New Delhi: Dipak C. Jain’s first big responsibility as dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University was to welcome the incoming batch of 2001. He was 15 minutes into his presentation to an audience of 600 students when an aide interrupted him and whispered something in his ear.

“I was told that there has been a terrorist attack on US soil and I would need to shut up before the cellphones start ringing," Jain, 58, recalled in a recent interview on the sidelines of the Coimbatore-based Isha Foundation’s annual Insight: The DNA of Success programme for entrepreneurs.

The first plane had just hit the World Trade Center on a day that has come to be known simply as 9/11. It was certainly not a propitious beginning for the newly appointed dean of a business school consistently ranked among the world’s best.

Jain realized quickly that he had a crisis on his hands. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would have a fallout on the US economy, jobs would be at risk and placements for Kellogg’s Class of 2002 wouldn’t be easy, he reckoned. He drew on a quality he says every business manager has to possess: the ability to anticipate.

Over the coming weeks and months, Jain paid a visit to every Kellogg recruiter to make a case for the Class of 2002. The Evanston, Illinois-based B-school had 91% of its graduates placed in jobs—the highest recruitment rate for any US-based management institute that year.

“The recruiters remembered that the dean personally came to meet them—it wasn’t a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. They didn’t stop recruiting from us," said Jain, who’s now director of the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “The ability to anticipate means you have to be proactive rather than reactive."

Kellogg won the best B-school ranking and Jain a flattering write-up in Businessweek—now Bloomberg Businessweek.

Kellogg reclaimed the No. 1 ranking in 2002 for the first time in a decade. According to Businessweek, Kellogg’s “go-to-any-lengths culture" was a key factor in returning it to the top spot.

That was a vindication of the trust reposed in Jain by Kellogg’s selection committee, which picked him as dean in 2000, 14 years after he had joined the faculty, and his legendary predecessor Donald P. Jacobs, who had given him an edge in the race for the top job by choosing him as associate dean.

“To me, it speaks of courage on the part of the committee," says Jain. “When Dean Jacobs announced my appointment, he said other candidates were considered but the committee chose me because of my performance. Here I was, a non-American, non-flashy guy, with not much corporate exposure. It was a major shift—remember that most people in the school had seen only one dean, Jacobs, who was dean for 26 years."

By choosing Jain as associate dean in 1996 although he hadn’t been a head of department, Jacobs had already created a stir on the Kellogg campus and set a precedent for unconventional appointments, and that’s an example of another business tenet that Jain upholds—the need to build trust.

“Dean Jacobs picked me as associate dean because he saw I was very committed to teaching; he saw I was a good researcher and a good teacher, and he had trust in me," Jain says. “For a person, it’s very important to build trust. Competencies can be outsourced, not trust. You can hire McKinsey (& Co.) and get competent people to do a job. That (trust) is what dean Jacobs had in me."

Jain spent eight years as dean of Kellogg. Between Kellogg and Sasin came a stint as dean of INSEAD, from May 2011 to March 2013—a job he chose because he was intrigued by the concept of a one-year MBA. INSEAD’s board chose Jain “to lead INSEAD into what is fast becoming a new global economic climate—one in which emerging markets are growing at a faster rate than the industrialised mature economies of Europe and North America," then chairman Franz Humer said while announcing his appointment in 2010.

At the Isha Foundation workshop for entrepreneurs in the last week of November at Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s ashram in Coimbatore, Jain replaced business guru Ram Charan, who had served as the academic anchor of the event in past years.

Jain is easy-going and accessible to everyone, from 20-something start-up founders and ageing patriarchs of family-owned businesses to students who come to him for advice on what career path to take. He walks with the support of a cane because of a bad hip that requires replacement—when he has the time.

The bad hip is a result of steroids he had to take in therapy for tumours that he developed during his stint at INSEAD, which forced him to give up the dean’s job and go back to a teacher’s.

In his presentation at the conference, he stresses these points:

—Before we are customer-centric, we need to be employee-centric; once the chairman of a hotel company told me the bellboy was the most important person because he makes the first impression on a customer.

—Delivery of the brand promise is what finally makes it a brand. Don’t cheat on what you promised.

—When people say something, don’t take it negatively. We all need feedback. A football coach once said, “I only yell at someone in whom I see potential".

—There is one thing that prevents collaboration. It’s ego.

—Never forget people who helped you.

Comparisons with Ram Charan are inevitable.

“Both Prof Ram Charan and Prof Dipak Jain are two of the most influential management gurus that have come out of India," commented Jeby Cherian, former managing partner, IBM Global Business Services, India & South Asia, who is working with Isha Foundation on various initiatives including establishing a leadership academy, for which Jain is designing the curriculum.

“Both are pioneers in their field—Ram Charan was the first recognized CEO coach and consultant and Dr Dipak Jain was one of the first, if not the first, to become the dean of a top-ranked business school. Both of them put India on the map in the consulting and academic worlds. Ram Charan is more about specific problem-solving while Dr Dipak Jain is more about the art of problem-solving. Both are giants in their field that India should be very proud of."

