Exclusive interview with Professor Himanshu Rai, Director of IIM Indore: Journey from Corporate Boardrooms to Himalayan Heights. Discover his leadership odyssey and transformative insights.


When we think of today’s corporate leaders, we often envision them as MBA holders. But have we ever wondered why this is? What sets MBA graduates apart from others? An MBA programme goes beyond merely imparting skills; it focuses on applying those skills in real-world situations.

One of the most coveted skills developed in an MBA programme is leadership. MBA courses cultivate exceptional leadership qualities, which is why many of the world’s leading organisations are headed by highly capable MBA graduates. Let’s explore how an MBA enhances leadership proficiencies with Professor Himanshu Rai, Director of IIM Indore. Dr Rai boasts a rich background, having had leadership roles at IIM Indore, SDA Bocconi in Milan and significant contributions to Tata Steel, which brings a wealth of experience to one of the world’s top 100 institutions.

Prepare for a riveting journey into the world of management education as we sit down with Professor Himanshu Rai, the trailblazing leader of IIM Indore. He has not only steered IIM Indore to prestigious triple crown accreditation but has also conquered Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp and the stages of dramatics!

In this thrilling tête-à-tête, we unravel the mysteries of an MBA degree in the ever-evolving global landscape. Join us as Professor Rai, a TEDx speaker and bestselling author, offers a backstage pass to the transformative journey at IIM Indore. From the boardrooms to the Himalayan peaks, this is not your typical management narrative—it’s an adventure waiting to unfold.

Buckle up as we explore the visionary behind the title, a leader who scales mountains and challenges, both in business and the breathtaking landscapes of the Himalayas; access full conversation with PG. 

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Q1: What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in academics? 

Answer: I initially became an engineer since the options that we were exposed to when I was growing up were limited to engineering or medicine. While working at  Tata Steel, I discovered my passion for working with people over machines. Transitioning to Tata  Steel, I engaged in diverse activities, including mountaineering, and had a moment of epiphany on a Himalayan mountain – to make people realise their potential. 

While at Tata Steel, I also explored writing, contributing to an agony uncle column (in spite of its name, no, I was not an uncle but a young novice) and writing about my experiences. The positive responses inspired me to continue helping others. Contemplating avenues to make a broader impact, I initially considered writing a book but found academia more appropriate to fulfil my vision. My columns both in English and  Hindi, especially the latter directed at the youth, garnered positive feedback and contributed to my decision to pursue a career in academia. My aim is to blend ancient wisdom with modern knowledge to foster inclusive and equitable perspectives. 

Q2: You became an agony uncle before turning 30. How did that come about, and what’s the story behind this newspaper column?

Answer: I think it’s just a stroke of luck and the fact that people notice what I do, or as I am told – people find me approachable. Even when I was selected as the director, some felt I was relatively young for the position academically, though I keep telling them that I just look younger than I am. However, others saw my leadership potential. The newspaper editor noticed me speaking at an event and appreciated my passionate and practical approach. I’m known to be approachable and responsive, whether someone is seeking help or advice. Despite my initial scepticism, the editor offered me the opportunity to be an agony uncle, and the positive feedback encouraged me to continue. Even on my website, I had a section called ‘Ask Himanshu Rai,’ where people could pose questions, and the feedback was positive. So, it’s a combination of serendipity,  encountering good people, and seizing opportunities that led me to this role. 

Q3: Your willingness to engage with your audience through the Ask Himanshu Rai section on your website is commendable. How did you develop this approach to interacting with others?

Answer: I hail from a background that’s more rags-to-resilience than rags-to-riches. My father was the first from our village to secure a job as a factory supervisor in Kanpur, eventually becoming an officer before retirement. My mother’s family, displaced from Pakistan post-partition, lived in humble conditions—nine people in a two-bedroom setup. Growing up, my brother and I, along with a cousin, shared a room.  Despite our circumstances, my parents prioritised my education, working overtime and offering tuition to afford the best for me. In this cosy chaos, I learned humility, not from textbooks but from life’s classroom. Despite our financial struggles, my parents insisted on an education I couldn’t have dreamt of affording. Overtime shifts and makeshift classrooms in our home became the norm. I  grew up with my nose in books and my parents burning the midnight oil to fuel my dreams. 

This upbringing ingrained in me a natural instinct to help others. As a kid, I was the go-to person for anything academically perplexing or needing a well-crafted paragraph. My background also makes me attuned to societal injustices, especially regarding women, children, and the general art of treating people right. 

