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Leaving The Corporate Sector Taught Me How To Look At People As More Than ‘Resources’

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By Gaurav Shah, Founder of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM):

It was June 2001 and I had arrived in life – or so I thought! Students had landed at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (IIMC) with various objectives – to learn, to build their curriculum vitae (CV), to get an amazing job, to build careers and even get a great spouse (not necessarily in that order, of course)! Personally, I had landed there more through a process of elimination than through selection.

Post engineering, getting an MBA degree seemed the next logical step in this (seemingly unending) exploration called life. So, after a fair bit of toil and effort – here I was, at the hallowed portals of the premier business school in the country.

The following two years were a bit of a whirlwind. They were also amongst the best days (or daze) of my life. Looking back, I definitely learnt a lot at the B-School. However, more than the subjects themselves, 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 is conducted and how successful organisations are built in the corporate sector. Somewhere along the way, along with the hoopla we created around the IIMs, we also started believing that we were the best in the country. After all, life has a way of showing us a mirror!

Gaurav Shah, founder of the Indian School of Development Management (ISDM)
Gaurav Shah

The IIMs have been criticised for their disproportionately high focus on placements in place of learning. At some level, our brand 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 students, when it comes to getting the top jobs and salaries.

As luck would have it, the economy was in a downturn, back then. Consequently, 2002 and 2003 were really pathetic years for placements. It was a struggle for the entire batch to be placed in jobs. In such a situation, I was indeed fortunate and blessed that I secured a job at one of the top fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies in the world. I had now truly arrived (or so I thought)!

I spent the next few years working in sales, and then, consulting across the world – from Raipur and Jabalpur to New York and Tokyo. From expanding the distributor branch network in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, to ideating on re-engineering ideas for business units across the world to recommending manpower rationalisation for one of the largest third-party lingerie manufacturing units in Sri Lanka – the breadth of work was exciting, challenging and multi-dimensional. In fact, there was a time (early on in this life) when I was only travelling in business class to international shores.

Corporate life taught me a lot about structured thinking, taking accountability, keeping focus on the outcome (more than the process), communicating and making presentations in an effective fashion. Across different organisations, I found it remarkable that the organisational hierarchies unquestionably accepted their common purposes of profit and growth.

However, I felt that there was something missing for me, at least. At that time, I didn’t know what it was – 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 five or 10 years down the line, it did not excite me, at all. Most people I’ve met in life have really wanted to do something useful in their lives, add value and make a difference to this world. Different people find such purposes in different sectors and areas of work. It became clear to me that I would not find it in the corporate world.

So, what took me so long to come to this realisation? It wasn’t a sudden, ‘woke-up-in-the-morning-as-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) may not match with their personal definition of success (what makes them happy, what they want to be remembered for). We continue to do things which don’t necessarily give us happiness or satisfaction, because we place more emphasis on what society expects from us or their definition of success.

The day we decide to flip this balance is when we will finally be able to make the move. And if such a day does come, it arrives at different stages for different people – for some, at the beginning of their work life, and for others, towards the end.

While 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. I didn’t know which particular sub-sector of development (health, education, livelihoods, etc.) I was really interested in. Furthermore, I didn’t even know the kind of work I would be good at.

So, like a true blood consultant, I started doing some secondary and primary research and by analysed the pros and cons of the sector. While trying to understand the sector, I also tried to know myself a little bit better. Technical and B-School education focus a lot on understanding the ‘external landscape’. It is my belief that people would definitely benefit a lot more from spending time in understanding their selves. This would help them to make better-informed and more appropriate decisions for their lives and careers.

As a true blood consultant, I also started engaging with the sector by doing a variety of projects – in financial inclusion, micro-finance, HIV and nutrition, impact investment, education, etc. I was finally doing what I knew best – structured problem solving, data crunching, budgeting, programme management, communication and goal-focused output orientation.

I worked on turning the supply chain of a HIV nutrition project around, to ensure minimum food wastage for a food product with a low shelf-life, and ensure on-time food availability for the children who needed it. It was satisfying like nothing I had done before. While building project-implementation plans, I realised that I was able to look at things more holistically and identify the relevant elements which could go into such plans – something that the other ‘technical’ folks were not able to do with as much ease. Clearly, my background in management was helping me approach things in a different way and helping me create a niche for myself. Was I finally arriving in life? I didn’t know, but surely, I was on the right path and getting close…

Over time, however, I started feeling the need to understand the development sector a little bit better from the inside. Back then, it felt like I was just swimming on the surface and engaging with things at a very superficial level.

Many questions plagued my mind, and the differences between the corporate and development sectors started becoming more and more obvious:

1. What does ‘development’ really mean? What are the various ways of looking at it? What are the values underpinning ‘development’?

Different people have their own takes on ‘development’ and the elements it encompasses – economic, social, cultural, emotional, spiritual, moral, political. This gives rise to a lot of debates, discussions and arguments while trying to understand what the other person is really talking about.

2. Things weren’t as clear in terms of defining the ‘ultimate goal or output’ (compared to ‘profit’ or ‘growth’) and the ways to achieve it. While most people agree that ‘good’ education is a key factor for social development, there are multiple viewpoints on what constitutes a ‘good’ education. As a result, there can be many different interventions for making it a reality. While output parameters for an intervention can be identified easily, chalking out a clearly-defined ‘theory of change’ to produce the relevant outcome and impact parameters is, by no means, easy.

3. I started to realise that the development sector had a fairly different ethos, culture and identity compared to what I had been used to. Here, humans were no longer looked upon as ‘resources’ (‘human resources’, just like ‘physical resources’). Rather, they were looked upon as people having agency.

Financial incentives and perks weren’t the primary driving factors for performance. I realised that there were deeper reasons for people to be working here (in higher proportions than in the corporate sector). Decision-making and culture-creation in social organisations need to be based on values arising from this outlook – less hierarchical, more democratic, leading to consensual decision-making.

4. In this entire issue of defining and attaining outcomes, the process also becomes really important. 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 their lives, how do we engage and keep people involved at every stage of the work?

Once, we were designing a capacity-building programme for head teachers in government schools in one of India’s northern states. 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 programme, 50% of which was developed through a collaborative process. He said that 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 that statement.

5. 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 discharge of harmful effluents from my factory by disposing it in the nearby river (a common practice in corporate spaces). However, taking a more holistic ‘systems approach’ will tell you that as a solution, this is just unacceptable because it will create many more problems for the stakeholders around you!.

Or, while working really hard to improve the quality of education in a village/block, you suddenly realise that people with better education have higher/different aspirations. Hence, they start migrating to cities for better life and career options. Consequently, working on one issue has given rise to another, in which cities are not equipped to deal with this influx, while the villages are dying out.

6. Since this sector directly deals with lives and deaths of people, is there a chronology to a social change intervention? What should we do first, and what should be done later? How can we look at social change more holistically rather than in a siloed, sectoral manner? After all, an individual cannot be broken up into sectors – education, livelihood, healthcare, etc. At the end of the day, he/she is one whole person.

I started realising that as a consultant, I was able to engage with and provide inputs in fairly peripheral areas. But, if I aspired to actually build world-class social organisations to deliver sustainable social impact at scale, then I would definitely need to understand this sector better. I would also need to understand how to build appropriate organisations, design and deliver sustainable and scalable interventions, and build collaborative ecosystems to make the right kind of change happen and sustain it. Given the magnitude of the 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 re-imagining how we look at leadership and management in this sector actually came about. I envisioned an institution which could act as an anchor to catalyse the creation of an 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 as an aspirational profession, over time.

The one-year full-time post-graduate programme in ‘development leadership’ is being designed ‘by the sector and for the sector’. It will help produce leaders who can straddle both the worlds (of field and funding). These are people who understand development and can build strong, robust social organisations 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 started arriving in life – finally!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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