Sunday 1 June 2014

What I know now that I should have known when I was 22!

The notion of giving guidance to the graduating class of 2014 (#IfIWere22) seemed simple enough, however, as I started writing I realised that I would need to dig deep into my memory as I was 22 years old 22 years ago! Interesting co-incidence indeed!

At 22 I started studying for an MBA at Virginia Tech, USA. I was very naive coming straight out of my undergraduate degree with no professional experience to talk off! Have a look at the only photo I could find of me at 22 that has me has me lurking behind a few of my class-mates from my MBA days at Virginia Tech!

I came from a small town in India (Jodhpur) and attended University there as I wanted to be as close as possible to my mother and a safe environment. Nothing wrong per se but the reality was that I had high-school grades that would have got me into some prestigious institute, however, I did not take that path as I was not bold or courageous enough to venture out of my comfort zone. In hind-sight, that was a wrong decision.  I delayed becoming a better person by not embracing change slightly earlier. This brings me to Lesson # 1:

"If life offers you an opportunity to do something that goes against the grain or forces you out of your comfort zone then take it! Think about the opportunity cost of your decision and think long-term. I realised this during my Bachelor studies and then made the decision to leave 'safe waters' to do an MBA far from home.It was one of the best decisions I ever made and is the same philosophy that I retained as I moved into my professional life. Keep asking yourself what is the opportunity cost of not using courage and conviction to do something different and stretch yourself!"

My time at Virginia Tech was one of the high-lights of my life! I did poorly in the first semester as the style of teaching was different from what I had learnt during my bachelor's degree. My mother asked me to come back home as she thought I was going to have a nervous break-down but I persevered and the next 1.5 years of intense focus and social interaction with other students ('sufferers') made me realise that education is not what resides in books but is learnt by applying what you learn in books. I was very naive in the way I approached my MBA and realised that those doing better in it were those who could see beyond the obvious in a case-study and were applying practical and common-sense approaches to resolving issues. I gained a huge respect for experience and common-sense applied in a practical manner. Even after gathering four degrees from four continents I am always focused on understanding events and information from a practitioner point of view. This brings me to Lesson # 2:

"Studying for a degree will give you knowledge and make your resume/CV longer but applying what you learn and creating 'magic' out of it will get you respect. Always focus on being a practitioner of your academic learnings. Keep asking yourself, how does what I learn make an impact at my place of work! If you are unable to answer that then you have just wasted your education."

During my MBA I did courses across a broad spectrum. I focused on Marketing & Finance but today realise that the most important subjects that actually moved me forward in the real world were the 'softer' subjects on ethics, human resource development, management and organisational behaviour. To me the 'harder' courses showed me the 'what' to do but the 'softer' subjects tried to teach me 'how' to do it. This brings me to Lesson # 3:

"Realise that the softer aspects of life that are 'wishy-washy' or abstract (vs. the 'harder' aspects) are the very aspects that will move you up the corporate ladder. Working with people and getting them to support you is the single biggest learning that I can share with you. Being ethical and a man of integrity allows people to congregate around you and support you. You can go far without these attributes in the corporate world but for me the key question is what do people think or say about you behind your back!"

One of the most critical elements of my MBA was the reality that one has to balance their time and prioritise. Doing an MBA is like drinking straight from a hose! You have to choose your 'battles' or you will lose the 'war'! This brings me to Lesson # 4:

"My simple request to you is to consider developing structure in how you go about doing things. Structure implies control. Control reflects capability. Capability moves you up in the corporate hierarchy! The ability to say 'no' and the ability to balance your 'yes' will ensure focus and improve the chances of delivering what you say you will deliver. Purposeful choice-making and sense-making is the need of the day!"

Doing an MBA was an emotional roller-coaster. Sometimes my grades made sense. Sometimes they did not. As I moved into the corporate world I realised that the emotional agility and maturity that got me through my MBA was not enough. Not all of us are born leaders. Some of us develop traits and characteristics along the way that make us who we are. One of the constant challenges I faced was the inability to differentiate feedback as being positive or negative. This brings me to Lesson # 5:

"Understand that the most important ability that you will need to take with you into your professional life is to never take things personally and always maintain mental strength! Even today I find myself reacting to events at a very personal level. Self-esteem is a major asset and the confidence needed to keep breaching into the higher strata of the corporate hierarchy will be decided by how you handle negativity, emotions and keep cool/calm under stress or adversity. Emotional agility and the ability to accept criticism as well as bouncing back after an adverse situation is one of the strongest capabilities that one has to figure out in the 'real' world. I would argue that this is the one area that most people fail in thereby limiting their progression to the next highest level."

As I progressed through my MBA I realised that the marks and knowledge that I gained reflected the effort I put in. For me I was in total control of my own fortune and the same is a trait that I took to my professional experience as well. For me the notion that building your career is your organisation's or your manager's responsibility is the biggest 'lie' hoisted upon employees who are shown advertisements telling them (i.e. you) how great an organisation would make their employees ("We make your dreams come alive" or "Today’s talent. Tomorrow’s success"!). This brings me to Lesson # 6:

"No one will give you your career on a plate. Building your career is your responsibility alone! Your manager or your organisation can only facilitate it. In the end, it is critical to know that you are not indispensable. Keep your skills relevant and keep reinventing yourself. There is no text-book or teacher that can give you the secret ingredient to a successful career. I actually believe that there is no secret ingredient involved besides you!"

[Explained in simple terms in Kung Fu Panda!]

Sincerely hope that the above six lessons are simple enough for you to think about and to put into action. What you are learning during your educational experience is a solid foundation to work from. Your degree is not offering you only a parchment with your name on it but also offering you an opportunity to prepare yourself better for the professional world through the lens of hind-sight as offered by this write-up.

I was also asked to outline if my career had developed the way I had hoped it would. Wonder what that means! Five years ago I did not know what I would be doing today. I am also sure that five years from now I will be doing something that I cannot predict today. Would I have tried to do something different? Did others do better with their careers than I did? Why bother answering that question! I may believe I could have done better but then there are many others who look at me and think I have done better than them. There is no end to comparing yourself to others so I think it best not to answer this question.

And before I sign off I wanted to share a picture of me at age 24 (1994) with a few work colleagues from my very first job (post my MBA) based in Johannesburg, South Africa. That's me in the centre with the 'funky' glasses and wine glass in hand. Even then I enjoyed putting a smile on people's faces!

In the end, life is nothing but a series of memories. Good luck and best wishes!

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