Why is our success dependent on the business school we attend?

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriSep 14, 2015 | 17:46

Why is our success dependent on the business school we attend?

They are calling it the mass exodus. Over the past two months, three managers (assistant vice-presidents) have left the consultancy firm my flatmate Ravi works for. Reasons vary, from better opportunities outside to missed ones within the firm.

That loss does not include Atul, one of the managers Ravi is close to, though he has as good a reason as the next person to quit. He received a lead for a $90,000 project in Saudi Arabia which he enthusiastically pitched to the seniors. They shot it down, asking him to push the client for $120,000. That proved impossible and the project finally went to a rival for $100,000.


"You should have seen his face," Ravi told me. "And the expletives! Those I took some time digesting." Had the project come through, Atul would have completed his targets for this year. The performance-linked bonus, which makes up 25 per cent of his take-home salary, would have been a mouth-watering certainty.

It was inappropriate on the seniors' part. Their jaundiced response to Atul’s offer might be explained away by their eagerness to not set a bad precedent with the Saudi firm. One of his bosses told Atul: “We must negotiate to the very end, and then if they walk away, it’s not our loss.” That may sound sufficiently managerial, but if one considers the final price the deal went for, not to mention the exchange rate, the lost opportunity was a dagger through Atul’s heart.

Frequently, partners clear projects worth even a lowly Rs 5 lakh, if it is they who are selling. So the only legible reason for scuttling Atul’s offer seems to be a desire on his seniors’ part to keep him in check and ensure that he does not become too big for his boots. He is only 28 while most partners are at least 35.


From Atul’s position, the scenario reflects both a crisis of mentoring and an over-reliance on B-school cachet among consulting companies.

Even though there is enough and more wisdom streaming through corporate circles on the need to nurture associates, the reality is often disillusioning. While it may be premature to cast aspersions on the intentions of Atul’s seniors, it is not uncommon to hear stories of healthy competitiveness tipping into less salubrious territory.

The crucial difference, Ravi tells me, comes during game-changing proposals. So long as you are a helping hand in routine projects, no one grudges you your diligence. On the contrary, they welcome it. But the moment you are in line for something serious - such as working with a big client, or taking on a project in a completely new sector - you start stepping on a fair number of toes.

Atul was mentored by a partner called Sridhar. A brilliant consultant, Sridhar wasn't the greatest salesman. He could wow you with his business plans but had trouble spotting the right opportunities and got lost in the small details. Ironically, though unsurprisingly, he was part of the team that killed Atul’s proposal. Atul, Ravi tells me, combines the best of both worlds: he is good at leading and at dealing.


Now comes the all-important question: why is Atul not on his way out? And here, we need to go beyond office shenanigans and look at the way the market for consulting talent works. It is clearly split between the top firms and the rest. McKinsey, BCG, Booz and Bain only ever pick you either from campus (IIMs only, please) or laterally, at the consultant stage. And even then, not any consultancy, mind you. You have to be a rising star at a KPMG or an E&Y to get a shoo-in.

The consultancy Ravi and Atul work for is six-odd-years-old and has made a name for itself on dint of meticulousness. Besides, they are among the best paymasters in the sector. In spite of this, they are not counted among the top firms because upto 70 per cent of their business comes from market research, not considered "real work" in consultancy circles. When everyone is minting money, the stakes come down to prestige. Deal-making, where top brains crunch numbers and guide clients out of peril, is the sport of glamour.

Atul’s fast rise within the consultancy (he jumped from consultant to AVP, a two-step growth, in four years) has much do with his skill set, but he is still constrained by his past. A graduate of Wellingkar in Mumbai, he must live down his alma mater's lukewarm reputation. Besides, he must give up some of his exquisite perquisites (he is in the Rs 30-lakh bracket) if he moves to another place. So for now, he is going to suck it up.

Which brings me to my flatmate Ravi, who is dedicated, diligent, and dead serious. He has everything chalked out. He knows that he can only go so far in his consultancy, given the rather unique position of his firm. It's young and not a legacy player yet, for one. They pay well but don't (yet) have the most exciting order book. They are all smart professionals but none of them have an IIM stamp, which restricts their entry to one of the top dogs.

Therefore, Ravi says he will give his company another three years by when he is likely to be AVP (made likelier by the exodus) and then quit to do one of two things. Either join the corporate strategy arm of an FMCG major, a job he would be eminently qualified for given his background in consulting. Or, get into a more niche consulting setup such as HR (Aon Hewitt) or shipping (i-Maritime).

I can already see him lording it over his mini-universe of corporate success. I know he can deal with office politics but I still have my doubts about that other necessary qualification. I cannot help wondering if he, and Atul, would not be better off using their time and intelligence in a sector where success is not so dependent on the B-school one attends.

Last updated: February 09, 2016 | 15:48
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