Thursday, May 12, 2005
Some day, all this will be for real
There are perhaps several hundred highly specialised courses which tell you, the young aspiring B-School student, how to, among other things, manage the two or three grim looking morons sitting behind the table. For it is they who will decide on your admission into this B School and thus help you along the path to becoming a CEO in three years. Or does it take less nowadays ?
Fortunately, they will only contribute and not whole-heartedly drive the process. That's because you also have to battle a strenuous group discussion and clear a psychometric test (yes, its not just aspiring astronauts who face this) before landing up at your interviewers' doorstep.
The interviewers are typically drawn from all walks of corporate and business life. One really means all walks because that's how this writer was privileged enough to find himself on a Sunday morning last week facing a fairly long line up of young students engaging the last hurdle in the selection process to joining a well-known Mumbai-based B-School.
Indian management colleges have grown to boast impressive facades, ocassionally you can even say the same about their students. This one is located in the heart of Mumbai city on a road that's actually lined with trees on both sides. You enter through a well-guarded gate and are faced with a grand staircase that, on ascending, deposits you in the institute's inner portals. Inside, a modern architectural construction, with large beams, broad hallways and open spaces strewn with branding and ocassional plasma screens greets the visitor and student.
Classrooms are air-conditioned with ergonomically sculpted wooden seats and come equipped with a statutory overhead projector fixed to the ceiling and a computer idling in one corner. The way to see how institutions of learning have truly arrived is to visit the basement car park, which one did on ingress; smartly uniformed guards guide your car over painted red lines into designated slots. So, malls and multiplexes are not the only ones who boast such fine vehicular care.
The reason one is sharing some experiences here is simple; for all the coaching that several students must be formally and informally going through, they seem to say and do a surprising number of wrong things. Here then is a little guide of a few do's and few dont's. Warning: this is one person's perspective and to the dozens of training institutes, who might want to differ, be my guest !
Kicking off & Introductions
While the interviewers have had some time between a cup of tea and small chat to go through your four-page form with your life's goals crammed into it, chances are the first thing they will ask you is say something about yourself. There are two reasons: first, it’s a simple opening gambit and puts the pressure on you to respond. Second, it provides a starting point for the next round of questioning.
Some students grabbed this opportunity to trace their immediate family trees; now the funny thing is that while one does glance at the family background on the form, you know, business background or not, what are the siblings doing etc, not everyone is able to carry off a narration. Candidates often stumble through in the Indian way, talking about how "my father is in service, my mother is a home-maker and I have two sisters who are studying".
The trick is thus to be prepared with a simple description about yourself and your interests though not necessarily hobbies and a quick one or two-liner on whether you hail from a business family background or one where the father works for the Government or the private sector or if both parents are working. But keep it simple and general is my advice.
Role Models & Influences
This was the disappointment. Not to say that Mother Teresa was not a great soul but, in my opinion, as an aspiring manager you should be highlighting influences that have something to do with the kind of career you have chosen. Someone said Richard Branson and it sounded reasonable. After all, he is a contemporary and a maverick businessman who we all can learn something from. Surprisingly, not one said Jack Welch and one made a passing mention to Bill Gates.
Many said Dhirubahi Ambani and stuck to his cause despite being asked if they knew that some of the methods the old man adopted in order to succeed in the early years might be considered un-parliamentarian. That's a lesson: be thorough and confident about your choice and don't waver on grilling, some did !
As a student, having decided on your role model, please spend some time researching the person, a not so daunting task in Google age. As interviewer, it was sad to note that awareness levels were often low. Is it important ? Yes, one would think so. There are only two or three things that the interviewer can use to understand your personality and approach and this is one of them.
On the flip side, Mario Puzo is a no no. Being somewhat younger, perhaps, I was tempted to pass this off as cool - my pleasant but somewhat stern co-panelist was aghast. "How could someone even suggest a Mario Puzo as an influence ?" she asked. Being a well-known HR professional and a visiting faculty in the same institute, she was clear on what worked and didn't. I quite agreed.
