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Many MBA Graduates Lack Context And Experience: Rajeev Agarwal, Founder And CEO, MAQ Software

Rajeev Agarwal is the Founder and CEO of MAQ Software. Penguin Random House published his most recent book What I Did Not Learn in B-School: Insights for New Managers recently

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In this exclusive interview with BW Businessworld, Mr. Agarwal talks about his new book, 'What I Did Not Learn in B-School: Insights for New Managers recently'. The book has already been featured in the best sellers list across various portals. Excerpts:

What is the thought concept behind your new book, ‘What I Did Not Learn in B-School’?

Every year during placement season, there are stories of record-setting pay packages for 2,000 graduates from top B-schools in India. At the same time, there are other news stories on how MBA graduates are not able to find suitable employment.

From an employer’s perspective, there is an acute shortage of qualified people to fill management positions. My book tries to bridge the gap between the employability of new management graduates and the needs of businesses so that companies can confidently hire them for first level supervisory roles.

Many MBA graduates lack the context and experience to understand what it means to be a manager. After struggling with the shortage of management talent, I realized that I needed to share my knowledge with new managers to help them gain insights to successfully lead their teams. The necessary skills range from recognizing how different business structures affect managers’ roles, to realizing the importance of training programs, to working with different personality types. These topics are the type of on-the-job knowledge that allows more experienced managers to excel.


Are any structural changes needed in B-schools in India?

Over the last two decades, I have visited key B-schools in India to interact with and recruit graduates.

Based on my experience, I suggest two changes:

First, B-school applicants should be required to work for a few years before they can apply to the program. Most top MBA programs worldwide recommend a few years of work experience from applicants. In contrast, most MBA programs in India do not require any work experience. Work experience—at any job—develops maturity. While working, applicants gain context around companies and organizations, and understanding of how to work in teams, and basic discipline such as learning how to show up to work on time every day.

Most B-school applicants are risk averse and do not want to delay their MBA to gain work experience. If work experience is required, applicants may enroll in lower ranked programs just to complete their MBA as soon as possible. Similarly, top B-schools do not want to risk losing applicants with high test scores due to lack of work experience. The admission committees at top IIMs fluctuate their weightage for work experience from one year over another in a race to admit candidates with the highest test scores. This lack of focus on practical experience is harmful to the students and the institutions. However, if established IIMs and other coveted programs start requiring experience, the problem can be solved.

Additionally, IIMs’ admissions committees may consider another practice followed by US B-schools. These US universities offer deferred admission to applicants that do not have any work experience. Based on an applicant’s score and other qualifying factors, they invite the applicant to join the program in two years, allowing them to gain useful work and life experience. Students may accept their reserved spots once they have gained the necessary work experience.

Second, B-schools should adjust their academic calendar so that students have 15-16 weeks of summer internships after their first year. I completed my MBA at the University of Michigan in four intense semesters over 16 months with a break for a four-month internship. Many prestigious universities such as my alma mater, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (with over 40,000 students) offer four-month summer breaks. I used my summer break (May 1 through August 31) for an internship to experience a new industry and to travel. Through my internship, I gained useful work experience and earned money to reduce my loan burden.

I used my internship to position myself favorably to prospective employers. In my MBA job interviews, I fruitfully discussed my internship experience with future employers to showcase my interest in a new industry (software) and a new functional area (marketing).

Unfortunately, current academic calendars at key MBA programs in India results in at most seven to nine weeks of internship time. In a typical internship, the first week is spent on orientation and the last week is focused on wrap-up. As a result, when a manager is provided an intern, they can only give them projects for six weeks. Most corporate work cycles do not perfectly match with internship schedules. Many managers struggle with finding meaningful work that can be completed in those specific six or seven weeks. Instead of meaningful work experience, the short internship turns into an extended interview for candidates.


Do you think we need course correction (literally) adhering to B-school curriculum in India?

In my view, there are aspects of management education that can be improved on. These improvements would benefit students and industry, as well as the institutions themselves.

The first area is understanding what discipline (e.g., finance, marketing, or operations) drives each industry. For instance, most B-schools play up corporate strategy as the discipline to follow. Accordingly, when I joined Microsoft, I asked for projects relating to corporate strategy. But I soon discovered that the emphasis at Microsoft was on product strategy. In contrast, for large semiconductor companies like Intel, finance roles are critical to evaluating billions of dollars in investments in manufacturing plants.

So, it is useful for B-schools to help students familiarize themselves with what is relevant in each industry—whether it’s software, automobiles, or heavy engineering. Although there is no substitute for experience, universities can help provide critical insights regarding key industries to graduates.

The second problem lies in execution. B-schools emphasize strategy. But most graduates in real companies will end up in operational roles that demand great execution. And flawless execution distinguishes good companies from great companies. Many great companies such as Reliance or Tata are great only because they deliver great products and services consistently through superior operations.


In brief, what is the message in the book?

There are many myths that circulate in management education and talks by visiting CEOs. In my book, I tried to provide a realistic view of the workplace for management graduates.

Great managers share three qualities:

  1. A focus on execution: They are actively involved in the details and follow-through. Not all micromanagement or attention to detail is bad.
  2. An emphasis on teaching: To teach, these managers continuously learn.
  3. An acute awareness of their strengths and social styles: With self-knowledge, they are better prepared to communicate with other personality styles and are better able to manage others.

Managers who possess these qualities are satisfied personally, appreciated by their teams, and are valuable to their companies.


How is the response to the book as of now? How many copies sold?

The early response to the book has been great! The book has appeared on the bestsellers list in several categories at online retailers. On a recent visit to the Hyderabad airport, I was surprised to see the book prominently displayed on the top-sellers shelf. I am grateful to all the readers of the book.

In my recent visit to leading IIMs and Indian Schools of Business, I have shared hundreds of copies of the books with faculty members, placement officers, and students with a positive response.


Are Indian B-schools poised to meet global standards?

In my interaction with management graduates over the last two decades, I have seen significant improvement in the quality of management graduates. Part of the improvement comes from global exposure through student exchange programs and easier access to courses taught by leading professors around the world. Motivated students can find courses online for any management subject they may be interested in. The entire MIT Sloan Management program curriculum has been available online for free for many years.

As our work globalizes, we need to pay more attention to written and oral communication in English. Many students with engineering backgrounds tend to underestimate the importance of clear communication. Understanding business contexts and providing a clear analysis of complex issues is now more important than ever.


Do we need new-age courses to re-skill and eradicate job losses?

As far as management practices go, technologies change, but the human behavior remains the same. Renowned management author Peter Drucker wrote about this in his seminal book The Practice of Management over 60 years ago. It remains very relevant to management practices today. For example, our company’s mission is to embrace the latest technologies, so we shift focus every few years. We are only able to do this effectively because of strong management practices and continuous learning.

So long as students can master these concepts, they will be prepared for the future and will be an asset to any company.

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