The 5 things I never learned at IIM Ahmedabad

There is a lot they don’t teach you about life and career in a B-school.
There is a lot they don’t teach you about life and career in a B-school.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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Last week, I went back to my business school, IIM-Ahmedabad, as part of a team to talk to first-year students about internship opportunities at my company. It was my first time back after many years, and since I reached a bit early, I walked around the campus, and for the first time since I left school, I went back to the room that was my home for the two years that I was there.


I met a bunch of guys there, including the one now staying in my old room and we chatted, as those who have shared experiences, albeit separated by a gap of 20 years, do. Talking about how things have changed, sharing how things were “back in the day,” and of course, the many things that remain the way they always were. As I looked at my old room, it struck me that since I left, at least 20 different guys have made this their home, and then gone on to join the corporate world, perhaps learning many of the same lessons I have over the years. It brought back a lot of nostalgia, but it also made me think of something else. This room was my cocoon, my retreat, my home for two years.

Like many of the kids there now, I had left home for the first time when I joined IIM-A, and this room marked my jumping off point into the big, bad world of work and independence, with all the positives and negatives it entails. It was in this room that I dreamed of all the things I would do after graduating, I dealt with the insecurities that come with wondering which direction your life would take, and most of all, realizing that once I left this room, my life would never be the same. I would have a job; I would be working; I would earn money; I would be stepping out into a world I had aspired to, read about, but to be honest, had very little real idea of.

That was then, this is now.

Twenty years later, as I saw my old room, I wondered what it is that I’ve really learned in those 20 years. If I could go back in time, what would I tell myself that I know now and I wish I knew then? If I could at one stroke, reach out to all the guys who have followed me in D-1403, and indeed in all the other rooms on campus, what would I say about what these 20 years have taught me that I didn’t realize in those years I spent on campus?

It often isn’t about finding the right answers, but about asking the right questions.

In school, it’s all about finding the right solutions, and learning frameworks and constructs that help us frame problems to get to the right answer. What I wish I knew back in D-1403 was that in dealing with real business and organizational problems, there seldom is one ‘right’ answer. The bigger challenge is asking the right questions. Questions that challenge your thinking, that challenge your team, that challenge the status quo. Breakthrough seldom comes by applying different frameworks to a problem but when you restate the problem, when you paint a broader canvas for the solution to play itself out. Questions as simple as the category you are competing in—is it cold drinks or all liquids consumed; about the market you want to enter and win in—a particular channel or state or the total country; about what success looks like—short term profitability or creating longer term success. I have learned that the scale of your ambition, and of the results that you achieve often lies in the breadth and ambition of the question you ask at the beginning, not in using elegant frameworks and research to answer a narrowly defined question.

The only P of marketing that really matters is the one they don’t teach you about.

I’m exaggerating a bit, but perhaps not by much. When I was back in D-1403, I devoured all the books I could get on marketing and sought out all the projects I could do. Now, I realize that none of those books really can teach you about the one P that really makes a difference. People. What sets apart great marketers, and indeed, great businesspeople, is the ability to build empathy, trust and relationships. To build insights about consumers that will lead to ideas that delight them. To understand what retail partners really need to support your brand. To build collaboration across teams and functions that leads to breakthrough ideas and execution. To create a strong organization that delivers results year on year. The reason for that is simple. Marketing, and indeed business, is a team sport, and whether you’re a new hire, or the captain of the team, learning how to motivate others, to empathize with them, to build trust and confidence among them, and most importantly, see the world through their eyes, is perhaps the one thing that will set you apart.

NPV calculations are great, but first apply it to the one thing that really matters.

We learned many tools on campus, and as placements approached, I saw many friends work out the NPV (net present value) of how much they would earn with different career options. Indeed most people spend their lives planning out what they will get in the future materially—money, stock options, promotions. If I could reach out to myself all those years ago, I would say that NPV is a great concept, but apply it to the thing that matters most. Happiness. In chasing bonuses, promotions and designations, people put off the little things that matter. Being there for family. Taking time out for one’s health. Keeping some space for the things one is really passionate about. You may not be able to put a Dollar value to them, but they are perhaps bigger drivers of happiness than any of the other things mentioned above. And like any NPV calculation, if you miss out on them now, you will not get the same impact by doing them later. So don’t procrastinate about these things because once you have the designation and the pay cheque you dream of sitting in D-1403, you may find yourself asking why you still aren’t happy.

Dream of your successes and glory, but also prepare to fail.

In D-1403, I would dream of successes, of the things I would get right, and I’m sure all the guys who occupied that room after me did the same. I guess you should never stop being positive, never stop planning for success, but do realize that in the real world of work, you often learn your best lessons from your failures. And fail you will. No case study will prepare you for how it feels to have a long cherished project crash and burn, for a launch you spent years perfecting bomb, for a proposal you put your soul into be rejected. That’s the nature of the world of business, where success and failure are both sides of the same coin. Business school does a great job of equipping people to succeed, but learn to embrace failure and to learn from them. That is perhaps the best education you will get in your career.

You will share your “room” with others in the world, and it will stop being about yourself.

I had great fun in D-1403, and one of the things I was excited about was the independence. Not being at home, being able to define for myself who I was and what I wanted to be. The reality of life is that over time, you realize that you are never really on your own. You will share your ‘room’ with many others, whether they are physically there with you or not- your family, your friends, colleagues at work, your subordinates. And who you become and how you matter in the world does not come from defining your identity and success in isolation, but the difference you make to them.

You will leave D-1403 as I did, you will learn your own lessons, and reach your own conclusions about life and work. Many of them may well be different from mine, but what is important is that you realize what I did when I looked back at my old room. The only lessons that matter are the ones that are shared, and that when your time comes, you share your lessons back to the guy then living in D-1403.

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