Samir Barua’s office, unlike many others, has a straightforward narrative about its occupant: Here is someone who is dedicated to his “organization". Barua is the director of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), which is the country’s most coveted business school and has one of post-independence India’s most iconic public complexes, designed by American architect Louis Kahn.

Barua’s spacious room is dominated by a large, paper-laden desk and a packed bookcase. It is an uncommon sight in today’s technology-led workplaces. Barua explains that the paperwork relates to his teaching commitments. Unusually for a director, he has continued teaching alongside his administrative role, and will resume his earlier role as finance professor after his term as director ends on 7 November.

“I didn’t want to become a dinosaur by the time my tenure ended. Administration was only a hiatus from academics. I wanted to make sure that I would be able to do research after five years," he explains, adding that since his schedule as director is often unpredictable, course preparations have to begin several weeks in advance. Stacks of coursework-in-progress tend to accumulate on his desk.

B-school pride

Barua’s office is dominated by a large paper-laden desk.

The only decorative items in Barua’s office relate to the school. On the walls are two oil paintings of the school’s buildings by former IIM-A student Lira Priyadarshini. Behind his desk are awards won by the school. Barua highlights two in particular with pride—certificates of accreditation by EQUIS, a leading European quality assessment system for management education. IIM-A was the first Indian business school to receive this endorsement in June 2008.

Earlier this month, IIM-A sprinted up The Economist magazine’s annual ranking of business schools, from 78th place last year to 56th place—another important endorsement of the school’s credentials. International recognition was an “acute" priority for him and the board, says Barua, when he took over as director in November 2007.

A small visitors room is attached to the office.

As he insists on giving me a copy of the book, I wonder how many of us love our workplaces (or our employers) so much that we want to create a tribute to them? Or adorn our walls with images of their buildings? Can a for-profit organization ever inspire as much genuflection as an academic institute?

Managing a career

Painting of the IIM-A building hang in Barua’s office.
Painting of the IIM-A building hang in Barua’s office.

This title applies to Barua in three ways. First and most literally, as domain expert: He teaches a course on portfolio management, and has authored a book on the subject. Second, he leads a “portfolio" life of varied activities, juggling full-time roles as administrator and professor, and other part-time roles as an independent director on several company boards.

This is an increasingly common phenomenon in modern worklife. Many young professionals choose freelance work, such as independent consulting, for greater flexibility. Most business leaders have multiple professional commitments. But as the pile of papers on Barua’s desk testifies, the downside of a “portfolio career" can be too much work and limited breaks—Barua says he has taken just “10 days leave in the last five years".

Public and private, global and Indian

Painting of the IIM-A building hang in Barua’s office.
Painting of the IIM-A building hang in Barua’s office.

Any head of any educational institute must manage a “portfolio" of interests, comprising faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees. But the job of the IIM-A director is considerably harder, given its public-private roots, and the unique spot it occupies in public imagination and aspiration. Directorial decisions need the support of varied constituencies.

His sense of his achievements during his tenure illustrates how one can navigate this terrain. The school is now financially self-sufficient, and generates a small surplus, despite incurring additional expenditure, establishing a fee waiver programme for needy students and setting up a pension fund for staff, he says. Barua is also pleased at having been able to increase compensation for non-teaching staff and contract workers. Academic ratings have improved, even though student population and diversity have expanded dramatically.

The board of governors is also now “more cohesive and involved with the institute" than earlier, he notes.

Documented: EQUIS accreditation certificates and the book Natural World At IIMA.

Yet perhaps that’s the biggest management lesson in Indian public-private life: Strengthen the foundation, fix the nuts and bolts and keep the “portfolio of stakeholders" on board.

Documented: EQUIS accreditation certificates and the book Natural World At IIMA.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.

Write to Aparna at businessoflife@livemint.com

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