Q4: You actively promote spirituality as a way of connecting with oneself. Considering it’s an uncommon practice for many, how and when did you get into it?

Answer: Diving into the intricate fabric of my connection with Sanskrit and ancient wisdom unveils a rich narrative woven from the fascinating history of my family. At its core, my exploration is deeply rooted in a lineage where Sanskrit isn’t just a language but a heritage. My mother, the matriarch of my family, stands as a formidable Sanskrit scholar. A remarkable twist in our family saga takes us to  Dalwala, Pakistan, where my great-grandfather held the prestigious position of the priest at Katasraj temple, concurrently running a Sanskrit school for girls. This connection served as the initial stitch in the tapestry of my Sanskrit journey. My maternal grandmother inherited it from her father Pt. Krishan Lal Sharma; my mother got it from my grandmother; and I got it from my mother.

Sanskrit, not just a subject but my first language, flows effortlessly from my lips. The early chapters of my mother’s life unfold with remarkable swiftness—married at the tender age of 15. A prodigy in her own right, she birthed me at 16, setting the stage for a generational legacy intertwined with the nuances of this ancient language. The echoes of tradition resonate in our daily lives through the Vedic practices, marked by the rhythmic cadence of daily yajnas. Surrounded by the ambience of Sanskrit books, my childhood unfolded amidst the pages of profound scriptures like the Vedas and Upanishads. Gifted with curiosity and a formidable memory, I  embraced the verses, committing many Vedic mantras to heart. 

This early immersion wasn’t merely an academic pursuit—it became a portal into the realms of yoga and meditation. The resonance of Sanskrit, a language embedded in my lineage, opened doors to practices that transcend the spoken word, forming the very essence of my spiritual and intellectual journey.

Q5:  How have your personal experiences shaped your approach towards management education? 

Answer: My commitment to certain principles greatly shapes my leadership philosophy in the institutions I’ve been a part of. In addition to the conventional role of knowledge dissemination, I advocate for the practical application of that knowledge—an aspect often overlooked in educational settings. I’ve noticed a distinct challenge in management institutions managing themselves effectively and engineering institutions grappling with recurring problems. Aligning with my belief in practising what  I preach, our campus reflects well-managed principles through its lush greenery, streamlined systems, and uplifting ambience. 

Beyond the tangible aspects, my spiritual inclination, devoid of religious connotations, exerts its influence on the workplace environment. The creation of dedicated spaces like the Spiritual Garden,  Zen Garden, and Sound Garden serves as a testament to fostering an atmosphere that encourages meaningful conversations and personal introspection. 

Furthermore, a pivotal aspect of my leadership style revolves around cultivating a culture of responsibility. Swift acknowledgement and sincere apologies for mistakes, coupled with a strong focus on learning from them, form the bedrock of this approach. Emphasising the adherence to moral,  ethical, and institutional principles, I encourage a climate where experimentation is valued. This  ethos facilitates open communication, making me approachable even to junior staff who feel empowered to share suggestions, knowing that I am receptive to implementing valuable ideas. 

Q6: The rapid integration of AI into business education is notable. What’s your take on technology’s role in shaping business education, and how does IIM Indore adapt to these changes?

Answer: Innovation and technology, in various forms, have been present for years, but in the last decade,  there’s been a significant surge, especially in policies related to both. Specifically in educational institutions, there have been innovations in programme structures, courses, and pedagogies. Lifelong learning has gained traction, fuelled in part by increased interest during the COVID-19 pandemic when people had more time and opportunities for personal development. This trend is steering us toward a self-directed learning environment, requiring institutions, especially in higher education, to adapt.

Technology plays a crucial role in these innovations, enabling experiences such as online and hybrid learning. Virtual reality and augmented reality are also being explored, offering unique experiences like virtual campus tours to attract international students. At my institution, IIM Indore,  we’ve proactively anticipated future needs. For instance, we’ve established joint degree programmes, like the Masters of Science in Data Science and Management and an executive doctoral programme tailored for India Administrative Services and Indian Army officers. 

Our certificate programmes, hybrid classrooms, online studios, and asynchronous content creation reflect our commitment to leveraging technology for effective education. Beyond the classroom, we use technology to address societal issues, such as providing traffic solutions using Google satellite images; another interesting concept we’ve embraced is that of ‘digital professors,’ where international faculty can deliver courses online, fostering global collaboration. Leveraging technology as an enabler, we’re creating innovative courses like ‘Doing Business in India’ with industry experts contributing to the delivery. Pedagogically, the forced acceleration in technology during the pandemic has led to a blend of online and traditional methods, focusing on asynchronous content creation for a more flexible learning experience. 

