Business Today

The B-School bureaucrats

Is it worthwhile to explore a career in the government after B-school? A sampling of B-school bureaucrats answer an emphatic yes.

Puja Mehra | Print Edition: October 18, 2009

  • Bharat Salhotra (IRAS batch 1985) computerises the accounting system of the Indian Railways, dispelling fears that computer viruses are as lethal as flu viruses to dealing with apprehensions of the consequent job losses.
  • Ramesh Krishnamurthi from the Indian Revenue Service (IRS batch 1992), makes electronic filing of tax returns possible in India.
  • J.K. Dadoo , an Indian Administrative Service officer (IAS batch 1983), takes the lead in reclaiming for Delhi much of its lost green cover, expanding it from 36 sq. km in 1998 to 300 sq. km or 19 per cent of the total area.

What do these bureaucrats have in common, apart from having done some game-changing things? A Master’s in Business Administration. Yes, there are over a hundred IIM grads embedded in India’s famed babudom—at the Centre and states, in the IAS, IFS, IRAS, IRS, and even in the Prime Minister’s Office.

On campus, few had plans of joining the government: most either had lucrative job offers from multinationals or were working for them when the public-good bug bit them. Next thing, they were writing the UPSC exams. Many of these MBAs have since done pioneering work in the bureaucracy.

Don’t just identify problems, provide solutions too.
Challenge status quo, don’t perpetuate it.
Combine accountability, and discipline of business-world with diversity and rigour of public work.

So, did their B-school courses prepare them for government? Not specifically, said the B-school bureaucrats contacted by BT: but the grind honed their problem-solving skills, shaped their approach and attitude and taught them to set stiff goals.

“Being at Sloan was like drinking water from a hose pipe. I’ve tried to bring that super-charged atmosphere to my assignments in the Indian Railways,” says Bharat Salhotra (IIMC and MIT-Sloan, IRAS 1985 batch), currently General Manager for Finance & CIO, Dedicated Freight Corridor Corp. “I learnt to pursue excellence, stretch myself, go beyond the brief to deliver the best,” says Salhotra.

The general impression is that the bureaucracy treats its stars no better than its mediocre members, and there are no incentives for setting benchmarks. B-schools, however, prepare students to strive for distinction, and emphasise leadership.

“Sloan taught me to move away from the ‘command and control’ type of leadership to the kind where I realise that every person is hands and feet and head—not just hands and feet,” Salhotra adds.

NAME: J.K. Dadoo
IAS Batch 1983; B-school Alumnus: IIM-A
CURRENT DESIGNATION: Administrator, Lakshadweep
“Elementary skills such as balance-sheet reading that were not a part of my curriculum at the National Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy have come in handy”

Do it Now, Do it Well
Here’s another impression about bureaucrats: They are excellent problem identifiers, but reluctant problem solvers. The typical babu will give a hundred reasons why a decision cannot be taken, but none explaining why it should be. But in IIM-A, for instance, students cannot give up problems without designing solutions for them, thanks to the focus on case studies rather than lectures.

“They pushed us to take decisions and a project was not complete unless a decision had been taken,” recalls Safi Rizvi (IIM-A, IPS batch 1989). This cop, now Officer on Special Duty to Home Minister P. Chidambaram, demonstrated these skills in one of the most undesirable postings possible in his home state of Uttar Pradesh. In 1997, as an SP, he was put in charge of the police motor transport department. Rizvi streamlined purchasing systems and plugged bogus invoices to trim the annual expenses from Rs 5 crore to Rs 4 crore in three years, while at the same time raising the number of vehicles repaired by 22 per cent. By the third year, it was doing well and he recommended that it be sold and repair jobs outsourced.

Says Rajul Awasthi. (IIM-A, IRS batch 1988): “The first thing we were taught at IIM-A was if there is no choice, there is no problem—meaning that every management issue is a decision problem. Since civil servants are faced with decision problems day in and day out, the ability to analyse different choices in a systematic way, which is one of the essentials of a business management education, is extremely useful.” Awasthi, as the Officer on Special Duty to Chidambaram in the Finance Ministry in UPA’s last government, was one of the key contributors to the recently unveiled Direct Tax Code—Independent India’s biggest tax reform.

The Bottom Line
It’s not just the IIMs’ training in skills and goals; the curriculum also helps. B-school bureaucrats draw from their training, practical skills such as cost accounting, marketing, finance, organisational behaviour and human resources. “Elementary skills such as balance-sheet reading that were not a part of my curriculum at the National Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy have come in handy all throughout my 24 years in government,” says J.K. Dadoo (IIM-A, IAS batch 1983), now Administrator of Lakshadweep.

But the B-school “fit” is not the only reason that prompts MBAs to look for careers in the government. It’s the big picture: their batchmates in private sector jobs can at best hope to sell a few more watches, for instance, and add zeros to their pay packets. Such jobs cannot compare with those of the babus in largeness of purpose.

NAME: Bharat Salhotra
IRAS Batch 1985; B-school Alumnus: IIM-C and Sloan-MIT
CURRENT DESIGNATION: GM for Finance & CIO, Dedicated Freight Corridor Corp.
“Sloan taught me to move away from the ‘command and control’ type of leadership”

A dedicated bureaucrat can have a go at scripting the future of the country, at being the catalyst for turning policy announcements into action that can change the lives of the millions below the poverty line.

No Regrets
“The bureaucracy’s appeal is that you don’t have to kowtow to bosses and promoter/owners,” says Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, Vini Mahajan (IIM-c, IAS batch 1987), whose work in the 90s as the Collector of Roopnagar in Punjab bagged the Prime Minister’s Literacy Award for the district.

In looking back, would they have stayed on in their lucrative private sector jobs, given the red tape in the bureaucracy? For Nalin Shinghal, Director, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IIM-C, IRTS batch 1988), that’s a no-brainer.

“The same rule book that babus hide behind to avoid decisions, can also be a tool,” says Shinghal, an engineer from IIT Delhi who quit Tata Steel for the Indian Railways. Today, he presides over a third of India’s ecommerce— IRCTC sells 2-lakh tickets a day (2008-09 sales: Rs 3,900 crore). The record of i-tickets is even better: of the 25 lakh tickets couriered last year, only 190 failed to reach their destination in time. Not bad for the public sector.

Says Ajay Bisaria (IIM-C, IFS batch 1987), Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs: “It’s a myth that the government mindlessly flings you around to postings.” After a rigorous stint at the World Bank, Bisaria is now going to be a draftsman for India’s stand in key multilateral economic bodies like the G8, BRIC and ASEAN. “Political interference is hugely overstated. Unlike the profits and share-price-focussed private sector managers, even those who experiment and innovate enjoy immense job security in government,” says Bisaria, who hasn’t for a day during his career of over two decades been upset about the relatively higher private sector pay packages that his batchmates might now be commanding.

In combining the focus and solution-centric approach of management education with the rigour, diversity and vitality of the administrative services, the B-school bureaucrats get the best of both the worlds.

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