One Person’s Journey From CEO to Academic

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Monday, January 10, 2022
By Dhruva Chak
Photo by iStock/kasto80
Corporate managers can bring essential skills to the business school classroom.

Eighteen years ago, I first entered a business school classroom to teach a foundational course on marketing. As 30 fresh faces looked at me expectantly, I felt the adrenaline flowing. The class went well, as I enjoyed the lively interactions with my students. I left the room feeling satisfied and wondering if teaching would be a good profession for me to pursue. But I had taken a long journey to get to this point.

I earned my MBA from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad in 1974, when cohorts were still in single figures and India was still two decades away from liberalization. Most of the MBAs in my generation worked in managerial positions in practically monopolistic manufacturing concerns with large factories and distribution systems. We all expected to retire with gold watches after 30 years of meritorious and faithful service with a single company.

But wham! In the 1990s, everything changed. India opened its doors to the world, and workplace expectations for managers like me turned topsy turvy. We had to come to grips with the new reality. In school, we had learned the 4Ps of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion. With the emergence of the service industry, these had expanded to become 7Ps that now included people, processes, and physical evidence.

We had to develop new skill sets to deal with these disruptive new additions. The task was not easy, we were unprepared, and there were no rules. So, we had to make our own.

In my case, I moved from liquor company Shaw Wallace, which sold its products remotely through intermediaries, to Sterling Holiday Resorts (India) Ltd., whose sales force sold time shares directly to the customers. I not only had to learn about a new product and different delivery systems, I also had to master an entirely different business strategy. I had to change my mindset. I began attending training programs and found them to be of immense practical value.

I eventually became head of GATI Cargo Management Services. In this fledgling company, I made it a mandated priority for senior management to deliver training programs to company managers. While delivering one such program, I enjoyed the experience so much that I found myself thinking, “This is not work!” The experience sowed the seeds of what would be my next calling—teaching management education.

Even so, I spent two more years heading the international division of courier company Overnite Express before deciding to end nearly three decades of corporate life. During the next couple of years, I wrote six books, nurtured a family startup business that provided marketing and communication faculty for MBA institutes, and served as a guest faculty member at IILM Delhi and Modi Apollo International Institute. Those latter postings gave me experience as a teacher. They also offered me access to university libraries and enabled me to update my knowledge of marketing and communication.

In 2009, I delivered a guest lecture on marketing to the postgraduate diploma in management programs at the Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH) in Greater Noida, India. Three months later, I came aboard as permanent faculty, and I’m still at the institute today.

Preparing for the Transition

Having recently reached the Biblical age of threescore and ten, and therefore having supposedly developed a modicum of wisdom, I would like to offer four pieces of advice to other executives considering moving to the academic world.

Throw aside the trepidation. Teaching is a rewarding career with a great deal of flexibility. Because there is no set model of teaching, you have the freedom to find your own style. You can make the experience as creative as you like.

But take baby steps at the beginning. Accept a position as a guest faculty member to get an idea of what to expect. Take full advantage of the library facilities and any training programs that are offered. Acquaint yourself with the academic world, but remain au courant with happenings in the management world.

Realize that teaching is hard work. A professor leads a full life that is in no way less demanding than the life of a corporate executive.

Realize that it is hard work. There are targets to hit and timelines to meet, and there is a ton of paperwork! Alas, you will not ride into the sunset after delivering lectures. Outside of the classroom, you must correct papers, establish relationships with corporate partners, conduct research, perform administrative duties, participate in accreditation activities, and undertake consultancy projects. You will need to read constantly to remain up-to-date in your field and win the respect of your colleagues. You will be teaching and advising a constant influx of students, and you will be expected to participate in a wide variety of student activities. A professor leads a full life that is in no way less demanding than the life of a corporate executive.

Be flexible and prepared for surprises. As I mentioned, I arrived at BIMTECH to deliver a guest lecture on marketing and soon joined the institute full time. I quickly found myself heading the newly minted marketing area, which I led for six years; my responsibilities included overseeing marketing faculty and organizing a marketing summit. During two of those years, I also headed the business communication area. Later, I set up a Centre for Faculty Development, which I have headed for another six years. The academic world presents many such opportunities for faculty to change directions and take on new challenges.

Applying Management Principles in Academia

The transition to academia goes more smoothly once you realize that every management skill you employed in your corporate life can help you be a successful faculty member. In particular, these five competencies will serve you if you become an academic:

The ability to plan and organize will be essential for every aspect of your work as an academic, whether you are writing a lesson plan, organizing a conference, or setting the agenda for a meeting. These are skills all good managers possess, whether they are formulating a business plan or meticulously executing it.

The ability to know who your audience is will be just as important when you address your students as it is when you talk to your sales force.

The art of managing difficult employees comes in handy when you have a cocky student on your hands.

Decision-making skills are what you call on when the class discussion wanders in undesirable directions. Should you stop the conversation or allow it to go on?

The transition to academia goes more smoothly once you realize that every management skill you employed in your corporate life can help you be a successful faculty member.

People skills enable you to handle large numbers of students, each one with different needs, talents, and ambitions.

I like to joke that executives have another useful attribute that translates well to academia—the bad habit of working through the weekend! Many professors can seem unaware of the time passing as they work on research or lectures. You will find that your other management abilities also will serve you well in the classroom.

Identifying Important Intangibles

However, if you want to join academia, you will need to possess other intangible attributes.

First and foremost, you must be tolerant of the views of others. Bossism will not work on academic colleagues, even the most junior ones. Ego needs to fly out the door. You must be open to new ideas from any quarter, and you must show a willingness to learn and change. You will need to get work done through colleagues, but you won’t be able to bark out orders. Instead, you will need to use persuasion—another management skill—and employ a phenomenal degree of patience.

Second, before you teach a subject, you must develop respect for the academic theory behind it. Try to make the theory dovetail with your actual work experience. While this sometimes requires a great deal of research, you must be willing to put in the effort.

Third, you must enjoy being around people. Every good manager must interact smoothly with both employees and supervisors. Similarly, every faculty member must interact well with colleagues, students, and members of the community both on and off campus. You will find that the teaching experience becomes more meaningful when you get involved in as many diverse activities as you can manage.

Finally, you must realize that your former achievements in the corporate world will be respected—but you should wear them lightly. You will need to earn your spurs in your new position.

Making the Choice

Is a career in academia the right choice for you? It will take some soul-searching before you can make that determination. But I believe in the adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Executives aren’t the only ones who benefit by making a successful transition to academia. Business schools also see rewards when practitioners turn to teaching. Corporate managers bring a great deal of practical knowledge with them, and this is valuable to the MBA aspirants in the classroom.

For this reason, I suggest that business schools should make it easy for executives to become faculty. They should deepen their relationships with corporations, invite executives in as guest faculty, and find ways to make corporate managers feel welcome on campus. Such actions will encourage these individuals to consider academia as a possible alternative career. As managers become professors, everybody wins—the school, the students, and the faculty themselves.

Dhruva Chak
Professor of Marketing, Birla Institute of Management Technology
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