Q7: It’s intriguing that you ramped up your executive education efforts in 2019 and then grew astronomically. Could you delve into how you accomplished this sixfold growth in five years?

Answer: One of the attributes I gained from my mountaineering experiences is a heightened sense of intuition. Mountaineers often develop the ability to anticipate issues and challenges, always being well-prepared. Applying this mindset to my role as the director of IIM Indore, I go beyond the traditional responsibilities and also focus on the institution’s financial health, looking at the P&L and ensuring a robust balance sheet, especially during a massive expansion project. 

For instance, when the lockdown was anticipated for just a week, I had a hunch it might be longer, so we stocked up for three months, which turned out to be crucial during the 67-day lockdown.  Similarly, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I quickly realised the potential impact on our revenues (rather costs) and collaborated with my team to devise strategies. Drawing on my experience of learning from various environments, I swiftly made decisions, cut through bureaucracy, and reached out to partners, leveraging personal contacts to launch programmes effectively. A key factor in our success is the unwavering support from our board, allowing for quick decision-making without unnecessary questioning. The one advice I’ve always received from my board is to slow down a bit, recognising the need for not overstretching and taking care of my health. The combination of intuition, rapid decision-making, a supportive board, and the willingness to learn from others has been pivotal in navigating and thriving in challenging situations. 

Q8: Adapting to new technologies and approaches can be challenging for many institutions, including B- schools. How have you fostered a culture within your institution that encourages professors to embrace new ideas and adapt to technological advancements? 

Answer: I always employ gentle persuasion, allowing people to interpret it as they wish. I believe in having many conversations but also in making decisions at the end. During mandatory academic council meetings, where various topics are discussed, I listen to everyone’s input and address any concerns.  At the end of the meeting, I make a decision, and fortunately, my faculty members, despite initial debates, follow the decision. 

Secondly, we are fortunate to have a younger faculty that is more open to changes. I’ve built a younger team of leaders, giving high administrative positions to associate professors, something that is not typically seen in an institution like ours. This reflects my approach to decision-making based on individual merit rather than rigid norms. 

The third aspect is communication. My team and I communicate regularly, utilising multiple channels. For instance, during COVID, our constant communication contributed to maintaining a low infection rate on campus. 

Fourthly, I don’t hold grudges or dwell on the past. I’m open to hearing a ‘no’ if it’s a reasonable objection. I understand that change can be uncomfortable, and I provide support and training, as seen in our transition to online education. We ensured faculty received training,  created ambassadors for online teaching, and established a cohesive visual identity for official meetings and presentations. In summary, my leadership style emphasises persuasion, decisive action, openness to change, effective communication, and a willingness to adapt to individual comfort levels. 

Q9: Given AI’s growing prevalence, how are educators adapting their teaching methods and assessments to incorporate AI into the curriculum effectively? 

Answer: For me, AI is an enabler, and when it comes to artificial intelligence, the emphasis is on actual learning.  Even our online classes focus on acquiring tangible skills, developing attitudes, and gaining actual knowledge. Regarding technologies like ChatGPT, there was initially a debate in my academic council about whether to allow or ban it. I likened it to the historical debate about calculators; once a technology is here, we must explore how to use it effectively. 

Take Google, for example. Initially, there were concerns, but we learned to curate and leverage it to our advantage. Similarly, we should embrace ChatGPT and find ways to use it in a beneficial way. Once questioned, asynchronous programmes have proven valuable for pre- and post-classroom learning, aligning with the concept of a flipped classroom. 

Another critical aspect is assessment. I believe assessments should reveal individuals’ capabilities,  not just their ability to answer specific questions. ChatGPT has accelerated the shift towards personalised assessments, moving away from one-size-fits-all approaches. It encourages a shift towards conversations and individualised assessments to understand what a person truly knows and can do, fostering a more adaptive and effective learning environment. Ultimately, adopting and adapting to these advancements will become essential for making the best use of available technologies. 

Q10: Your perspective is intriguing, especially considering the usual resistance of government institutions to non-normative changes. Can you briefly explain your decision-making hierarchy? Do you prioritise the institution or the professors? What key factors guide your decisions?

Answer: I am entirely driven by the institute’s mission, emphasising that we are a mission-driven institute where everyone, including faculty, staff, students, and alumni, contributes significantly. I have shifted away from the notion of being a ‘faculty-driven institute’ to recognise the importance of all stakeholders. Our mission revolves around being contextually relevant, maintaining world-class academic standards, and fostering social consciousness. 

