10 December 2015 15:16:18 IST

MBA taught me the value of continuous learning

I also learnt that business is full of ambiguities and things are not always how they initially appear to be

Ravi Kiran, a Mechanical Engineering graduate from University of Kashmir and MBA from Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, feels the one thing today's MBA cirriculum lacks sorely, is the need for ethics in business. He talks about what his takeaways from MBA was, what his recipe of success is and more.

Where and when did you get your basic degree from? What about MBA?

I did my graduation in Mechanical Engineering from Regional Engineering College [now called NIT], Srinagar, University of Kashmir, 1987. I did my MBA from FMS Delhi, in 1990.

Has your MBA helped you in your corporate life at all? If yes, how?

My MBA, not just the degree but specially how it was imparted to me, has taught me a lot and each of those lessons learnt and values instilled has stood me in good stead.

Coming as I did from a family of jewellers and small businessmen, MBA gave me a holistic view of the world of organised business, and opened my eyes to the beauties and complexities of modern management theories and practices — from strategic planning, finance and operations management to human dynamics management and customer management. It has helped me develop respect for multiple points of view and information, take a problem-solving approach to issues, organise myself, manage time well, work with diverse individuals and build and work with strong teams.

What have been the key learnings from your MBA?

The biggest and most enduring learning that I took away, was the value of continuous learning.

I learnt that life and business are full of ambiguities and things are not always how they initially appear to be. That means I had to assess each problem as unique and evaluate it from multiple perspectives, before designing a solution.

I learnt the value of common sense and the need to simplify complex problems while respecting the inter-relationship of those elements. All this, while trying not to fall into the trap of over-simplification! It also taught me the value of creativity and lateral thinking; and that every problem has at least two alternative solutions.

It also taught me that individually, humans are very inadequate in terms of knowledge, experience and ability. This is why we need to develop a lifelong ability to learn new new skills, be sensitive to environmental changes and adapt to them, and work in teams to complement each other strengths.

If you had to re-visit your MBA, what would you have liked to have as a part of your course?

Thinking and managing the small. You see, when you are in the MBA course, you learn to think like a CEO and an industry leader. In reality, most management graduates start managing very small teams, handling tactical and operational problems and hiring one or two people in a year. And when you turn an entrepreneur, you need to think big (vision, long-term strategy) and small (team machine, the office boy’s salary) at the same time.

When I did my MBA, the focus was too much on management and not enough on business. That’s why most MBA entrepreneurs need to unlearn a lot of information when they start out, cut their teeth in business on their own and hold out the application of management learning for when the business is a large enough.

I also wish MBA had more of creative thinking. By definition, the course relies a lot on experience of businesses, managers and theorists, and that’s good. But it also needs to inculcate the habit of not following the structured path alone or relying only on experience to seek solutions.

Fortunately for me, my experience in two of the most learning-focused companies worldwide, gave me the opportunity to learn and do what the MBA might have left out. In that sense, I could say that my MBA didn’t really finish the day I left campus: it continues even today.

What have been the chief ingredients in your road to the top?

I don’t know how to define the “top”. I certainly don’t feel I have reached anywhere near there.

Yes, I have got opportunities to build and lead teams, manage and grow large organisations, create new products and lines of businesses and have seized many of them. That journey has been satisfying.

But to answer the question, I feel the things that have worked for me are restlessness, learning agility, respect for others’ and their views, focus, perseverance and humility.

What have been your best and worst moments?

A very disappointing moment was when in Starcom, we lost a large accountexactly a year after getting it. That customer had more than doubled our size overnight, but we could neither develop our processes fast enough to handle the account nor understand the company’s internal political dynamics properly.

A very satisfying experience was when, as a team, we took a decision to say no to mindless pitching for business, withstanding some short-term shocks. But eventually, we built a very strong and confident business. Another great experience was when I lead my team’s thinking and action which helped us run a squeaky clean business for over a decade — neither taking nor giving bribe, not cheating clients, or employees or delivery partners. Idealistic as it may sound, ethics is a big deal in business.

What would be your advice to young MBAs joining the corporate sector?

Be honest to yourself and choose well. Listen to people with wisdom, read and watch as much as you can. Choose your career and employer well, and give each employment enough time for you to proudly put it as accomplishments on your resume.

When I see resumes today, they are full of job descriptions, not accomplishments. I would advise you to focus on accomplishments and what results you, individually, delivered. Most importantly, excel in what you do, or clear the way for the guy behind you. Our world is full of mediocrity, as it is.

Are you happy with the way the MBA is structured today?

Yes and no. I see dramatic heterogeneity in MBA courses these days. In my days, there were only a couple of dozen MBA programmes in India, so most graduates were of a certain calibre. Today, there are over 3,000, so imagine the diversity!

Most top schools have adapted to the needs of our world and business and I respect that.

One area where I feel many still lack, is the need for ethics in business and how a company treats its customers, people, vendors and overall population. I feel businesses need to be less obsessed with profit and genuinely care about social good. Today, there’s a lot of lip service focused on newsletter claims and awards and recognition around social good.

I also feel MBA schools need to get much better integrated with local business community, instead of being islands of future talent for big companies alone. If local businesses don’t gain from all the smartness and intelligence, it’s a shame.

What would you advise young MBAs to read?

This cannot obviously be a prescription, but I have personally benefited a lot from the thinking and writings of Nassim Taleb, Charles Handy, Ricardo Semler, Sumantra Ghosal, Marcus Buckingham, Edward de Bono, Alvin Toffler, Nandan Nilekani, Dr Eric Berne, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Prof Nirmalya Kumar, Ram Charan, and of late, Prof John Mullins, Peter Thiel, Daniel Kahneman, Eric Ries, and Sangeet Paul Chaudhury.

I also love TED videos, HBR Ideacast, LBS podcast, Knowledge@Wharton, Ashley Milne-Tyte’s TBE and numerous websites and blogs.

I feel lucky to live in a world where great sources of knowledge, ideas and perspectives are around us in all forms. Perhaps the best of those sources are real people.

Each of us needs to pick our form and absorb our lessons.

To read more from the My MBA Lessons section, click here .