Poverty of Ambition

Poverty of Ambition

Roopen Roy

Earlier this month, the Chief Guest at the Convocation of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta was K V Kamath, Managing Director and CEO of the ICICI Bank. He gave an inspiring speech and assured the students that the economy was improving. He was optimistic that by this time next year, the economy would grow again at a 9% clip. On April 2, 2009 CNBC’s Jim Cramer announced, “I am pronouncing the depression over”.

However, the signals are mixed. In India, the Sensex crossed the 11,000 mark on April 13th- lifting hopes. But the US- which is experiencing the highest unemployment rate in the past 25 years- lost another 700,000 jobs in March. Are we seeing swallows that are harbingers of summer or is it a false dawn? More importantly, will it ever be the same again?

Several large global banks, insurance companies, financial institutions and businesses are standing on their two feet only because of the generosity of their governments who have used taxpayers’ funds to prop them up. Because of this turmoil, many venerable business schools and engineering colleges across the planet are wrestling to place their 2009 batch of students. In the recruiting arena of B-Schools in India, the public sector undertakings have emerged as the unlikely white knights.

While we seek ways to navigate through this economic turbulence, is it time to pause and ponder about the kind of money culture we have engendered and how it is influencing the career choice of our bright young people?

Academics, social thinkers and professionals around the world are questioning in a fundamental way the “ resource allocation” mechanism for talent. Elite engineering colleges and management schools have effectively diverted the brightest students from medicine, science, research, teaching, entrepreneurship and manufacturing to investment banking, financial engineering and IT. Is our education system and our business ethos responsible for this in any way ?

Dan Rather in his HDNet TV program reported that Wall Street has long become the destination for some of the brightest young minds. He contends that as the stock market rose, so did the interest in students who may have never taken a business class in their college career but were lured by the glitz, glamour, power and serious money of investment banking. According to Dan Rather the figures are truly staggering. At UPenn” 59% of seniors heading directly for the workforce in 2007 accepted finance or consulting jobs. And you may be surprised to learn that the statistic includes over half the students who graduated with engineering degrees –not a field commonly associated with Wall Street”. The same story repeats itself in all elite schools from Harvard to Duke to Columbia and in India from IIMs to Xavier Institutes of Management.

For engineers, MBAs and finance professionals, 2009 witnessed a radical change in their career opportunities both in terms of risks and rewards. Corporate India has experienced a severe demand slowdown for talent and heightened risks of involuntary separations. Imprisonment for alleged white collar crimes has emerged as an occupational hazard at the extreme end of the risk spectrum. On the reward side, we have seen compensation packages plummeting. Overnight, the sellers’ market has turned into a buyers’ market. We are experiencing an increase of risks and a decline of returns-both at the same time.

It is time to step back, re-think and debate. What does success look like to a young professional or manager? Does he measure his success by how he manages his business, how he innovates and creates value for all stakeholders? Does he aspire to be a guru in his chosen field of specialism? Or does he measure success only by the flamboyance his lifestyle?

Does he measure success by how much wealth he creates in an ethical way or how much asset he personally accumulates –never mind how? If living in a large house or being driven in an expensive car defines “arrival” –then there is a risk that high living and plain thinking will dominate our corporate landscape.

I am not suggesting that every single young Engineer or MBA should set out with the grand vision of changing the world. Some have always done so and no doubt will in the future. I am trying to make a different point. Our higher education system is subsidized by all Indian taxpayers including the poor who contribute in the form of indirect taxes. Is it not reasonable to question whether our best brains and smartest talent should by default go to the highest financial bidder ?Can we find ways in which we can create incentives and a cultural context that attracts our young people to pursue meaningful careers that contribute to society beyond the creation of individual material wealth and conspicuous lifestyles?

President Obama recently told the students of Wesleyan University “You can take your diploma, walk off this stage and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy. But I hope you don’t.....because it betrays a poverty of ambition.” I rest my case.