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How true is this "B-schools don't teach courage"(Article from Rediff)

B-schools don't teach courage

April 26, 2005

B-school for me was a mixed bag -- on one hand, there were some fantastic learning opportunities (such as researching future diversification options for Gucci's M&A team, and being flown to Milan to meet their highly-accomplished-but-now-former CEO, Domenico De Sole).

My peer group was extremely stimulating and globally-minded. I was exposed to more than 400 companies across varied industries through case studies, and a number of classes helped me think like a CEO, and gain functional tools to enable better decision-making in areas such as finance, accounting and strategy.

At the same time, I feel there are three areas where B-schools have limitations. The first is innovation and entrepreneurial ability. Following the dotcom boom, some B-schools started classes on entrepreneurial management.

Having attending several such classes, I feel B-schools can only help in refining your entrepreneurial ability and general commercial acumen -- they cannot make an entrepreneur out of a manager.

An MBA taught me more to run an existing business than to spot an opportunity and start a business.

The second trait that B-school does not teach you is courage. I think as a professional or an owner/manager, more than risk-taking ability, you need the sheer courage to defend your decisions.

For instance, a junior salesperson who wants to propose a new discount policy, or a marketing person who needs the budget to fund a product about which management is not convinced, needs to put herself on the line and convince her superiors of the idea, and her abilities to implement.

Generally, most of us are concerned about what other people will think of us. There is always somebody monitoring us, whether we are leading the company or are professionals working in an organisation.

Will this affect my performance appraisal? How? If I am running a business, I may decide not to do something that will benefit the company in the long-run, because the stock market may not understand it this quarter.

I realised the importance of courage soon after graduating from Harvard. Two weeks after I joined one of our family businesses, BP Ergo, I learnt that the company was planning to distribute the products of an American major.

After analysing the partnership, I concluded that there was a conflict of interest between our products and theirs. And financially we would not make a decent-enough margin from the deal.

But the management of our company at the time felt we needed that tie-up to enhance our product line, as it was a quick way of getting much-needed new products.

While I did not feel that it was the right thing to do, I did not have the confidence to defend my decision. It was my father, Dilip Piramal, who endorsed my decision of not going ahead, saying that our core competence was manufacturing office furniture systems, not trading in them. He took the long-term view.

The courage to take sound, long-term business decisions, which may even imply short-term lost opportunities, is perhaps something that comes with experience.

Perhaps one of the reasons courage and risk-taking is not explicitly emphasised in the curriculum is that many American B-schools themselves do not take too many risks when admitting students from emerging markets.

If you are from India and you want to get into Harvard, you pretty much have to do one of three things (apart from a high score in the GMAT) -- get a degree from IIT, work at McKinsey (or an equally well-known multinational) or have a family business.

This appears to make sense for the B-school in terms of final placements -- a group of extremely intelligent people who have worked at top multinational companies are assured good jobs when they graduate.

But if the B-school itself does not take risks when admitting students from emerging markets, how will you ever get managers who can really make a difference in the world? Or aspire to be real leaders, beyond being just a CEO?

Finally, the third area where I feel B-school has limitations is teaching operational processes in "softer" functions such as HR and sales. Two of the most important areas for any CEO today are sales and human capital.

Sales, because it is an immediate concern in a competitive market, and human capital, because there is a war for talent, and without an energetic and focused team, there is no competitive advantage.

There are almost no B-school classes where you can learn actual processes, develop skills and acquire tools in these two functions. For instance, what are different ways of planning and forecasting sales? Or managing a sales team? How should you set up a good performance management system? What questions should you ask when recruiting somebody? How should you define job competencies, chart your key resource areas or simply be a good manager?

B-schools talk about how HR should be aligned to the organisation's vision and strategy.

But that's at a top level, a 10,000 feet view. Harvard talks so much about being a leader or a great CEO, that it forgets that you need to do a lot of small things to become a CEO in the first place.

Aparna Piramal is executive director, BP Ergo. She graduated from Harvard Business School in 2002.


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