On an allied note, if you mention a book that you’ve read and liked, please ensure you’ve really read it ! Again, the `Seven Habits of..' does not really make the mark, it could be the second but not necessarily the first, at least as far as this writer is concerned. My co-panelist pointed out most students couldn’t remember the authors when asked !
Why MBA ?
Why do you want to do an MBA ? From Wellingkar to Wharton, there is no escaping this one. So, while one does not recommend memorizing and rattling off an answer on cue, be very very clear in your mind how to project this one, because the question may come straight or be bowled as a googly ! "I want to do an MBA because I will get a job that gets me Rs 6 lakh per annum," is one refrain. Now, this does not pass muster as an aspirational pitch anywhere.
What do you want to after your MBA ? "Oh, lets see what I get, I'm open to everything" or something similar does not work too well either. Well, that's the truth isn't it, you might ask. Yes, but you need to project a clearer picture of yourself, your goals and aspirations. Always remember, that's what is going to distinguish you from the rest, if at all.
Does that mean these answers are not valid. Of course they are, its just that they won't fly. You thus have no choice but to prepare yourself to mouth a somewhat `larger' objective, which is yet concise, clear and researched. For which, you have to prepare, do considerable introspection, understand what you want, why you want that and then take a call.
Work Experience & Learnings
Two young `techies' working in well known IT services firms left the best impressions when it came to clarity of purpose. A young boy, an engineer from a good university, said he was writing code for a large insurance project that was underway in the US. While that was okay for now, he was really keen to understand the insurance business itself and get a feel of his project's role in it. Then on, perhaps drive the project the way he saw it.
All this was the project manager's domain, and these chaps, according to him, were all MBAs. Having worked for a year and a half in his present role, he had a distinct feeling that this is what he would keep doing were he not to get out and `add value' to himself, preferably in the form of a MBA degree.
The other, young girl, who had an unusually incisive understanding of her company, the project and her role in the grand scheme had a similar tale to narrate. Being an engineer, she was on a good starting wicket, but the future did not look all that bright, unless she moved on to a managerial position quickly. “I am a computer engineer but I don’t understand a balance sheet,” she summed up.
Students who’ve worked with BPOs are pretty much up there in terms of perspective, better still, I learnt that many of them self-fund their courses nowadays. Most importantly, they come with high energy, a customer service orientation and often, the exposure to world class systems and processes. B-Schools, particularly beyond the IIMs, could thus be positively inclined towards such students. So, a decent BPO stint before heading to a B School may not be a bad idea.
Work experience clearly confers a degree of self clarity which is otherwise difficult to imbibe. But its not always a ticket to a B-School degree. My co-panelist had an interesting take. Having listened carefully to the engineer working on the insurance project, she acknowledged the clarity in objectives but concluded, from his demeanour, that a B-School degree may not be the best thing for him, he might be better off applying for a MS in an American university.
So what if you lack work experience ? Well, you are undoubtedly at a natural disadvantage. But you could make up for it somewhat. The trick is to seek advice and tonnes of it. Speak to people who are already working, older and younger, understand what's the difference between a TCS and an Infosys (a majority of the youngsters announced they would only work for TCS !). Understand how a company works, managerial
structures, where you would fit in and why.
A small digression here, TCS appeared to score in this sample because of a perception of a more collegial, learning atmosphere. My co-panelist pointed out that most youngsters considered TCS a sound learning ground for the first few years before contemplating moving on.
I know Infosys would leap to counter this. Having visited its sprawling campus and waded through its many garden paths and sauntered around its expansive, multi-cuisine food courts and souvenier shops, I would think N R Narayana Murthy and gang ran a university rather than a Rs 7,000 crore plus IT empire. But clearly, the youngsters think otherwise. Its quite possible that, being the highly networked generation they are, they know better !
While the coaching classes and their ilk might offer the right training for CAT and other entrance exams, there is no substitute for real-life understanding. A few days spent visiting a factory and understanding how things work on the shop floor and outside, talking to a HR manager, can teach you a lot more than any class. I say this from experience as a business journalist !
While you may have an IT bent and will most likely spend the next few years alternating between staring at a flickering screen and pigging out at a pizza court, there is perhaps no better place to understand work flow and organization structure than on a manufacturing shop floor. Of which there are many in this country, fortunately !
Will people help you ? One is pretty sure they will. This has to be organized but most large organizations like to contribute their bit to better workers tomorrow - senior managers one has met have often recounted some of their most memorable learning encounters from their student and intern days on the shopfloor.
Ethics & Beyond
Do ethics matter ? Of course they do. But, in my opinion again, some youngsters overstressed the `I want to work with a company that is the most ethical' bit. Make a statement like that and you can get caught in knots, for instance, are you saying TCS is more ethical than Infosys ? And if so, why ? So, great to stress on ethics in this tricky, post-Enron era, but have a clear view and tread carefully.
Entrepreneur - Manager – Entrepreneur
Lots of young students hail from business family backgrounds and are quite clear that they want to head back to their businesses after working for a few years. Conversely and perhaps increasingly, lots of students who come from non-business backgrounds want to become entrepreneurs or consultants after working for a bit.
Some coaching seems to be at work here, says B-School `expert’ Rashmi Bansal, though she does point out that roughly 30 per cent of most B School graduates do end up as entrepreneurs, either way. A survey done by IIM A (her alumni) revealed as much, for a few batches.
The importance of sounding focused for a business-family-background student is equally critical. For instance, if you have a family business in oilseeds, have you established exactly what is the kind of knowledge you want to gain, how you would apply it in your business and when ? What is your world view on your family business and why do you think it needs managerial input as opposed to pure entrepreneurial input ? These are some questions that are bound to come up and you must have good answers.
This is perhaps why, as my co-panelist put it, some of the students came out as possessing a desire to achieve as opposed to a desire to perform. A desire to achieve is good but not enough to get you into B-School, whereas the desire to perform obviously incorporates elements of specific knowledge, focus and understanding helps better.
On Your Marks
And finally, do marks matter. Given my sterling academic record, I would like to think they don't. But unfortunately they do. So, be ready to answer a blunt question like: "Why are your marks are not consistently high ?" Guess what, they are expected to be !
One candidate said his `backup strategy' failed. Pray, what was that ? Anyway, the statement brought a smile to my co-panelists but having concluded that this was a smart alecky remark, they only resumed the grilling with greater intensity.
Some candidates reeled off impressive track and field records, other sports achievements and it appeared that they had been upto something serious while they were not focusing their energies on their text books. Its tough to get out of this one, but be sincere, perhaps even better prepared with your career and knowledge objectives. Work experience could fill the gap as well.
Can’t close without a passing reference to this. World view is a generic term which means I guess, the ability to articulate a firm view on a variety of relevant subjects. Most people fail quite badly here and often, one supposes, this is because the questions come from nowhere. At our interviews, one candidate clearly set the benchmark amongst his peers when it came to holding a world view on his career choice.
He wanted to get into manufacturing, work with a company like ABB and Siemens, he said. On being asked why not IT (since most others were headed that way), he said he had a strong feeling that manufacturing itself was on the rebound and countries like India had potential. He delved into this in some more detail and seemed pretty clear that he had chosen and said the right thing.
Given my own experience in talking and interviewing people, I can pretty much tell the difference between someone who says it because he read it somewhere and someone who’s formed an intelligent opinion based on observation and experience. This young man, whose father, by the way, was listed as a taxi driver in the form, is bound to do well, if not now, ten years later.
A world view thus cannot be the result of coaching, it’s the result of reading and debate, without too much recourse to Google; my co-panelist told me that colleges had to figure out ways of ensuring more students spent more time in libraries and read books. Something that my generation relates well with !
PS: Will return to the Buzz series momentarily !!