My Journey from the IIMs to the Development Sector
It was June 2001 and I had arrived in life. Or so I thought! Students had landed up at IIMC with various objectives – to learn, to build their CV, to get an amazing job, to build careers and even to get a great spouse (not necessarily in that order)! I had landed there more through a process of elimination than one of selection.
Post Engineering, an MBA seemed the next logical step in this (seemingly unending?!) exploration called life and so after a fair bit of effort and toil here I was at the hallowed portals of the premier Business School in the country.
The next 2 years were a bit of a whirlwind and amongst the best days (or daze?) of my life. Looking back I definitely learnt a lot at B-School but more than the subjects I learnt how to work in teams, hold my own amongst some of the best brains in the country, work under pressure (time and performance) etc. We had some outstanding professors and under their guidance we developed a fairly holistic understanding of how business happens and how successful organizations are built in the corporate sector. Somewhere along the way, with the hoopla we have created around the IIMs, we also started believing that we were the best in the country (of course life has a way of showing us a mirror!)
IIMs have been criticized for the disproportionately high focus on placements versus learning. Our brand at some level is derived from the nature of jobs and salaries our students get. While this is great, it also puts a lot of undue societal pressure on the batch to get the top jobs and salaries. As luck would have it the economy was in a downturn, 2002 and thereafter 2003 were really pathetic years for placements. It was a struggle even getting the entire batch placed and in that backdrop I was fortunate and blessed in landing up with a Day 0 placement at one of the top FMCG companies in the world. I had now truly arrived! (or so I thought).
The next few years were spent working in sales and then consulting across the world from a Raipur and Jabalpur to New York and Tokyo. From expanding the distributor branch network in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, to ideating on reengineering ideas for business units across the world to recommending manpower rationalization for one of the largest third party lingerie manufacturing units in Sri Lanka, the breadth of work was exciting, challenging and multi-dimensional. There was a time when I was only travelling business class, on international sectors and so early in life. Corporate life taught me a lot about structured thinking, taking accountability, keeping focus on the outcome (more than the process), communicating and presenting effectively etc. The commonality of purpose (profit, growth) was remarkable in its (unquestioning?) acceptance across the hierarchy within an organization and across different organizations. But there was something missing, at least for me. I didn’t know what it was at that time but in retrospect I think I was missing a soul, a purpose and a larger life vision. When I saw what I would be doing 5-10 years down the line it just did not excite me. Most people I’ve met in life really want to do something useful in life, add value and make a difference to this world. Different people find this purpose in different sectors and areas of work. For me it was clearly not in the corporate world.
So what took me so long to come to this realization. It wasn’t a sudden, I woke up in the morning a new man, kind of epiphany. It was a thought process which evolved over many years and through a lot of experimentation. For a lot of people, the societal definition of success (money, power, fame etc.) may not match with their personal definition of success (what makes them happy, what they want to be remembered for). We continue doing things which don’t necessarily give us happiness or satisfaction because we place more weightage to what society expects from us or defines as success for us. The day we decide to flip this balance is when we are finally able to make the move. And this day comes at different life stages for different people (if at all), some at the beginning of their work life some towards the end of it.
While taking the decision to move from the corporate to the social development sector was really liberating, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what I really wanted to do in the development sector, which particular sub sector (health, education, livelihoods, etc.) was I really interested in, what kind of work would I be good at etc. So like a true blood consultant I started by doing some secondary and primary research, doing pro, con analysis etc. trying to understand the sector and understand myself a little bit better (While technical and B-School education focuses a lot on understanding the external landscape, people would definitely benefit a lot more from spending time understanding the self – would help in making more informed and appropriate decisions in our lives and careers!). And as a true blood consultant I started engaging with the sector by doing a variety of projects – in financial inclusion / microfinance, HIV and Nutrition, Impact Investment, education etc. I was doing what I knew best (structured problem solving, data crunching, budgeting, program management, communication, goal focused output orientation). I worked on turning around the supply chain of a HIV nutrition project to ensure minimum food wastage for a low shelf life food product and ensure ontime food availability for the children who needed it. It was satisfying like nothing I had done earlier. Building project implementation plans, I realized that I was able to look at things more holistically and identify relevant elements to go into such plans which other ‘technical’ folks were not able to do with as much ease. Clearly my management background was helping me approach things in a different way and helping me create a niche for myself! Was I finally arriving in life? Don’t know but I was surely on the right path and getting close…
Over time, however, I started feeling the need to understand the development sector a little better from the inside. It almost felt like I was just swimming on the surface and engaging with things at a very superficial level. There were many questions which came to mind and differences between the corporate and development sector started becoming more and more obvious
• What does ‘development’ really mean? what are the various ways of looking at it, what are the values underpinning development etc. Different people have their own take on ‘development’ and the elements it encompasses – economic, social, cultural, emotional, spiritual, moral, political – and that gives rise to a lot of debate, discussions and arguments to even begin to understand what the other person is really talking about.