Three key factors guide my decision-making process. First, I assess whether the action adds value to individuals, the environment, the society, or the community. This criterion must be met for any new initiative. Second, I consider alignment with our value system a crucial aspect of decision-making. Lastly, maintaining a culture of respect and dignity is paramount. I emphasise the importance of respectful communication, particularly from faculty to staff, as a core value within our institution.  These principles collectively shape the decisions I make. 

Q11: While India attracts many outward-bound students, it seems to lag in attracting students from abroad. What measures can India take to enhance its global appeal and attract more international students? 

Answer: One of the first things we need to do urgently is to enhance our infrastructure. Priorities should focus on making our infrastructure world-class. Secondly, we must reshape the narrative about our country.  While progress has been made, we need a stronger narrative emphasising that we are not just a market but also a vast talent resource. Investing heavily in research and skill development is crucial for this shift. The third essential is decisive leadership across all levels—national, state, and local, including institutions and universities. Lastly, curating experiences from visitors, such as short-term stays with curated insights, helps in understanding perceptions. Emphasising soft power, like yoga, and ensuring inclusive experiences through measures like streamlined visa processes and efficient systems are key steps that need consistent implementation. 

Q12: There is a global perception that students today are less inclined to work hard in their studies. How  is this trend affecting the educational landscape in India, and what measures are being taken to address it?

Answer: I strongly disagree with the notion that the older generation had it tougher or worked harder than today’s folks. Let’s be real—give the past generations smartphones, and they’d be glued to them just as much! Comparing different eras is like comparing apples and oranges; each comes with its own set of challenges. Now, the whole ‘people don’t read anymore’ drama? I call it a misunderstanding. It’s not that people lost the love for reading; it’s also that we’ve lost the art of writing good stuff! Where are the modern classics? If authors rely on ChatGPT and Google, can we blame readers for not diving into their work? 

Sure, Kindle made an entrance, but books didn’t vanish. I still want to feel the pages of a book, for instance a Wodehouse novel, not swipe through a digital version. And hey, TV didn’t obliterate newspapers, and  OTT platforms aren’t wiping out traditional TV. They’re all finding their cosy spots. And don’t get me started on the ‘short attention span’ myth. 

The younger generation can binge-watch ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Harry Potter’ without flinching! It’s about creating enthralling content. In my negotiation class, I focus on making the content interesting and relevant; this approach has proven successful. Instead of solely emphasising usefulness, understanding what people find interesting is equally important in the teaching fraternity.

Q13: How do you view the concept of involvement in classroom teaching, whether in-person or online? 

Answer: Absolutely, classroom teaching, whether on camera or in front of physical people, involves performance. By performance, I don’t mean acting but rather practising what you preach. If you talk about communication, you need to embody communication elements, such as Aristotelian rhetoric, ethos, pathos, and logos etc. You must sound passionate about your teaching, as any dullness will affect the audience. It’s crucial to teach subjects you’re genuinely passionate about, and that passion should come naturally, not as an act. 

Especially on camera, appearance and avoiding exaggerated actions matter. I’ve observed some sessions (and meetings) where during the entire session all you could see was the top of the presenter’s head! Such classes won’t be effective, and it’s essential to address these issues,  particularly post-COVID, as many executive education programmes have adopted online modes. So,  when I refer to performance, it’s about effective and passionate communication, along with appearing genuinely interested in the subject you’re discussing. 

Q14: You’ve emphasised the importance of engaging professors in making learning accessible and interesting. What key differentiators set your IIM Indore apart from others? 

Answer: Let me take you on a thrilling journey through IIM Indore’s unique identity! Picture this: a powerhouse of innovation where academia meets action. We’re not just an institute but architects of change, weaving through the tapestry of nation-building with gusto. 

Firstly, IIM Indore is known for its commitment to nation-building. Actively engaging in solving significant national issues, we collaborate with governments at various levels, operating apolitically.  Our involvement ranges from being an independent verification agency for large government schemes to working with state governments to enhance their processes, irrespective of political affiliations.

Secondly, our focus is on solving problems. I have often expressed my desire for IIM Indore to be recognised as an institution that provides solutions. Whether addressing traffic issues in cities or improving beat policing, we aim to offer practical solutions to diverse challenges. This problem-solving approach extends beyond traditional academic boundaries, and we actively contribute to addressing societal issues. 

