It was June 2001 and I had arrived in life. Or so I thought! Students had landed up at IIM, Calcutta with various objectives – to learn, to build their CV, to get an amazing job, to build careers and even to get a great spouse (not necessarily in that order)! I had landed there more through a process of elimination than one of selection. Post Engineering, an MBA seemed the next logical step in this (seemingly unending?!) exploration called life and so after a fair bit of effort and toil here I was at the hallowed portals of the premier Business School in the country.
The next 2 years were a bit of a whirlwind and amongst the best days (or daze?) of my life. Looking back I definitely learnt a lot at B-School but more than the subjects 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 happens and how successful organizations are built in the corporate sector. Somewhere along the way, with the hoopla we have created around the IIMs, we also started believing that we were the best in the country (of course life has a way of showing us a mirror!)
IIMs have been criticized for the disproportionately high focus on placements versus learning. Our brand at some level 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 batch to get the top jobs and salaries. As luck would have it the economy was in a downturn, 2002 and thereafter 2003 were really pathetic years for placements. It was a struggle even getting the entire batch placed and in that backdrop I was fortunate and blessed in landing up with a Day 0 placement at one of the top FMCG companies in the world. I had now truly arrived! (or so I thought).
The next few years were spent working in sales and then consulting across the world from a Raipur and Jabalpur to New York and Tokyo. From expanding the distributor branch network in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, to ideating on reengineering ideas for business units across the world to recommending manpower rationalization for one of the largest third party lingerie manufacturing units in Sri Lanka, the breadth of work was exciting, challenging and multi-dimensional. There was a time when I was only travelling business class, on international sectors and so early in life. Corporate life taught me a lot about structured thinking, taking accountability, keeping focus on the outcome (more than the process), communicating and presenting effectively etc. The commonality of purpose (profit, growth) was remarkable in its (unquestioning?) acceptance across the hierarchy within an organization and across different organizations. But there was something missing, at least for me. I didn’t know what it was at that time 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 5-10 years down the line it just did not excite me. Most people I’ve met in life really want to do something useful in life, add value and make a difference to this world. Different people find this purpose in different sectors and areas of work. For me it was clearly not in the corporate world.
So what took me so long to come to this realization that the corporate world didn’t add meaning to my existence. It wasn’t a sudden, I woke up in the morning 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 etc.) may not match with their personal definition of success (what makes them happy, what they want to be remembered for). We continue doing things which don’t necessarily give us happiness or satisfaction because we place more weightage to what society expects from us or defines as success for us. The day we decide to flip this balance is when we are finally able to make the move. And this day comes at different life stages for different people (if at all), some at the beginning of their work life some towards the end of it.
While taking 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, which particular sub sector (health, education, livelihoods, etc.) was I really interested in, what kind of work would I be good at etc. So like a true blood consultant I started by doing some secondary and primary research, doing pro, con analysis etc. trying to understand the sector and understand myself a little bit better. While technical and B-School education focuses a lot on understanding the external landscape, people would definitely benefit a lot more from spending time understanding the self – would help in making more informed and appropriate decisions in our lives and careers!. I started engaging with the sector by doing a variety of projects – in financial inclusion / microfinance, HIV and Nutrition, Impact Investment, education etc. I was doing what I knew best (structured problem solving, data crunching, budgeting, program management, communication, goal focused output orientation). I worked on turning around the supply chain of a HIV nutrition project to ensure minimum food wastage for a low shelf life food product and ensure on-time food availability for the children who needed it. It was satisfying like nothing I had done earlier. Building project implementation plans, I realized that I was able to look at things more holistically and identify relevant elements to go into such plans which other ‘technical’ folks were not able to do with as much ease. Clearly my management background was helping me approach things in a different way and helping me create a niche for myself! Was I finally arriving in life? Don’t know but I was surely on the right path and getting close.
The Author, Gaurav Shah, is the Founder of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM)