What does it take to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary? T. Krithika Reddy talks to Bala V. Balachandran, founder-dean, Great Lakes Institute of Management
Talking to Bala V. Balachandran, founder-dean of the Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, is like reading a how-to book on success. From creating and maintaining a personal brand to taking challenges head on with nothing but a positive attitude as his ally, this Padma Shri awardee offers several lessons on leadership and life in an engaging style that sets him apart from droning academicians.
During his recent visit to Chennai — one of his many sojourns that add up to five months a year — the continent-hopping Professor Emeritus of Accounting Information and Management at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, USA, pushes the rewind button on his life and four-decade commitment to education. “I've not opened up on my personal side before. There have been several life-changing incidents.” His warm smile complements the tender morning sunrays streaming into the spacious guest house in Tiruvanmiyur.
Beating the odds is something that comes naturally to Bala. He doesn't mince words while recalling the poverty-stricken days in his hometown, Pudukkottai. “We were very poor. Once, we were humiliated by a relative at a wedding because of our social standing. My teary-eyed mom pulled me aside and said, ‘Son, I want you to study and do well in life. But never treat people like this'.”
Bala decided to give studies his all. He graduated from Annamalai University and even taught for a while. In 1967, he left for the U.S. to further his academic pursuits in the University of Dayton. “My wife and infant son remained in India. Those were extremely difficult days. Initially, I used to lock myself up in my room and cry. Then I decided that if it's pain first it's going to be gain later. I went on with life and completed my Doctorate from Carnegie-Mellon University. In the meanwhile, my wife too came to the U.S for higher studies. It was a terrible feeling. I was in Pittsburgh, my wife was in another part of the U.S., and my two sons were back in India — one with my mother and the other with my in-laws! All along, I just kept telling myself, ‘look at the positives'.”
In 1973, Bala joined Kellogg's faculty. The roadmap was clear. “It was a new beginning. I leveraged my time and sweat for academic accomplishments. I'm a huge fan of veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan. His dialogue on education being a powerful weapon in one of his films left a deep impact on me.” Bala served as Chairman of the Department of Accounting Information and Management at Kellogg from 1979 to 1983. Later, he became director of the Accounting Research Centre and served there till 2006. Now, as Emeritus Professor, he continues to teach. “In education, there is no retirement. If you are passionate about something, there's only joy, no fatigue. So it's work in progress,” says the 75-year-old, who turned ‘edupreneur' at the age of 64! “It was time to give back. I had to leverage all the experience I'd got from abroad to open world-class management institutions in India,” he says adjusting the tiny golden brooch with India and U.S. flags on his shirt.
First, Bala helped set up the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon. Next, it was the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. “I sold my property in Neelankarai and founded the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Saidapet, Chennai. In two years, GLIM made such a name for itself that we were able to move to a sprawling campus near Mahabalipuram.” (Incidentally, GLIM is one of the few Platinum-rated campuses, what with its stringent green code.) GLIM's strengths are its faculty, curriculum and guest lecturers. “We get the best names, even Nobel Laureates to interact with the students.” A strong believer in values, the ‘not-for-profit' GLIM has a programme called Karma Yoga that's compulsory for all its MBA students. “Our motto is passion with compassion. We want AC-room-bound executives to experience slums, interact with and support poor people. Many villages near Mahabalipuram have benefited from this programme.” A visionary, he has also made learning of Mandarin compulsory. “I want our students to not just learn Mandarin, but also be aware of Chinese culture. With China poised for a big leap in the world scene, it will be useful to them in the years to come.”
After launching the Mumbai Business School last year, Bala is now busy setting up the Great Lakes University of Corporate Excellence in Bhubaneshwar. “It will be value-based business education with undergraduate and MBA programmes. We plan to open it in 2013. I've been invited by the Gujarat Chief Minister too to set up a management institute in Baroda. But I'm yet to decide on that.” It's apparent that he doesn't want to dilute Brand Bala. “If I lend my name, I should be totally committed,” says the professor, whom India Abroad named among the 50 most influential Indian Americans.
A big fan of Tamil movies, Bala took time off to pick up 60 DVDs during his recent visit. I went and watched ‘Deivathirumagal' and was moved by it. I'm a big fan of Sivaji and Rajnikanth. We have a lot to learn from our movies and our stars.”
Bala's belief in communication as a tool to connect, rather than make a statement, is evident. As he relates anecdotes and parables, it's almost noon, and you haven't realised it! “Lord Ganesha is my ultimate CEO. And I often talk to students about the LSD Quotient — Lakshmi for wealth that will help you serve, Saraswathi for knowledge that's empowerment, and Durga for courage that will enable you to take risks. In life, there's this constant conflict between emotional quotient and intelligence quotient. I wish to balance the two.”
*DVDs such as Little Einsteins have always fascinated me. I plan to involve myself in bringing out similar DVDs that educate children effortlessly. It will be a part of the AIM for Seva project initiated by Swami Dayananda.
*I also plan to write a how-to book for parents. It will deal with shaping the minds of children in their formative years. I think the first 12 years in a child's life is very important. It lays the foundation for his/her future. It's important to inculcate good manners, discipline and compassion. Be strict without being dictatorial. I call it ‘tough love.'
*I'm also co-authoring a book on the softer side of software giants with my student. We plan to get into the life-changing incidents and the formative years of their lives.