Lessons from my MBA at the Asian Institute of Management
It is 2009. In Bangalore (India), a young CEO of a rising IT services startup is taking out a bunch of his programmers for coffee and a chat. As they all gather around him, this young and wise CEO puts forth a question to them –
“Have you ever wondered whether the software you are creating adds any value to the business you are creating it for?”
A simple and seemingly innocent question that landed on yours truly like the proverbial ton of bricks. That became day zero of my MBA journey. Before that day, my professional life was revolving around software requirements, code fixes, build releases, et al. Rarely did I bother to think about why I am putting in the effort to write code that works like a charm. Upon deeper reflection, it dawned upon me that the software I help create is useless if it doesn’t add value to and create new opportunities for the business I’m doing it for. And that sparked my interest in going behind the scenes to learn how businesses actually run. As I sought the answer to that question, I realized that for somebody like me with no prior exposure to business, an MBA should be a structured way to learn how a business runs. Thus, the adventure began, and the first hurdle was the GMAT.
How I crossed that GMAT hurdle will be the subject of another conversation (coming soon). Let me just tell you that I took the GMAT, got a 720 and started applying to the schools of my choice. I was very keen on studying outside my country (India), and so when the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) offered me a scholarship, I went for it.
My MBA experience
One of the important lessons for me from my MBA experience is that you need to build the courage to speak your mind. Not only is this vital to survive B school, it will help you for life. AIM being a case-method driven school, where lectures are minimal and the learning takes place during case-room discussions, I had to speak up. And let me share a secret – It’s okay to be wrong, it’s okay for you to not spout wisdom all the time, and most importantly, even if you get laughed at, you won’t die. If you aren’t thick-skinned already, I pray that your hide gets tougher because whether in B-school or beyond, being a sensitive touch-me-not won’t help you.
If you are not an engineer/accounting/math graduate (like my wife, also a AIM graduate) and are generally befuddled by numbers, then one of your priorities should be to become as numbers-savvy as you possibly can. The ability to make sense of numbers and data is indubitably a very valuable skill for the modern manager. If you are a quant jockey already, then use your MBA experience to share your knowledge with your classmates who are not. Not only will you win adulation, but the exercise will train you to communicate better and help you break down complex topics or arguments into simpler and more digestible pieces. And that, my friend, is a very valuable to skill to possess.
No matter where you take up your MBA, you will be working on a lot of presentations. You will be presenting, debating, arguing and defending – and while it may sound tedious, this exercise if carried out dutifully will reap you rewards for life. Please take the pains to do this because the importance of communication skills can never be overstated.
A well-designed program will expose you to all the functions of a business. Why do you need to exert yourself to learn accounting when you can hire accountants, or learn finance when you don’t see yourself as a CFO ever, or marketing, HR, strategy, economics, etc. when you can recruit a professional to help you with that function? A well-rounded manager need not be a master of all but should be as conversant in the languages of these functions as possible. The goal here is to be able to communicate clearly with each of these functions and know enough to not be completely at loss.
I had many late nights, and had to pull a few all-nighters during my MBA at AIM. The course load was heavy and my days were packed. My professors were quite knowledgeable but tough-loving and quite opposed to spoon-feeding. We were expected to learn the material on our own before it was discussed in class. The assignment deadlines were strictly enforced. Everyone, sooner or later, got grilled during the case-room. It was not an easy ride at all. But am I painting my alma mater in a bad light and discouraging you from pursuing an MBA? I am not. In fact, I am doing the opposite of what it sounds like. An easy MBA with a light course load and cuddly professors is NOT what you need. The discomfort that you experience is a key to molding you into a leaner, sharper and tougher version of yourself. This pain is good.
One of the things I like the most about the MBA (especially a good one) is the opportunity to interact with professionals from diverse backgrounds. The diversity is not just limited to educational and professional background, but extends to gender, ethnicity and nationality. So please step out of your shell if you ordinarily stay within it, and try to engage with the people in your school. Getting to know them, what they do and how they think would be a very enriching experience. I would go so far to say that without this experience, your MBA education is incomplete.
Before I wrap up, I have one last suggestion for you B-school aspirants. Please make sure that by the time you graduate, you are well-versed in the art of crafting a solid business plan. It doesn’t matter if you are not entrepreneurial or if you plan to stay in the corporate world for life. Writing a business plan will force you to exercise your creativity, thinking prowess, number crunching skills, communication skills, salesmanship and connect all functions of a business. And if you are fortunate enough to defend such a plan in front of an audience of venture capitalists/angel investors, seasoned business practitioners and your peers, the confidence boost is tremendous.
Before I say adieu, here is a quick summary of what I would like you to take away:
- Speak up
- Crunch the numbers
- Master communication/presentation
- Study all the functions diligently
- Network with your classmates
- Learn to write a business plan
- Participate in case, business plan competitions etc.
- You need tough love from your Professors and a rigorous program
- Don’t be arrogant – MBA’s don’t know it all
I cannot thank my alma mater enough for the experience shaped me into a better thinker, decision maker and communicator, and helped me a develop a keen business sense. I hope you that you have a wonderful and enriching MBA experience as well, wherever you go.
Kislay Chandra is a graduate of the Asian Institute of Management. By day, he is the Operations & IT Manager of MovieClub, a Filipino on-demand video streaming app. And by night (also over the weekends), he is cape-less crusader, training those who strive to crack the GMAT, GRE, AIMAT and the SAT. You can reach out to him at [email protected].