• Things weren’t as clear in terms of defining the ultimate goal or output (compared to profit or growth) and the way to achieve that. While most people agree that ‘good’ education’ is a key factor for social development, there are multiple viewpoints on what constitutes a ‘good’ education and thereby many different interventions for making that a reality. While output parameters for an intervention can be identified easily, chalking out a clearly defined theory of change which translates that into relevant outcome and impact parameters is by no means easy
• I started realizing that this sector has a fairly different ethos, culture, identity compared to what I was used to. Humans are no longer looked upon as ‘resources’ (human resources, like physical resources) but as people who have agency. Financial incentives and perks are no longer the primary factors drivers for performance, there are deeper reasons for people to be working here (in higher proportion than in the corporate sector). Decision making and culture creation in social organizations needs to be based on values arising from this outlook on human beings (less hierarchical, more democratic, driving consensual decision making).
• In this entire issue of defining and attaining outcomes, the process also becomes really important and therefore goal orientation needs to be supplemented with an insight into the appropriate and acceptable way of getting there. Given that we are dealing with people and lives, how do we engage and keep people involved at every stage of the work. We were once designing a capacity building programme for Government School Head teachers in one of the northern States in India. As a consultant, I had suggested that we should design the programme internally and roll it out to the government since it would give us the best chance of designing something first rate. The team lead told me that he was actually happy with a 50% programme developed out of a collaborative process since it would have a higher chance of acceptance rather than a 100% internally developed programme which would be a non-starter. It took me a while to accept the wisdom in this statement.
• The problems themselves required a fairly non-linear and multi factor problem solving thought process and approach (“Wicked Problems”). One needs to be able to take a systems thinking approach to define issues and evaluate solutions in this space. Simplistically, I can solve the issue of harmful effluents from my factory by disposing it in the nearby river (a common practice in the corporate space), but taking a more holistic systems approach will tell you that this is just unacceptable as a solution as it will create many more problems for the stakeholders around you!. Or, you work really hard to solve the ‘quality of education’ issue in a village / block to suddenly realize that people with better education have higher/different aspirations and they start migrating out to cities for better life options. So working on one issue has given rise to another where cities are not equipped to deal with this influx and villages are dying out.
• Since this sector corely / directly deals with lives and deaths of people, is there a chronology to a social change intervention? What do we do first and what later? How can we look at social change more holistically rather than in a silo’ed sectoral manner. After all, an individual cannot be broken up differently into education,, livelihood, healthcare etc. He/She is one whole person.
I started realizing that as a consultant, I was able to engage and provide inputs in fairly peripheral areas but if I had the ambition and aspiration of actually building world class social organizations to deliver sustainable social impact at scale then I definitely needed to understand this sector better and also understand how to build appropriate organizations, design and deliver sustainable and scalable interventions and build collaborative ecosystems to make the right kind of change happen and stick. Given the magnitude of issues at hand and the number of lives at stake, god knows we need to be much more collaborative and systems driven.
This is how the idea of actually setting up a world class educational institution devoted to reimagining how we should look at leadership and management for this sector actually came about – an institution which could act as an anchor to catalyse the creation of entire ecosystem around Development Management and help establish it as a discipline with its own unique body of knowledge derived from working on the ground with practitioners and over time as an aspirational profession.
The 1 year full time PGP in Development Leadership is being designed by the sector for the sector and will help produce leaders who can straddle both the worlds (field and funding) – people who understand development and can build strong, robust social organizations with the appropriate strategy, structure, process, systems and culture so as to deliver good quality sustainable social impact at scale.
I feel that I have now (finally…phew!) started arriving in life…!