There is something about business schools. Since the economic crisis of 2009, there has been much negative press about MBAs and the institutes from which they emerge. Apart from the stress laid on the teaching of ethical behaviour, several commentators have questioned the rationale of a course that fills up smart brains with theoretical frameworks that are of little use in the real world.
Richard Branson, from the evidence of this book, would be one such commentator — of a sort. Like a Virgin: Secrets They Won’t Teach You at Business School is as much about B-school misses as about Branson’s personal recipe of success at Virgin. In chronicling how a company that started out as a record shop grew to be a global giant with interests in aviation, telecom and, lately, space exploration, Branson buttresses the commonly held idea that the group is an extension of his maverick self. All without an MBA degree, of course.
Branson is perhaps better suited than other business leaders to talk about himself because at heart he is a raconteur, spinning stories from his past and imbuing them with the glitter of remembrance and success. On how the Group came to be called Virgin, he recounts its origins in the 1960s, when the word was “still risque” (one would reckon it still is) — it was unique (no denying that), instantly recognisable (ditto) and not specific to one industry or region (check and check).
Short chapters offer Branson’s advice on questions that readers of his blog posted to him. From rookie entrepreneurs to hard-nosed capitalists, everyone will find something of value here. Sprinkled with trademark zest, Branson’s account broaches the customary questions: how to start a venture, where to look for funding, how to deal with errant employees, how to grow with a “human face”, and finally, how to do all this without foregoing a fun, dynamic culture.
The one thing that is apparent from this book is Branson’s great regard for the common employee. Chapter after chapter displays his commitment to providing the best working environment to the large brood that works for Virgin. On work arrangements, he advocates part-time jobs, job shares, flexitime and full-time jobs. He is a strong believer in the power of reward to nurture employee morale and develop better customer relations. During the downturn, he asked all chief executives in the Virgin Group to explore every avenue – job sharing, reduced working weeks, wage freezes, unpaid leave – before laying off staff.
This earnestness means that Branson has a real ear for business. In his view, one of the great challenges of the future will be running business without wasting energy. He writes passionately about his shock at the amount of energy today’s 24x7 work culture burns up and how, if we do not mend our ways, we are staring at years of turmoil. He is similarly sagacious about the other big problems of our time, and it is to his credit that he discusses sustainable energy and the war on drugs here.
This is not to say that he does not slip. Where there is success, there is hubris, or worse, mawkishness (to paraphrase Branson’s own mantra: “Where there is upheaval, there is opportunity”). Sample this: “I may have been indirectly responsible for iTunes and the iPod, which, ironically, ended up killing our music stores.” Or: “For me, leading Virgin ... is something I would do if there were no money in it at all.” Yeah, right! Branson is also not above throwing in the occasional jargon (“Be unapologetically disruptive”, whatever the hell that means), but overall his sincerity and sense of humour carry the day.
What, then, about B-schools? Branson may not have set out to do so, but his book ends up justifying its subtitle. As someone who started his first business when he was a teenager and continues to eye new opportunities in his seventh decade, Branson is the perfect embodiment of that adage: “Managers are born, not made.” He is one in a long line of business leaders – Dhirubhai Ambani is the most recognisable Indian name – who never went to a B-school yet whose success dwarfs MBAs’ by an order of magnitude.
There are several reasons for this. The argument that business requires formal education is a flimsy one. The accomplishments of the Gujarati business community give the lie to that claim. Unlike engineering, medicine or law, business education is non-specific and does not bestow any great advantage on the haves over the have-nots.
Besides, business schools foster a herd mentality by laying too much stress on success in written tests. This frequently leads to a marks-oriented mindset among students who hammer away at scoring high CGPAs. This is especially true for institutes that have a high concentration of freshers.
Further, there has been a singular lack of focus on generating new ideas in our B-schools. Only now are the Indian Institutes of Management at Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Lucknow incubating new businesses. No matter what education MBA institutions impart, if a spirit of inquiry and risk-taking is not fostered in students, few will taste the sort of success that’s routinely promised in B-school brochures. The kind that seems to come so naturally to people like Branson.
LIKE A VIRGIN: SECRETS THEY WON’T TEACH YOU AT BUSINESS SCHOOL
Virgin Books ; 343 pages