5 valuable things I learned outside my MBA program

Getting a good GMAT score, having a strong profile and securing an admit to the best B-School is a dream for every MBA aspirant. No matter what we write in our SOP letters for MBA admission, for most of us the reason to do an MBA is either to switch careers/industry, change the boss or appease ourselves that we hold a master’s degree, among all the other super ambitious reasons. I was no different. I had all the reasons that you could think to do an MBA. You face the reality when you meet your class. There are best of the best and you have to fight, survive and win with them. Well, they represent only a small percentage of the total MBAs who would be graduating and fighting with you for the same number of jobs. The brand of your MBA sometimes wouldn’t make much of a difference during the recruitment. For the recruiter, you are just another candidate in the MBA pool looking for a job unless you have an impressive GPA and number crunching skills or show that you are different and unique. I learned 5 valuable things while hustling through my MBA, dealing with many job rejections and surviving the program.

1. Network regularly: It is the most spoken word in a B-School, often associated with job hunts. Everyone tells you to do it, but no one tells you how to do it. There are three things to consider when you are planning to network, with whom to network, what do you want to convey and what do you want to achieve out of that meeting. There is no right answer to with whom to network. It depends on what kind of information, guidance or assistance you are looking for. When we meet someone over a coffee or in a networking session, don’t get into the mode of selling yourself by telling things you are awesome at. Give a good personal pitch, but don’t recite your resume. Once you have asked some questions about their experience, direct the conversation to a topic about the industry or their business. Share your perspective or point of view with them and ask for their thoughts on it but don’t make it sound like an opinion. In this way, you would make the conversation rich and memorable while showing your understanding and grasp on the subject without overwhelming the other person with your abundant knowledge. If getting a job is what you have kept as the goal when you are networking or reaching out to people, then your approach is wrong. Don’t network to get a job. Network to build a credibility for yourself. Landing a job offer must be the outcome of that process. Also, don’t do it at the very moment when you are looking for a job. Make it a practice to meet new people regularly and learn from them. Networking is about building professional relationships. It is not a one-time process, it an ongoing one. You have to continue nurturing it.

2. Brand yourself to stand out: It is another important thing that we all hear and talk a lot about in B-Schools, but hardly spend time working on it. Remember when we are out in the industry, we would be less known by the brand of our MBA but by what we say or do. It’s up to us whether we want to be seen as just another MBA grad among the thousands or we want to stand out and be known for what we actually are. Building a personal brand is just like how we would build a brand for a product for a client. Take Steve Jobs as an example, he didn’t say that he was innovative. He created things that were radically innovative, which led us to associate him with innovation. Pick a niche and build your brand in it. If you can’t pick a niche, try to be different in whatever you do. Writing is a powerful way to show that you are different and innovative. Through your writing samples, share your point of view or thoughts on your industry related things or challenge a commonly accepted notion in your industry with a sound logic. But do write. LinkedIn is a great tool to build a personal brand. Further, you could do guest blogging on leading websites based the audience you want to reach out. Being a thought leader unlocks exciting opportunities for career growth. You face many rejections in the beginning, but one acceptance is enough to set you rolling.

3. Volunteer to grow your network: When you are in school, you may not be able to afford to go to all the industry seminars and conferences as the ticket prices run in 3 to 4 digits. During my two years at my B-school, I managed to attend 2–3 big events without paying a dime. The hack is volunteering. I see it as another form of networking. Volunteering benefits you in numerous ways to achieve your career goals. If you are planning to switch career and you want to know more about that industry, volunteering is the way to go. It exposes you to what’s happening in the industry and helps understand the industry more closely. It also presents you with an opportunity to meet new people and grow your network while practicing and refining your strong skills and developing new ones. Volunteering is great and powerful. Similarly, participating in hackathons helps you build critical skill sets while working on an unconventional and ambiguous real-world challenge with zero or some domain knowledge and a multi-disciplinary team. You don’t need to be a coder or technologist to participate in hackathons. You could play the role of a problem solver or a strategist or a project manager. Whether you win the hackathon or not, it doesn’t matter. You will definitely learn something new, make valuable connections and find good friends.

4. Uncover hidden insights through Corporate Ethnography: The word empathy is very prevalent wherever there is a conversation around innovation or design thinking. It is slowly becoming a business world jargon which people love to throw here and there to describe innovation. In B-schools, we are taught to empathize with our customers through quantitative surveys, wherein you ask your target group specific and highly practical questions, sometimes in a very controlled environment. There is no denial that the data obtained through these surveys are not valuable. Knowing what the data says and what the data means will help us in performing incremental innovation but not radical innovation because customers don’t always do what they say. And that’s where corporate ethnography comes, understanding the lives of people through observing and listening to them on their own terms. This approach not only uncovers the unmet and unarticulated needs of the customer but also reveals the context in which they would use the product, how they use the product, what are the hidden cultural and social biases, inhibitions and fears and how they perceive and value the offering. As future business leaders, I personally think we need to get skilled at corporate ethnography to drive radical innovation. Qualitative research is not a replacement for quantitative research, but they supplement each other in uncovering valuable hidden insights.

5. Anticipate the disruption and build your desired future through strategic foresight: Design thinking is a great approach to innovating as a reaction to changing the needs of the customer and developing products and services to serve them better. Lately, design thinking has managed to attract some conversation in B-schools as it is being adopted by many organizations. However, the capability to perform design thinking is no longer a competitive advantage. Catching up to the trends and change in the industry is fairly easier today than it used to be in the past as everyone has to access to all kinds of trends reports. The Internet has revolutionized the world live in. It has blurred all the lines dividing various industries and business. Customers are manifesting new behaviors and expectations. Competitors are no longer from the same domain. Products are becoming platforms. In such an era, Porter’s five forces or any other widely adopted strategy framework is no longer enough to maintain the lead in the industry. If we want to stay relevant in these times of change, we must be able to anticipate the change before it even happens. Strategic foresight helps us to look through the changes happening around us and identify the forces triggering and driving those changes. It is not about predicting the future but formulating future-focused strategies to create our desired future. It enables you to offer your customers products and services before even they ask for it and fend off your competitors.

MBA is an investment and making it a transformational experience depends on us. Continue creating dots, they will connect in the future. Fail more and fail often. Reinvent yourself and hustle.