Of course, other Indians have made it to the top of teaching business at global B-schools.

Soumitra Dutta, a professor of business and technology at INSEAD in France, became dean of the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in 2012; Nitin Nohria became dean of the Harvard Business School in 2010 and Sunil Kumar took over as dean of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in 2011.

In a way, Jain showed them the way.

For a man who has risen so high as a business educator, Jain says with a trace of wonder that he sometimes reflects on how his circumstances could have been so vastly different. Things indeed could have been different, but Jain grabbed all the chances he got to overcome the limitations imposed by geography and a family of modest means.

Jain is the second in a family of five children, four brothers and a daughter, the youngest.

He was born in the small town of Tezpur, Assam, in 1957 to a father who hailed from Rohtak in Haryana and was appointed as the first manager of Indian Airlines in Assam soon after independence. His mother, who only passed the third or fourth grade, made sure all five children received a good education and took their studies seriously. His paternal grandfather was a high school teacher.

“Tezpur was a small town, there were no world-class institutions there," says Jain. “But I was extremely fortunate to have excellent teachers in high school, in college and university. In a small town, one advantage is that you get more attention (from teachers). My class mates and senior students also helped a lot. Being a small town, there were no distractions."

Jain studied at Rastrabhasa Hindi School and went on to graduate at the top of his class with a bachelor’s degree in statistics from Darrang College in Tezpur (1976) and a master’s degree in the same subject from Gauhati University (1978), where he went on to teach.

In 1982, Jain chanced upon a Stockholm School of Economics brochure advertising a two-month international teachers’ programme.

“When I saw the fees, it was like my three years’ salary," says Jain. “My salary was 725. I wrote a letter to the school if they could offer me some financial assistance. They said we will cover the tuition fees, but you will have to cover the expenses, including travel. In those days, the round-trip fare was 14,500."

Jain scrounged around. The local Rotary Club, of which his father was a member, gave him 6,000. Two friends loaned him 6,000 and 3,000 each. So in 1982, at the age of 25, Jain—who went on to sit on the board of United Airlines years later—caught the first flight in his life, from Delhi to Stockholm.

His appetite for academic progress was whetted by the experience of Stockholm. Jain wrote to professors at American universities whose research papers he had read about the possibility of pursuing a PhD. They included Prakash Sethi, who, he thought, taught at the time at the University of California (UC), Berkeley. As it turned out, Sethi had moved from UC Berkeley, to the University of Texas (UT) in Dallas. In a lucky break, Jain’s letter was redirected to Sethi’s new address by the US postal service.

Sethi, who had also shifted his area of specialization to corporate social responsibility from management science, forwarded his letter to R. Chandrasekaran, the operations research head at UT, Dallas, who asked Jain to send him his Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores.

“I was such an idiot I didn’t know what GMAT and TOEFL was," says Jain, who offered to send him his research transcripts instead.

The upshot was that Chandrasekaran sent him a recommendation letter for admission with full financial aid in a two-year post-graduate programme that would precede his PhD. On 6 January 1983, Jain left for the US.

Armed with a PhD in marketing from UT, Dallas, Jain attended an academic jobs fair in 1986 where top US institutes were hiring faculty. His first few interviews didn’t go well.

“My PhD thesis was still very mathematical, many schools thought I was too abstract," he recalls.

Some had good things to say about him as well, and word-of-mouth spread. In a corridor, he was buttonholed by a man who identified Jain from his ID tag and introduced himself as a professor from Northwestern.

“He said I’ve heard good things about you from your interviews yesterday, but I understand that you’re not interviewing with us. I said I had applied but not heard back from the university. He said (to a colleague) let us interview Dipak right now. He gave me a pad and asked me to write down the necessary conditions for a theorem. I penned down 12 pages of equations in five minutes."

Jain was invited to a campus interview at Kellogg where he found himself competing with a Sri Lankan candidate for the post of an assistant professor. “They found him to be very good in marketing and me to be strong in analytics and didn’t know whom to hire. They went to see the dean, who said hire both."

The Sri Lankan, Naufel Vilcassim, and Jain went to co-author many research papers.

Jain stepped down as dean of Kellogg on 1 September 2009. He was dean of INSEAD, which has campuses in Fontainebleau (France), Singapore and Abu Dhabi, from May 2011 to March 2013, and was named director of Sasin in June 2014.

The queen of Thailand personally made him an offer to come to Sasin. He accepted because of another trait that he espouses as an educator: the need to say thank you.

He accepted the Sasin offer partly out of sentimental reasons. When Jain got married in 1989, he found it would take his wife three years to get a visa to join him in the US.

Kellogg had a tie-up with Sasin under which its faculty could teach five weeks a year at the Thai B-school. When Jain sought the visiting professor’s post so he could be together with his wife in Bangkok once a year until she received a US visa, Sasin agreed although he wasn’t senior enough.

“When I left INSEAD, I also had an offer from MIT," says Jain. “This (accepting the Sasin offer) was my way of saying thank you."