Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mother Teresa and Prof.Bala at Shanti Niketan, Kolkata
      Second in my series on people who have influenced me, this post is about a true symbol of leadership and unconditional giving: Mother Teresa-this 4 Feet 10.5 inches Mother of all humanity. If following is used as a simple litmus test to measure a successful leader, then there is no dearth of that with Mother Teresa. This is well evident from the fact that Mother Teresa's ‘Missionaries of Charity’ which she founded had over 4,000 sisters, an associated brotherhood of 300 members, and over 100,000 lay volunteers, operating 610 missions in 123 countries at the time of her death. A truly charismatic leader, she has left us with a much better world to live in.
Women’s leadership and contribution are indispensable for the success and prosperity of communities across the globe today. In spite of many challenges faced by women world-wide, they continue to make incredible advances. The magnitude of a woman’s resilience and courage is remarkable.  And there cannot be a better example of this perseverance, power and true demonstration of leadership than Mother Teresa.
I was fortunate to get a chance to work with Mother Teresa for about 3 years. With the help of Prof. Alok Sen of MDI, Gurgaon and 2 MBA students, we fixed the entire Accounting System, Responsibility and Accountability.  I personally traveled to Kolkata twice for this work.  The donations to and from the charity trust were predominantly in cash and no one really knew how balances and reconciliation of accounts were done.  The Bank accounted only a part of the cash received since a lot of cash was kept in a security vault and no one had records of debits/credits and recurring balances etc. It was during this assignment that I had the god-given opportunity of learning from and more importantly - comprehending the phenomenon that is Mother Teresa.
To give a brief gist of Mother Teresa’s life, born in Albania in 1910, she traveled to India at the age of 19 to join the Sisters of Loreto, a missionary order of nuns. She served with them as a teacher for 20 years. At the age of 38, while traveling by train in India, she had a striking realization that her life's mission was to minister and help the poorest of the poor. With the Pope's blessing, Mother Teresa descended into the slums of Kolkata, and began the ‘Sisters of Charity’. Under her direction, the Sisters of Charity ministered to the sick and hungry of Kolkata.  Her ability to truly reach out to every soul in distress is commendable. I would like to liken her approach to the “Fish bowl” technique. She executed this flawlessly in learning about the poor – working in their environment, understanding them and empathizing with them. In my experience with her, I have always been amazed by her attention to detail and the fact that she knew every single thing about her organization - right up to the last detail! One can hardly expect today’s CEO’s to possess such thorough knowledge of one’s business, but there she was in life and spirit prompting me on ambiguous issues that I thought she would not even be aware of!
Showering love and food on all who came to the mission's doorstep, Mother Teresa soon became a local celebrity. In a very short time, Mother Teresa gained international prominence as a modern day saint. Her fame can be in large part attributed to the 1969 documentary Something Beautiful for God, which was filmed by Malcolm Muggeridge and his 1971 book of the same title. She was very media savvy. Sensing the impetus that media could provide her cause, she took right advantage of her new-found recognition to bring the attention of the world to the plight of the poor everywhere. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (having already received the Ramon Magsaysay in 1962) and the Bharat Ratna in 1980 and her position as the world's greatest champion of the downtrodden was firmly established. She has in her own simple way proved that whatever the service offered, (with requisite demand), the right set of people with respectable vision, adhering to the best ideals of values and ethics, using suitable strategies for marketing and promotion and capital collection, can deliver extraordinary results anywhere in the world. By extension, she became a truly global leader.
Despite all the media attention she received, she was steadfast and clear in her mission. She chose to spend most of her time with the poor and destitute - traveling to war-torn areas and drought-stricken nations in her ongoing quest to help and support the needy. She has also been instrumental in saving civilians by negotiating cease fires between warring nations. She was firm in her belief that it is not how much we do or how big things are but how much love we put in doing them that is more important. For instance, during my stint at Kolkata when I assisted with her accounting system, she would make sure that she had at least one meal – usually the dinner with me. Irrespective of my late hours, she would wait up for me. Our discussions on my assignment would never be just that – it would be full of jokes and sharing of experiences both related and unrelated to the topic on hand. Even at the end of a hard and trying day, fatigue wouldn’t set in! Another commendable trait was that she would ‘listen’ (not merely hear) to what I had to say. All these made the whole experience fun while at the same time productive and exemplary. On the one hand I see organizations (like Google etc.) today experimenting new and creative methods to make the workplace a fun place with a view to getting the best from their employees and on the other, I have witnessed Mother Teresa practicing this to perfection almost a decade back!
It is my view that if one really wants to give to society - to those who are not friends or, one should have some thing to offer; it need not be money, it could be service, education, time or effort or all these but the point of import is that such giving should be unconditional - without any return expected. Mother Teresa’s giving has always been full of generosity and humility to a point of being inspirational and divine.
At this juncture, I would like to introduce the idea that it was not only her Organization that she furthered. She always tried to make leaders out of people who needed the right stimulus.  If ‘Great Lakes’ has been conceived, it is partly due to her.  She was the person who told me that MDI was not enough and that India needed business leaders.  This led me to conceive the idea of a National Business School preferably in Mumbai in association with International schools like Kellogg and Wharton.  That is what created ISB and shortly afterward, Great Lakes, both of which rank among the top B-schools in the country. I am confident to say these two schools owe a deep debt of gratitude to the ‘Frail’ Lady with a ‘Strong’ Vision of passion and compassion leading to development of Great Institutions.
This one-school, one-woman organization, today has a global presence, millions of stake holders, thousands of well-wishers, multiple suppliers and contributors, perpetuity and in many ways has revolutionized delivery of service to the needy across the globe. Mother Teresa by doing what she did, so well, unwittingly set a whole new standard in the creation and management of a Global organization!
I have tried to remember Mother Teresa to the best of my ability, bringing together my best experiences with her and also highlighting those traits and endearing qualities about her that made her the world’s favorite humanitarian. I have also tried to trace the growth of her ‘Missionaries of Charity’ from inception to their position at the time of her death with a view to emphasizing that whatever be the ‘business’ of an organization, with the right leader and focused efforts – you can only win!
To be a Karma Yogi is easier said than done! This is a quality that only the noblest can hope to possess. Yet, such was the magnanimity and large-heartedness of Mother Teresa that she lived up to this ideal with amazing ease and grace. I hope to be able to follow the Big Steps made by her Small Feet! If I am able to achieve even a fraction of what she accomplished during her lifetime, I would consider myself blessed. Jai Hind! Jai Mother Teresa!

