December 11 is Institute Day on the campus. The community foregathers at Louis Kahn Plaza. Awards are handed out to those who have completed 20 years of service, to children of staff and faculty who have done well in studies or in other activities. There is an entertainment programme with contributions from campus kids as well as students. There is a certain vibrancy in the air. In its 46th year, IIMA retains a spring in its stride. My thoughts drifted towards the man who made much of our success possible, IIMA's legendary founder-director, Ravi Mathai. I devoted my last ET column to him.
There's a puzzle I haven't been able to crack. How on earth did Vikram Sarabhai zoom in on Mathai as the first director? He was a BA from Oxford who had then joined the corporate world. Only two years prior to joining IIMA, he had switched to IIM Calcutta. He was all of 38. And he was called to preside over the collection of dons Sarabhai had already assembled. (IIMA was founded in1961, Mathai was appointed director in 1965). Says something about Sarabhai's talent spotting abilities.
When Mathai came in, he had a bit of a student revolt on his hands. The PGP had been started in 1964 and discontent was brewing amongst the students. Every evening, he would sit with the students in the open ground for hours, listen to them patiently and reason with them. The revolt died down. This is one of many nuggets about the man in a two volume collection of tributes to Mathai that is available in our library.
Amongst MBA students, there is insufficient appreciation of the 'soft' aspects of management. It is much easier to relate to the number crunching part. If you want proof that the 'soft' aspects matter, that culture and process have a lot to do with an institution's success, IIMA is proof. Mathai thought through these aspects carefully and he came up with something that can be called truly world-class. How to run an organisation of knowledge workers is an art- management guru Peter Drucker wrote a great deal on this subject. Academic institutions represent an extreme in the class of knowledge workers, so if you can make things happen there, you have achieved something. That is what Mathai achieved.
My column mentions some of the elements. I did not have a chance to mention how Mathai went about grooming talent. That was a time when it was not easy to bring in too many doctorates in management. Mathai's solution was to find people with a basic aptitude for academics and then send them over to Harvard Business School for a doctorate. They signed a bond, came back and served and, of course, had the option of leaving thereafter. C K Prahalad (a PGP product who joined IIMA as faculty thereafter) was one of the beneficiaries. Mathai reckoned that some people would leave. But even if a few stayed backed, that would be a big gain. And a few did stay back.
As I mention in my column, one of the astonishing things Mathai did was to step down a little after completing seven years on the job. He had everything going for him. Age was on his side. His record had been spectacular. He had terrific equations with all the major stakeholders. Kasturbhai Lalbhai, then chairman, and Sarabhai pleaded with him to continue as director. He could have been director until retirement. Yet the man chose to walk away from the job. Because he had thought through the governance implications very carefully.
Mathai had been careful to distance the Institute from government. This he did by making government one of many stakeholders with local businessmen and the state government being other stakeholders. IIMA is nominally accountable to the IIMA Society and it has an MoU with the government. That's how autonomy was ensured. He also made sure that the Board of governors did not dictate matters nor, for that matter, the director himself. He devolved power to the faculty by making the Faculty Council the principal instrument for decision-making. All key matters (even today) have to be brought to the Faculty Council for deliberation.
Which is all fine as long as there is a Ravi Mathai in the saddle. But not every director can be expected to be an angelic Ravi Mathai. In the present scheme of things, it is possible for a director to concentrate powers in himself with little accountability to anybody in particular since both the Ministry and the Board have been distanced from the decision-making process. Mathai found an answer to this problem: a single term for the director, after which the director reverts to a faculty role. This substantially addresses the problem of checks and balances on the office of director. All this is clear as crystal today. But for Mathai to have thought of it over three decades ago at the height of his success!
In relinquishing his job, Mathai lived up to the highest traditions of self-abnegation so greatly revered in this country. In many other ways, he set almost impossible standards of conduct. He instituted a rule (since waived) that the director should not be involved in consulting. He declined to seek reimbursement of his travel and medical bills. He never projected himself, it was always the Institute that got projected. I have heard that he was rather reclusive, locking himself in his house at the end of the day and mentally reviewing the events of the day.
The great thing about people like Mathai is that not only do they create the foundations for durable success, they also set standards for those who follow. It is impossible for anybody sitting in the director's chair to escape comparison with Mathai.