Doing an MBA taught me not to do it

I have always been intrigued by the men and women in the C-suite making big decisions that make or break a company. There is a common perception (at least in the IT industry) that only the engineers work and the managers just talk. Students from top B-schools are paid their weight in gold by consulting firms like McKinsey. And there are many leaders who have risen through the ranks and doing wonderfully well without an MBA behind their name. So which is better? The only way for me to find out was to take a plunge in the world of business education.

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Part time does not equal full-time

While filling up an application for an MBA program, the first question is why do you want to do an MBA? The reason varies for each person. For some, it is money, promotion or taking over the family business. To me, it was to improve my analytical thinking.

As an engineer, I have been trained to solve a problem. But I wanted to think like a leader – envisioning the impact of my solution on the world at large.

But was it a good enough reason to take a break from my career and spend lakhs? Probably no. So I stuck to pursuing a part-time MBA along with my job. After doing my due diligence, I concluded that a part-time MBA would never equal a full-time degree. The reason being doing an MBA is not about learning concepts and passing exams. But rather the whole experience of interacting with peers, learning there could be different ways to solve a problem and above all developing and fostering networks.

A part-time course is applicable for people who have been in the industry for quite some time and possess the knowledge but need just a little polishing off their skills.

The degree is not worth the paper it is printed on

While researching the various distance learning programs in the country, one thing was clear – a part-time degree is worthless. Even if it is from IIM, it will never be considered on par with a full-time degree. Harsh but the inevitable truth. A part-time degree might help you advance a rank or two in your current organization, but the chances of ending up as a top notch globe-trotting consultant are slim to none. Some universities claim they are accredited by some board but never buy into it.

Work life balance goes out of the window

There are several variants of distance learning programs. Some involve attending courses online or weekends, turning in assignments and giving exams. And some give you a ‘degree’ just for paying the fees and turning up for the exams. If you choose to do any course that actually does teach something of value to the students then you will have to put in a lot of effort and time. It involves working on assignments after coming back from office, discussing with peers on weekends and lots of self-study. The onus is on the student to make the extra effort. This can take a toll on your health, family and relationship. So my advice before starting a program would estimate the number of hours that would be required for studies each week and get the support of the family.

No degree is going to make you some soup when you are unwell.

Peers who do not give a damn

This was the final nail in the coffin that made me rethink my MBA journey. In my course, I had several group assignments that involved discussing case studies with peers whom I have not seen face to face. Some of the challenges I faced was coordinating a time for discussion suitable to all. Almost everyone seemed to be in a different city, country and working hours. Having been in different groups, I noticed people do not want to take responsibility to coordinate. This is quite surprising. Isn’t an MBA all about taking responsibility and becoming a better leader?

The worst part was people do not turn up for the meetings. I would end texting them, calling and sending emails but to no avail. These were people with about ten years of experience. Being the youngest of the lot, I felt a bit awkward bossing around my peers at first. But then I manned up and started assigning work to each. But the fact that I ended up doing it all myself is another story!

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It will get worse

Keeping in accordance with Murphy’s law, things will get out of hand at times. Personal commitment, work deadlines and multiple courses going on at the same time will make you want to pull out your hair. It is going to take a lot of effort to keep one’s sanity and move ahead.

Though I have decided to discontinue my studies after completing my first semester, not all is lost. I did learn some valuable lessons in the past few months:

1. Be ruthless with your time

I started cutting down on all activities that do not add any value to my life, found ‘smartcuts’ to complete my work before time, no more binge watching TV shows all night and ending up with a headache.

2. Say NO

I learnt to say no to both good and bad things that would require my time and effort. Saying no to bad things like skipping a weekend movie fest may be easy but saying no to good things like putting off an amazing idea at work may be tough.

Chasing the next shiny thing is quite easy but seeing a project to completion is tough.

I believe a commitment to deliver the promised is paramount and takes precedence over having multiple side projects for the sake of being busy.

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3. Steal time from yourself

The heart doesn’t like to be told not to laze around and have fun, so sometimes we need to trick it. No more one-hour lunch sessions or half an hour coffee sessions. Put on the thinking hat while stuck in traffic and come up with solutions to the assignments. Take a walk or a power nap in the afternoons for the second innings.

4. People management skills

This is sort of the most valuable skill I learnt. As a software engineer, I do have any experience managing people at work other than mentoring freshers. Over the past few months, I learnt to take the lead, assess people, assign work based on their skills, follow-up and get it done. When meetings veer off topic or comments starts to get personal, I learnt to become a moderator and be mindful of my own actions to not do the same mistakes.

5. Only YOU are responsible for your life

When my peers did not cooperate with me for doing the assignments, my first reaction was anger, followed by I-am-not-going-to-do-it-either-as-well, then grumpily finishing the assignment before the deadline and cursing everyone while submitting it. The second time this happened I realized that I need to take control of my life and my grades. Being a first bencher all my life, I did not want an F on the report card ever. I did my best to rally the troops. Even though the results were not the best, at least I did not end up scrambling to complete the assignments before the deadline.

Overall it was a roller coaster ride for me. There were hardships but also learnt to stretch beyond my comfort zone. I now have a taste of MBA and found amazing online resources where I could continue learning. After all learning is a life long process.

Take off your coloured glasses

Recently a video of Angelina Jolie in an acting class fifteen years ago has been doing the rounds on the Internet. It is amazing to see how she has gotten better at her craft over the years. I was reminded of the movie, Wanted, a 2008 Hollywood blockbuster. It had the right mix of action, style, special effects and of course Angeline Jolie. More people remember Jolie stepping half naked from a bath than her killing a dozen people with a single bullet in the climax; to each man his own.

One my favourite scene in the movie was when Fox ( the character played by Jolie) tells Wesley ( the character played by James McAvoy) to curve a bullet. When he asks how, Morgan Freeman says:
“It’s not a question of how. It’s a question of what. If no one told you that bullets flew straight, and I gave you a gun and told you to hit the target, what would you do ? Let your instincts guide you.”

While I am not really sure if Newton and the laws of physics would agree with Freeman but there is a stark truth to that statement. In life, we make choices based on the past experiences of ourselves or our friends and family. Seldom do we stick our toe out of the line. 100,000 years ago when men lived in caves and had to hunt their food, it made sense to rely on the crowd intelligence. It would be foolish to charge at a lion with a spear all alone. The strength in numbers ensured we survived as a species. But times have changed and we pick our food from supermarkets these days, yet we refuse to change our thinking.

Everyone is biased in one way or the other and a person who says otherwise is definitely in denial. People grow up saying that they never want to do the same mistakes that their parents did, but the apple seldom falls far from the tree. As a kid, we do not know our limits and so we are not afraid of jumping from the terrace to discover our super powers. But as we grow older, our mind is conditioned by our family, friends and society to rely the collective intelligence of the crowd as opposed to sticking our head above the herd. Growing up in India I could not agree more.

As a son, I always wondered why a sane man such as my father made such terrible decisions at times. But when I introspect on the decisions that I have made over the years I am no better than him. I was seeing the world through my father’s eyes and basing my judgements on the biases I picked up from him. His biases do not make him a lesser man. He is a great dad and I do owe some of my positive traits to him. When you wear yellow tinted glasses, the whole world appears yellow.

Nobody likes to be the black sheep and so we paint ourselves white.

It is time to take off the glasses and see the world for what it is. Accept the situations and people for who they are. Heck, if you don’t like it pick a new colour for your glasses. Go Bananas!