose all memory of their people skills the moment they have a couple of people report up to them. And that is when they decide to behave like mini tyrants and dictators.

Does it teach you gratitude? Hopefully, this is one skill which does not need to be taught. Thanking people is like planting a seed. Sometimes, those seeds become trees at the hottest point of time in your journey.

These are some of the skills, an MBA may or may not teach. But when did that ever prevent you from learning these things while you are doing your MBA? Understand that many of the skills that are not taught, can be learnt. Often, all it requires is an open mind.
(This is a draft. A neatly edited version of this made it to print someplace. Will link it when I get the link...)


Prats said...

A relevant post.... Fairly detailed and elaborate. Like it a lot.

And a recommended read for the same area:
What they don't teach you at Harvard Business School.

AGworld said...

Ecophilo, frankly, i think you're expecting WAAAY too much from an MBA.

Its just a degree!

What you describe has a nice wor in sanskrit: its called sanskar (or samskar).

Given English's general weakness, the closest word is 'values'.

For Sanskar, you need culture and upbringing.

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