3 letters

With the growth and development of societies, economies, technologies and countries, comes an increase in global competitiveness.  This is evident with the growth of trade as countries compete on opportunity cost, whether it’s IT outsourcing to India or manufacturing in China.  A part of what drives it is the underlying skill sets of the labour force, as defined by the educational background.  Earlier in the century, having a bachelors degree was considered a great achievement (to a lesser extent in the developed world) .  Today, having a post secondary education is the treshold to getting an entry-level job.  As you move up the corporate ladder, you better have a combination of 3 letters after your name – MBA, CFA, CMA, Phd, PMP (the list goes on)…..at least that’s what is expected.

Over the last few years I’ve had numerous internal debates and external discussions on how to approach my career.  Of the external discussions, the advice I’ve received falls into 2 buckets based on the background of the advisor.  Those that followed the risk-free (standard) path suggested an approach that had 2 main ingredients: working for someone else and continuous education.  Others (the very few), that took some risk, advised to follow my interests and take up business.  Obviously, I went with the former.  Over the years, I find the more educated you are the less risk you take, as the opportunity cost (lost salary) is pretty high.  The ones that end up taking risk are the ones that either don’t have much to lose (don’t have fancy salaries/jobs) or those that pursued their dreams.  My belief is the more educated you are, the better are your chances of success in business – so why not take the risk!!   Having said that, I am a culprit (or victim) of the same…something that I have to change.  Risk is undervalued!

Last year, I had taken a sabbatical (better phrase for giving up a job) to go back home (Middle East / India) and explore  ‘opportunities’ in emerging markets.  In hindsight it may not have been the best decision.  Given the state of the global economy, opportunities were rare, no matter where you went.  I got to experience, first hand, the ‘global’ economic situation.  Everyone, regardless of economic region, was taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to capital and labour investments.  I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people (through seminars, conferences and personal meetings) and discuss their perspectives, which was an experience I would never have had sitting behind a desk doing a 9-5 job.  The ability to break out of a routine was a valuable learning for me.  That is one thing we get caught with in our lives – inability to challenge status quo.  A lot of people I talk to feel obliged to follow the norms and feel like they have no options but to plug into the ‘work ecosystem’ whether they enjoy it or not.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have a blend of not-so-enjoyable activities so as to bring balance and be able to appreciate the interesting/fun activities.  Even people who have ‘made it’ in their professions of choice/interest will confess they don’t enjoy 100% of their work – but they do at least 80% of it.

If you really want to be successful, understand first what you’re passionate about – this message was conveyed brilliantly in the  bollywood movie 3 idiots.  Kudos to Aamir Khan, who pursues his interest in acting as the lead character in the movie while tackling issues pertinent to the Indian Society.  Today, there are many of you in a dilemma about career choices and it is common practice to default to an MBA program as it is marketed as the solution to all career problems.  I agree the MBA program makes you more dynamic and teaches you a skill or two for those that are not business savvy.  However, today it has become a fashion statement – akin to a dress code for entry at a nightclub.

One reason for the growth of MBA’s around the world has to do with the world of finance, specifically, investment banking.  This is a trend that started in the 80’s.  Bankers are good for society if they follow the principles underlying the fundamental principle of Wall Street – to direct capital from those that have it to the real economy that needs it.  Innovation is necessary in real industry – not in support industries.  This is what happens when engineers and scientists moved to wall street.  They ‘engineered’ financial products that the layman could not understand and profited from them.  Wall Street started contributing to GDP, a role reserved for real industry….this is where the problem began.  They deviated from the standard 3-6-3 model which worked so well in the past:  borrow at 3% (on deposits), lend at 6% (loans) and hit the golf course at 3pm.  The high salaries offered by investment banks led to a rise in the number of kids pursuing MBA’s.  There is no reason why a 24 yr old kid who barely has any emotional intelligence and knows not a thing about real industry, earns 3-4 times what his dad earns after having worked as an engineer for 15+ years.  Similar things can be said about the consulting world.

Recently, there have been a few outcries about the value of an MBA.  If you are not at a top-notch program where your alumni network is a Rolodex of who’s who and recruiters come in hordes with juicy job offers, then you’ve just paid big dollars for lessons you could have picked up in a textbook.  And chances are you will  have to prove your worth and pledge to be honest and act ethically…because now you are at risk of wrongful business practices!  And this is mostly like due to the word synonymous with every bubble of the last few decades – “Greed”.  It is easy to get caught up with the momentum of greed in the financial industry, however, there are very few that come to a realization and even fewer that have had brought it to mainstream media –  those that follow the industry know of  Michael Lewis and even he  underestimated the time it would take for greed to peak.  While he managed to break out of it, not all are able to exit smoothly…some learn the hard way.

I am not against learning and the certificates/letters to prove it.  I do, however, ask that you challenge the common perception and ‘real’ benefits achieved by the continuous pursuit of them.  Do not be quick to judge that just because an individual has an MBA (even from a good school) that he is a better candidate for your business.  I will leave you with an interesting video. I recently watched on the success of an entrepreneur who followed his dreams – he did not have any letters behind his name.

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