Lastly, IIM Indore is deeply committed to being socially conscious. We address five significant societal challenges: income inequality, rural challenges, urban issues, environmental concerns, and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. Through various programmes, such as the Rural Engagement Programme and the  Anveshan Center of Excellence for Waste Management, and WASH (Water, Sanitation & Hygiene), we work towards creating a positive impact on society. Our dedication to nation-building, problem-solving, and social consciousness sets IIM Indore apart from others in our domain. 

Q15: Through your work with IIM, you’ve made a significant societal impact. What insights from your experience can you share that may not be obvious to other institutional leaders? 

Answer: One of the key things is that it should be evident to everyone that with an open mind and heart, there’s always something to learn from everyone. We strive to remain open to learning from others. Personally, I like travelling the world because I learn so much from what others are doing. I don’t claim to be the best simply because we’re Indian Institutes of Management with a large number of applications and limited seats. We have to evolve constantly. Learning from others,  embracing best practices, and acknowledging room for improvement are crucial. 

The second aspect is building great teams. Having a vision is essential, but achieving anything is challenging without a team aligned with that vision. For instance, the cleanliness and greenery of a city like Indore are the results of a great team’s efforts. 

The third piece of advice is to shut out the noise. Not all criticism requires a response. As an active social media user, I choose to contribute positively and avoid engaging with negativity. Ignoring unnecessary noise and staying true to your path is vital. 

Lastly, be value-driven. A steady set of virtues communicates a clear boundary to others, allowing for better collaboration and understanding. These four principles have been crucial to my learning. 

The measure of success has a personal and professional aspect. Personally, success is about the strides I make toward my vision of helping people realise their true potential. It’s an ongoing process, and even impacting one person is a success. Institutionally, success is achieving the mission—creating something contextually relevant, improving academic standards, and contributing to the social corpus every day. These, to me, define success. 

Q16: You addressed the professional aspect. Is there anything you’d like to share about the personal side, and if so, what does success on the personal front mean to you?

Answer: For instance, amidst my bustling schedule, I conscientiously carve out time each week to craft two columns, and notably, I have chosen Hindi as the medium of expression. This deliberate choice stems from my aspiration to establish a more profound connection with a diverse audience that finds comfort and resonance in the language. These columns are not mere scribblings; they bear the essence of my reflections on leadership intertwined with spiritual insights. 

The true measure of accomplishment in this endeavour lies not solely in the traditional accolades one might expect for good writing, but rather in the profound impact these columns wield. The triumph,  in my eyes, emerges from the feedback received—a tapestry woven with expressions of gratitude and stories of tangible change inspired by my words. It goes beyond the realm of literary appreciation; it transcends into real-life influence. 

Take, for instance, a heartening revelation from a reader who disclosed that my columns served as a source of unwavering motivation during a particularly arduous hospital stay. These anecdotes of tangible influence, where my words played a role in uplifting spirits and fostering resilience, define the true measure of success in my writing pursuits. It’s a testament to the transformative power of words and the potential for positive change they carry. 

Q17: What’s the magic of an MBA today? 

Answer: An MBA degree can indeed be a valuable tool for unlocking one’s true potential, but it is important to recognise that it is not the only path to success. Numerous other avenues exist for individuals to achieve their full potential.

As we conclude this insightful exploration into the world of management education guided by Professor Himanshu Rai, the panoramic view of IIM Indore’s accomplishments and the indomitable spirit of its Director leaves an enduring imprint. The journey through the prestigious halls of IIM  Indore, now adorned with the triple crown accreditation, paints a vivid picture of excellence,  innovation, and global recognition. 

Professor Rai’s unwavering commitment to leadership, ethics, and transformative education transcends the conventional boundaries of academia. His journey from the corporate corridors of  Tata Steel to the pinnacles of management education stands as a testament to the dynamic synergy between industry and academia. 

Beyond the boardrooms, Professor Rai’s influence extends to the breathtaking landscapes of the  Himalayas, where he finds solace and inspiration. His commitment to resolving conflicts among the youth through his personal initiative Centre for Conflict Management, and his engagement with global academic institutions showcase a leader deeply invested in shaping a better world. 

As we close this chapter, the narrative of Professor Himanshu Rai becomes a beacon for aspiring leaders and students navigating the ever-evolving landscape of management education. The saga of  IIM Indore, under his visionary leadership, continues to unfold, promising a future where education transcends boundaries, transforms lives, and creates leaders who leave an indelible mark on the world.

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