Why every MBA wants to be in “Strategy”

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s an interesting phenomenon across Indian b-schools: everyone wants to be doing some kind of “strategy”. You ask a fresh-as-fuck 22 year old engineering grad what his latest live project is, he’ll say “brand strategy”. Or ask the 27 year old with 4 years experience in Infosys/HCL/Accenture/Wipro/Cognizant/you-get-my-gist, and he’ll say “IT Strategy”. This thought process manifests itself in the inter-college competitions that students organize. See http://www.dare2compete.com/events/search-result/0/0/0/0/12/strategy for all the fun strategy events.

Here’s a fun look at why this happens.

What MBAs mean when they say strategy

“Lots of armchair gyaan and suggestions, but not one muscle movement worth of execution.”

Let me clarify. The MBA course is filled with “real life” case studies. Most are from the Harvard Business Review, but a few are culled from other sources too. These case studies can almost always be broken out like this

  • Business problem
  • Data (usually incomplete)
  • Few generalized directions that the business can take
  • A bunch of MBAs eager to provide their suggestions

In this situation, almost no one knows what the right approach or answer is, so the MBA (or the professor) will take out his most celebrated tool; the case framework. This he will use to analyze the problem from all angles that the framework affords and will finally come up with what he deems to be the solution. Similar mental gymnastics will then be performed by the other MBAs and the professor, followed by a discussion of what the organization did in real life and why it worked/did not work for them.

However, no one ever talks of the execution part of it. Everyone’s busy imagining themselves as the CMO or CEO, yet no one ever tries to think of it from the perspective of the other 20 years of their careers when all they’ll be is Chief of Jackshit.

Why does this happen?

Because to be able to execute better, you need to have some sort of previous experience in that field. In India however, most people don’t join an MBA program because they want to further their career in their field of specialization, no sir, they do it to switch tracks. Why do they want to switch tracks? Because most often their pre-MBA tracks are

  • Engineering (B. Tech, B.E. followed by some IT company)
  • B. Com. followed by CA preparations and a job in some bank or financial institution as an Analyst
  • Fresher, no work experience

Yet, these often trudged pre-MBA tracks are hardly the ones that most people want to stick to. They’re simply those that were available and paid what then seemed like good money. So since you have no previous knowledge in that field, you obviously can’t talk jackshit about execution. However, anyone can talk about “strategy”. It’s so easy because not even the prof can question you (after all, he himself doesn’t know the answer) and there are a hundred ways any strategic decision can pan out, and yours just might be the correct one.

Glorification by Management Consulting

“Strategy” is also coveted because it is what Management Consulting claims to do. And I’m sure you know how well those companies pay.

In fact, I think one of the reasons why Management Consulting is such a hot career path is because you get to meet such important people and influence such important decisions without any actual “get-stuff-done” involved.

Glorification by b-schools

“Strategy” beautifully ties in with the vision sold by b-schools to students and the inflated expectation and sense of entitlement that the students consequently carry with them. B-schools will never say that in most cases, post MBA you’ll have to slog it out for at least two decades. That just isn’t as exciting as convincing young people that they’re going to become “leaders” the day they step out. And as you all know, leaders don’t get stuff done. They just provide overriding strategic direction and play golf. Just for shits and giggles, checkout IIM Shillong’s golf cup website.

Due to all these reasons, I think the word “strategy” has been put up on some kind of false pedestal. More so since it covers up for a lot of bullshit.

A real life example

Back in first year of MBA, I got selected by one of the companies who were offering a live project on campus. The project outline was

Prepare an entry strategy for XYZ consultants to enter – South
Africa and Kenya. This should include:

  • Local Economy, currency, laws, regulations, etc
  • Target Customers (including geographical spread and key decision maker)
  • Possible Indian Firms
  • Possible MNCs
  • Possible Local Firms with owners having Indian roots
  • Others
  • Target areas in HR Consulting (non-recruitment)
  • Current consulting eco-system
  • Locally based HR Consulting firms
  • MNC firms
  • Indian HR Consulting firms who are doing business there
  • Strategy details
  • What to do in the time period – including how to visits, which companies to approach

· First 3 months

· First 6 months

· First 1 year

· First 1-2 year

Business projections

Dos and Don’ts

Possible local partners


Time fame – 3-4 weeks.

I hope you notice the “entry strategy” right in the beginning. In terms of ego and bragging rights, such a project is pure gold. After all, I got to write “Market Entry Strategy” in my resume. Back then, I remember thinking that just this project would qualify me to get through the CV screening of any consulting firm which came to hire on campus.

But before I get too carried away, let me point out the bullshit to you.

  1. Local economy – the company would hardly be bothered by local economy. They’re a smallish firm that could easily outmaneuver anything happening at the level of the “economy”.
  2. Currency – They’d only be interested in exchange rate and what is the best way to bring cash back to India.
  3. Regulations – It would be silly for an organization to ask MBA students to find out what the laws and regulations for their business in South Africa are. This would be the job of a law firm that specialized and had a lot of experience in this kind of thing.
  4. Key decision makers – No way someone doing secondary research could find out the dynamics of an organization and who it’s key decision makers are. For this, best person would be an experienced Sales professional who understand B2B buying and goes and meets the various stakeholders within that organization.
  5. And so much more that I’ll stop.

Basically, I could go on with pointing out why this is essentially a BS project outline. Oh, and we didn’t submit any of this shit to the company. Our first week, we delivered a “Macroscopic Analysis of South Africa”, all of 5.5 pages long. The contact person reached out to us with what he really wanted: what kind of soft skills training happens in SA, who are the major players and what kind of training programs do they provide? And the fun part is, we didn’t deliver that either, because there is no way you can find out all of this without being in the market yourself.

Eventually, he asked us to find the cost of flying out to SA, camping over there for a few days and moving around trying to setup talks with a few people. If you can’t imagine how that works, it basically means googling “India to South Africa airfare” and surfing all the travel sites for average hotel and taxi rates.

That, my dear reader, along with some hashed up data and analysis pulled from various “Doing business in South Africa” reports was the market entry strategy project that we did.

So what can you do?

If you’re a recruiter

Be very wary of anything “strategy”. Look for simple indicators of employability instead of being swayed by high impact terms that are essentially fluff. Also, realize that persons best suited to understanding things from a strategic perspective are those who have been there and done that. If an ex-Infosys person talks at length on “Brand Strategy”, drill her on the basics of branding. Fundamentals are solidly in place? Good to go. Trips up? Provide her the swift kick she should have gotten much earlier.

If you’re an MBA grad

Stop bullshitting. Get something more substantial on your CV. Seek out projects where you actually get your hands dirty. Stop thinking of ground work as dirty work. Start your career by peeling potatoes.

9 thoughts on “Why every MBA wants to be in “Strategy””

  1. “EVERY” is a classic fallacy in logic called “hasty generalization”. Some of us just want to walk away with the highest paying job irrespective of what we do!

  2. I wanted to write a similar article this week. You said it all. Day in and day out I get things done, sit back on my chair and smile, thinking of days we bull-shitted about changing the whole way a company should work without even knowing the actual problem. In fact B-Schools should concentrate on recruiting more industry people than a armchair. At IIFT, I would say most students didnt like Ranjith Goswami(IIFT prof), but that kind of profs are needed who can criticize you on what you say if you do no know what exactly it means to do it in real life.

    1. Praveen, this article actually came to my head after working for 6 months and understanding that to get good at strategy, one needs to repeatedly understand things starting from the ground level up, and prove himself by executing successfully over and over again.

      In addition, I recently met a few ex-classmates from IIIFT and they said the same thing. Having data and insights presented to you on nice Excel sheets and PPTs is good, but nothing provides more perspective than actually going out in the field and getting stuff done. About Ranjit Goswami, it would be interesting to hear his views on this, since he pointed out the BS on our face but also espoused Management Consulting as the best career track out there.

  3. As I used to tell my classmates (which did not go down too well with them) – first learn the B in Business before you run out and tell someone how to run their company that they have built through several mistakes and failures. I learnt very quickly that HUBRIS is a word that has not yet entered the vocabulary of my fellow MBA classmates 🙂 However, I blame our cultural upbringing that disparages failure as if it is anathema rather than the precursor to true learning. Today I look back on those days and am so glad that I left with my sanity or insanity – whichever way one reads me 🙂 My first few weeks at my business here in Nigeria I made a myriad of mistakes and thankfully I don’t have any hair else they would have all been uprooted by now 😉 There is a great sense of satisfaction in stumbling and screwing up in order to learn the B in business.

  4. so true sir…
    i remember something like this , when i gave my first demo ppt in my summers to the VP of wipro and on the name of strategy this is what I offered
    1. 3rd slide had a SWOT analysis of wipro to which the VP said : so you are telling me(the VP of Wipro) what Wipro’s strengths and weakness are!!

    2. Market segmentation slide , to which he said , we dont segment the market sir , we try to sell-modify-sell our software to anybdy and everybdy.

    3. In one slide i wrote we will enter europe as a strategy to tap new market and he said “so you think we were selling in africa for all these years”

    the thing is, in college i was fed too much of this leaving a saturated US market and tapping the open europe market that i just did not know the ground realities. How do you actually ENTER a nation or a market? when talking to a VP , you dont give him the bookish how , you actually have to tell him the ground level how.

    my presentation was cut short becz he could foresee the trash in the coming slides.

    that was my 3rd day of summers, and on the 60th day of summers.. my slides were answering actual questions like cost of Microsoft vs google vs oracle software. i was actually calling up at indian offices of IBM, oracle, google , microsoft for product demos and cost, it was painful but rewarding.

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