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Ashish Nanda’s global blueprint for IIM-Ahmedabad

Kala Vijayraghavan & Rica Bhattacharyya, ET Bureau Jan 21, 2014, 04.23AM IST

In early-2013, AM Naik, Chairman of Larsen & Toubro, took a private plane to Boston to convince a professor at Harvard University to take the reins of IIM-Ahmedabad. Naik, chair of the IIM-A board, could have called, but he wanted to personally tell Ashish Nanda why India's premier business school wanted him. "I wanted to look you in the eye and talk to you across the table to convince you," Naik had told Nanda.

Naik and a few others had done exactly that a few months back, when Nanda was in Ahmedabad to attend the 30th reunion of his IIM batch. Nanda returned, flattered and unsure. "How nice of them to consider me," he told Shubha, his wife. "I will send in my thanks and regrets."

Shubha, a practising dentist and a professor at Tufts Dental School, saw something else. "I thought it would be great for Ashish to take up the offer with a sense of adventure," she says. "And he did not need much convincing. Every time he spoke of his reunion, there was a sparkle in his eyes. Eventually, it was truly the spirit of learning, contributing and adventure that got him to return to India."

In September 2013, the 53-year-old returned to India and his alma mater, after more than 20 years. In the institute's 52-year history, Nanda was the first director to be hired from an overseas institute, and he came in with a mandate to take IIM-A to the next level—coveted by students and academics, sought by industry and respected by global peers. "I believe in global benchmarks," says Naik, who pushed Nanda's case with his colleagues and the government. "IIM-A, being a premier institute in India, needed new leadership to make it a truly global management institute that encourages diversity, thought leadership and research."

The breadth of that assignment is matched by the superlatives rolled out for him by those who have worked with Nanda: scholar, teacher, researcher, manager of academic programmes, global thinker...and, they add, pretty good in all those roles. Four months into his IIM-A assignment, an appointment offers a clue of what could follow in Nanda's fiveyear tenure.

Sharon Barnhardt worked on Wall Street, before doing her PHD in public policy at Harvard. In August, she joined the public systems group at IIM-A as fulltime faculty. "Ashish Nanda perfectly understands what makes research faculty tick because he's a great researcher," she says. "Ashish also understands how important it is to bring up the infrastructure and research environment of the institute to global standards in order to attract faculty and people from outside."

Academic Connect

Be it people appointments, orientation shifts or directional turns, 'global' is a refrain while discussing Nanda. It's for good reason, says Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School who has known Nanda personally for 20 years, and has taught and researched with him.

  Nohria cites the experience of an executive program they took together for a company that was struggling with a range of issues related to its globalisation. "We had developed a case study for the company, and it brought to the surface a range of tensions as the discussion unfolded," he recalls. "Ashish used the teaching process to help the participants navigate these tensions and recommit to a shared strategic vision."

Nanda will need to draw on such skills to balance a key challenge: adding new faculty while managing the old guard. During Nanda's days as student at IIM-A, between 1981 and 1983, the institute had about 400 students and a faculty of about 80—a teacher-student ratio of 1:5. Today, with about 1,000 students and a faculty of 90, that ratio has declined to 1:11.

Nanda wants to correct that ratio, but he wants to do it while improving quality: though a mix of young and old, Indian and global. IIM-A is looking to hire more professors in their early-30s at entry-level positions, like Barnhardt, and experienced faculty at senior levels. "They are bright academics who are intrigued by the idea of working and research in India, and want to build specialisation in the Indian setting," says Nanda.

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