Pursuing & Failing hurts much less compared to not pursuing at all- Mr Shalender Singh Birla, IIM Ahmedabad-Class of 2009

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Snippets of an interaction with Mr Shalender Singh Birla, PGP 2007-09, IIM Ahmedabad.

Currently, CEO, ASK Automotive Pvt. Ltd. Earlier worked as Head – Strategy (Usha Martin Limited), Corporate Strategy – JSW Steel, Govt. of India, IES (Indian Engineering Services)

1) Among the manifold career choices, what made you opt for an MBA at that point of time? In retrospect, how would you reflect on your decision?

It was in 2006, when I was in Indian Railways, handling powerful position of train operations (Crew, Accident, Logistics) covering over 1,000 km that I started about thinking of my future career. The last time I had been to college was almost a decade back when I had completed my B.Tech from IIT Delhi in 1997. I had campus placement in Tata Motors and GAIL, I worked in GAIL for a few months and then resigned to pursue preparation for IAS. I failed to clear IAS exam despite multiple attempts and then moved on to IES (Railways).

Railways gave me a fantastic exposure to power, people management and very high level general management skill. However, the growth was timebound, salary levels were abysmally low, and transfers were rampant. My son would have been entering school and this made me explore future career choices. Since General Management was all I had done in past, a General Management seems to be the most obvious choice. IIMs/FMS/XLRIs offered good value for money prospects (ISB and US MBAs were too expensive for a govt. employee !) . That’s how I made to appear for the exams.

In hindsight, I think it was a good decision. However, perhaps I should have broaden my thoughts and also explored courses like MS in Analytics from some good US/overseas university to pursue fields that I like and had assessed way back in 2006 that they seem to have good future prospects in coming year.

2) What were the key aspects of your MBA exam preparation strategy, both for the written test as well as the personal interviews that follow?

Train operations is such a hectic role that I hardly had any time for any preparation. An old IIT friend advised me about test series, I think it was IMS series. So on free time in night or some Sundays, I used to do self-tests. I realized that all the truckloads of government paper work in all these years had made me very good in Reading & Comprehension and English in general. Maths was ok, but I had slowed down substantially. All my efforts were to increase my speed in maths and avoid silly mistakes.

For personal interview, it was more of a genuine self-discovery for me. I asked myself many questions which I think were genuine for my life and had my internal thoughts clear before I went to the interview. No training jargon, but one fundamental theme to my thinking was – what were my strengths and weakness. Sometimes, one get so much bogged down by your own weaknesses that you forget about your strengths. Many long forgotten persons, some many year younger to me, some colleagues, some college friends, even many of my very junior employees enlightened me about myself when they told me how do they see me.

3) How does the MBA course life transform an individual?

For MBA, I was back in college after 10 year – the distinction of having the “Oldest person in the batch”.

Most of the kids were 10 year younger to me. And boy, Brilliant. Super sharp. Having a perspective, which was quite different than mine. (Incidentally, my son and me started going school the same year !) . The shear thought of competing with these sharp kids was partly scary and partly motivating. I was “Birla ji” of the batch.

Old but not Obsolete” (as Arnold Schwarzenegger would say in Terminator Genisys, many years later.) was my only motto in the campus.

Thanks to being in campus after a gap of 10 year, I am in touch with the new generation, their way of looking at world and of course, “well connected” with the young rockstars.

Inside the campus, it was a challenge for me to do well in academics, competing against these fresh brains. My stakes were much higher. (My wife & son was at my in-laws place, partly because I could not have given them sufficient time, and partly because of financial affordability.) Quickly I recognized that I was slower than most of these young sharp minds. So in speed-bound tests, I would get some average results.

But IIM Ahmedabad gives ample scope in form of assignment/self study where pressure for speed is less. It gives an opportunity to overcome slower speed by way of sleeping less, more study hours, and may be less outings and other such distractions.

By the time I completed the course, I was a much more enriched person by way of exposure with young minds, some good faculty and many fantastic case studies, which I was able to co-relate with my past working life.

4) Can you please share an interesting experience in course of your post-MBA professional career?

The biggest exposure that I got in MBA was about exploring new things. It made me fearless to venture into un-chartered territories. This is what I have done all the time post MBA. An interesting experience was when I was in JSW steel, in the middle of complex structuring of Rs 5000 crore JSW-JFE deal (incidentally the biggest deal till date in India’s metals & mining space). In no time I found myself questioning our legal advisors as well as the financial advisors in specific legal and financial terms, which caught them by surprise (and may be with anger!)

5) In your view, what are factors a student must carefully consider before deciding to embark on the MBA journey? (Aptitude, career aspirations etc.)

Liking & Aptitude are the single-most factors that one should consider. The biggest problem is that a 20 something guy doesn’t have much clue about what he likes, or in which area his aptitude is. I think that is the reason many of guys end up doing MBA, which in my view, is more suited for generalist (unless you are into Derivative Trading or such specific task like that).

6) In a nutshell, what would be your advice to future MBA aspirants?

Follow your dreams. Perhaps you don’t realize that the world is a really huge place. It can accommodate every type of person and every type of profession. So listen to your heart (and mind).

MBA is for generalists. If you have a specific skill set, go and pursue it. If you are a cool coder, keep coding the hell out of the manager. If you are a singer, keep the world dancing to your songs. If you love mathematics, keep simplifying world’s problems with complex algebra.

Pursuing & Failing hurts much less compared to not pursuing at all.

(Just imagine if Deepika Padukone used to sit next to you in your class, you liked her but never proposed to her! Won’t it keep hurting you for the rest of your life!)

Whatever field you chose to go for, look for the best of the places – academics as well as workplace. Financially too, you will never be at a disadvantage in your life (unlike what you hear from media reports) because of your choice, provided you choose thoughtfully.

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