Not that I have spent a lot of years on the planet, but the best people I have ever worked with were broadly of two types --- they were either driven by a higher sense of purpose that they had attached to their professions early in their careers or they were just very hard working and disciplined, a quality developed and conditioned over many years.
Prima facie, these seem like commonplace characteristics, considering how many people write such lines in resumes to describe themselves. But anybody who has ever recruited another person for a job knows how they are plain lies 99% of the time.
Take for example, the oft-mentioned quality of being passionate about something. If somebody said that to me in an interview, I would be curious and pry further to look for evidence of the person having followed that passion for a sufficiently long time and reached a fair level of competitive expertise in it.
It's astonishing how widely the word 'passion' is abused. 'Passion about travel' turns out to be a total of two trips to some obvious destinations, 'passionate about photography' turns out to be the ability of owning a camera and operating Photoshop, 'passion for reading' turns out to be a total of three bestseller books read in one year and 'passionate about sports' turns out to be the infinite patience required to sit in front of a TV screen. We need to travel backward in time to that cusp of our existence when the first individual successfully fooled an employer by writing 'listening to music' and 'going on long drives' as hobbies and isolate him from the rest of our race.
Similarly, claims about being 'hardworking' become questionable when little about one's past substantiates it --- especially academic scores for somebody who is too young to have worked in a fulltime job.
That explains the wild popularity of the Common Admissions Test (CAT) of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) until a couple of years ago. For those with modest acads in school and college, it was a chance at academic redemption. Like modular furniture, one could mix-and-match a range of test percentiles and short-term activities and projects to give a facelift their academic suitability without really having to be the person that b-schools were looking for.
Average past academics? Score a hit-and-run high percentile in the CAT. B-schools want experience of giving back to society? Join a community service programme to the extent of garnering a certificate. Have no hobbies? Manufacture something up. Something as fundamentally important as being aware about the world around us has become trivialised to a subject called 'general knowledge' that can be 'learned' at the last minute using 'GK guides'. None of this of course means that someone is hardworking, altruistic, interesting or aware, it is merely constructing a strawman of what one is not.
That this 'strawman farce' has worked at job and admission interviews is really a sign of how urgently business in India was trying to scale up before the recession of 2008 poured cold water over it.
Two things have changed since then. First, the economic recession has transformed the job market fundamentally, as it has the way companies think about work. Indian companies now want more inclusive workforces with more women and more diversity. Second, the best b-schools in India have nearly doubled their intakes (to make up for seats transferred to the reserved class quotas) just at a time when companies were changing their requirements. Not only do they have to make more number of students employable, they are having to do so at a time when employment is looking like it would be a buyer's market for a long time to come.
Our top b-schools, IIMs included, have been responding to this by changing their admission criteria to place more emphasis on past academic scores and granting measured walkovers to non-engineers and women. In my view, this is a step too late but a step in the right direction nevertheless. For a skill that relies so much on developing good judgment and getting work done with people who are not necessarily like yourself, it is shocking how unidimensional our topmost management education classrooms are, filled as they are often with 90% or more engineers. In order to prepare for working in diverse workforces, studying in diverse classrooms and learning to make peace with diametrically opposite viewpoints --- the 'poets' and the 'quants' --- is a logical first step.
One common lament about the IIM admissions system before 2009 used to be that it was the world's largest annual rejection exercise. Rather than rewarding candidates for what they were, the system was a brute-force pruning routine that started with 2.5 lakh and ended with 1,500, with every stage obsessing more over rejecting applicants based on a percentile here, a wrong answer there than rewarding qualities in people found at the edges.
The new emphasis on past academics for the first time rewards those candidates who have demonstrated the ability to be consistently hardworking throughout their pre-adult life. Not once during CAT, but four times --- through class 10th, 12th, graduation AND the CAT. Our school evaluation systems may have many flaws and getting good marks in class 10th and 12th may be a saga of mugging up, but everyone forgets that even the mugging up does not come free, it requires hard work and discipline, and it is this demonstrated quality of being a reliable and sincere operator that the b-schools have begun rewarding.
One comes across a lot of opposition to the newfound importance placed on academics by the IIMs, with the common refrain being that 'the candidates have been punished for their past sins'. But those who are in the business of hiring know that past evidence of performance is usually a safer bet than the one-hit-wonder promise. If someone has been a slacker for 20 years, chances that an isolated 99 percentile in the CAT is going to change the basic personality type are low. In a country that has ambitions of competing internationally, the industry needs to and should be entitled to placing these safer bets.
In all the anger directed at the 'unfairness' to candidates, the issue is rarely looked at from the other side. If as a country we have invested billions and decades in creating excellent institutions of learning with a high-quality professorial class, aren't these institutes also entitled to admitting those students who are more likely to do justice to all that investment, purely from a resource utilisation point of view?
Published research studies such as those by Dr Baldev Sharma of Delhi's International Management Institute have shown that there is very low correlation between CAT scores (during the paper-pencil days) and actual academic performance inside b-school (The Common Admission Test: An Empirical Test of its Validity, Baldev Sharma and V Chandra, Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, October 2010). Some b-schools have gone a step ahead and performed informal studies to find that there is high correlation between one's past academic scores and b-school GPA.
I therefore think that the underlying premise of cutting the CAT down to size and rewarding candidates with consistent performance since childhood is a sound one. Admission processes should further be opened up to be more inclusive, that reward genuine interests and sincerity as demonstrated by past history and ends the 'strawman farce' so prevalent among our younger population. It would go a long way in having a trickle-down effect in which youngsters --- at least those who are interested in a great education in the future --- do more with their lives at a younger age and stop treating themselves like modular furniture.
At the same time, b-schools should phase themselves out of the 'weightage obsession' and begin subjective evaluation of candidates. Applicants should be asked to substantiate their need for great management education in essays or interviews and be asked to back their claims up with past evidence and depth. On their part, b-schools should start looking at admissions in terms of 'composing' a diverse class rather than 'selecting' it. They should employ younger professorial talent in their admission teams who are more in tune with the current generation and take genuine interest in understanding the story of each applicant rather than a bunch from the old guard who view candidates as cattle from the millennial generation to be selected on the basis of trivialised numerical measures and cutoffs.