(Research and factual information courtesy Shriram Bharathan and Balaji S T of Great Lakes Institute of Management; Factual Information courtesy Wikipedia. The original article initially appeared in the NHRD network journal, April 2008) 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ganesha - the Ultimate CEO!!!

Think of Lord Ganesha and the following images pop up in your mind - pot belly, modakam, elephant face, trunk etc. These are also accompanied by our own myriad perceptions of his supremacy and universality. Thus, do you ever ever think of him as the Ultimate CEO? I recently gave an interview over a podcast on the subject, available at

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Man who knew way too much

It seems most appropriate to start my tryst with blogging (on sept 5) with a post on my favourite teacher – the one who taught me even after class hours; who went beyond the boundaries of the text book; who remains to this day a guiding light not only to me, but I am certain to all those who have come under his tutelage.

Dr.Gerald L. Thompson, was the IBM professor of systems and operations research, at Tepper School of Business (we called it GSIA in those days) was a faculty member since 1959. His teaching and research interests included large-scale linear programming, mathematical economics and management science applications. He published more than 150 articles in academic journals and has consulted for IBM, Bethlehem Steel, PPG, Bain, Westinghouse and General Motors among others. In 1976, Thompson received the Western Electric Award for Innovative Teaching from the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. The award was presented for the development of a self-managed learning method for teaching operations research.

I had to perfunctorily give you a brief bio of the person I am referring to in order to set things in context. To me, he was Gerry – my Ph.D thesis advisor. Generally, Ph.D. advisors are known to possess extremely temperamental frames of mind, and some of the well-known adjectives to describe them (including tormentor, sadist, disciplinarian, old-stick-in-the-mud etc.) are all perhaps well deserved! Jokes apart, Gerry was none of these. He was a genius - his complete mastery of the subject, impressive bandwidth of coverage, depth of understanding and above all his dedication and commitment remain in my opinion, unparalleled. But all this was not what made him a phenomenal ‘educator’.

All of his students without exception will recall him as being a kind-hearted and gentle person – you were sure to find a smile on his face any time you ran into him. But don’t let that fool you any. He was a shrewd man who sized up his pupils precisely and knew exactly how to spur them to great heights. Being my Ph.D guide meant that I got to spend a lot of time with him. This was in the early seventies – I was new to America, just finding my feet, married with a family and could barely make ends meet. He never let me make excuses. He had decided that my personal circumstances would not come in the way of me making something out of myself. Together we toiled and spent many a sleepless night slaving away at my Ph.D thesis and if it had not been for his unconditional support, steely determination and faith that Gerry had in my abilities, I would not have completed my MBA and Ph.D in a record duration of 19.5 months – (Sept 7, 1971 to April 14 1973).

While we were teacher and student on campus, off-campus he was my everything else – friend, mentor and father. My own father passed away in February 1973. I was in Pittsburgh with no way to make it to a remote town in South India in time to perform his last rites as the eldest son. To deal with such a situation can be crushing – to put things mildly. I have no idea what I would have done without Gerry to lean on to. He took the day off and took me to his home. He forced me to take my mind off the tragedy and we actually spent the next eight hours closeted in his study working on my thesis – only to be interrupted at meal times. His wife Dorothea took care of my wife and his daughter who was just fourteen then was in charge of my eight year old son. He saved me from drowning in my own guilt that day and thereafter and for that I remain eternally grateful to the man who taught me not only the principles of operations research but also redefined for me, the fundamental principles of life, education and living.

I went on to publish during those 19 months, six research papers and also won the Gold Medal for the Best Ph.D thesis in the ‘Operations Society of America’ in a world wide competition – both achievements find no precedence and are yet to be equaled.

I moved to Kellogg, Chicago and continued to stay in touch with him until he passed away in November 2009. I owe him a deep debt of gratitude – one that I cannot even hope to repay. He was not only my teacher – but also my life boat. He inspired me to be what I am today - he taught me to be a teacher and beyond that, an ‘educator’. If even a handful of my students think of me as being half the person that Gerry was, I will consider my job well done.

Dear Gerry, I adore you, admire you and appreciate all your help and kindness from the bottom of my heart. My friend, philosopher and guide, RIP.

(picture and bio courtesy: