07 May 2020 21:43 IST

‘Volatility is what we prepare our students for’

IIM-A Director Errol D’Souza, on graduates’ readiness to face uncertainty in the Covid-19 context

Prof Errol D’Souza, Director of the country’s top B-school, IIM Ahmedabad, says the graduating batch is stepping into the corporate world at a most volatile and uncertain time, given the pandemic sweeping the world. He advises his students not to lose heart. “This is what we prepare them for even as we hope they never have to go through times like this, where their skills of handling volatility are tested. ‘Be prepared for the worst, have Plan B ready, and do not be complacent’ is an inherent part of the curriculum at the institute,” he says. Excerpts from an interview with Prof D’Souza, who is also a Professor of Economics at the Institute.

Are most companies that have recruited IIMA graduates honouring their appointments, given the Covid-19 crisis?

So far, only one firm has rescinded job offers. We will look for alternative job opportunities for these students through our existing recruiters and alumni network.

How many of the graduating batch are opting out of placements to become entrepreneurs?

This year, two students opted out of the placement process for entrepreneurship through the IIMAvericks Fellowship.

What is your outlook on the business environment if and when this pandemic ceases or peters out?

Businesses will tread a path of caution. Will the virus lie low and then re-emerge, maybe in another mutation, is a question that is on top of the mind. Will there be repeated lockdowns? Will the lack of opportunities for meetings make it difficult to conclude deals, especially when to do so requires consultation and interaction? What is the risk that supply chains will operate without disruption? Will the debt be rescheduled if counterparties are unable to fulfil the terms of contracts and make payments? Will customers conserve demand and put away savings for a rainy day as they become uncertain about their livelihoods and continued employment? Businesses will continue to have to reinvent their strategies and their vision taking into account how things evolve. Some will intuitively get the insight as to how to take forward the narrative of growth along a turbulent cycle, but many will find survival will be their constant call. Economic growth will undoubtedly be much lower — maybe 50 per cent lower — and it will be accompanied with much greater volatility.

Your students will be entering their jobs (or those with experience, re-entering the job market) at a most challenging time. What is your advice to them?

There is not much to say to them. This is what we prepare them for, even as we hope they never have to go through times like this, where their skills of handling volatility are tested. Be prepared for the worst, have Plan B ready, and do not be complacent, are all an inherent part of the curriculum at the institute. Amongst the objectives of the programme is to imbibe skills where they navigate stormy seas, build the strength to climb the highest mountains and surpass challenges, and to understand their selves and the world around them. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put those skills to the test and build the mettle that will bring them success and benefit the community around them.

As the country's top B-school would you say you have prepared your students adequately for such a challenging business environment?

Those who took their sojourn at the institute as an opportunity to garner resources of various kinds ― emotional, intellectual, social, being robust and yet adaptive, collaborative, effective, developing self-awareness of one’s biases and privileges ― and to have the courage to take decisions, and take responsibility for them, will be prepared.

Do you think that the nature of management skills and jobs will change? In what way and why?

Domain-specific skills will continue to be important. Still, increasingly the problems that are going to become important will be systems problems ― the interconnection of all those problems that combine to make up a function in an organisation. It will be essential to understand the basics of different specialisations that are essential to the functioning of an organisation and how they integrate seamlessly into a well-oiled organisation.

Apart from logical and technical skills, individuals in modern organisations require certain temperaments — they should be collaborative and build relations of trust and be accountable to others in the organisation.

Finally, the ability to think creatively ― a very elusive trait to learn or teach ― and to have the ability to work in teams and to communicate fluently and clearly, and have the quality of leadership, are important skills that will only become even more important in future.

What qualities will a young manager need for these trying times?

As the world becomes increasingly digital, there will be a loss of jobs that can be replaced by bots and AI, and a requirement for everyone to constantly upgrade their levels of education and become lifelong learners if they want to have long and remunerative careers.

Increasingly, there will be demands on managers to finely manage their work-life balance and ensure they have the flexibility to adapt that makes them valuable.

Managers will require cultural dexterity or the capacity to operate in a multicultural milieu and to appreciate the values that people from different backgrounds bring to the table.

Finally, young managers have to learn to live with the experience of failure. The rate of innovation and change means that there will be more pain associated with closures and losses. But rather than getting lost in those experiences, the ability to learn and take on the next challenge will define those who will benefit and excel.

Will this pandemic lead to a re-imagining of management education? What sort of fundamental changes do you foresee?

Management education will have to balance the curriculum with extracurricular activities such as participation in clubs and societies on the campus. The demand for technical skills is growing, and also the requirement that students have digital expertise. At the same time, soft skills are gaining importance — resilience, adaptability, communication, and so on. All these and the ability to evaluate one’s long-term goals as well as develop strong values will shape how management education is reimagined to be successful in creating value for students, organisations and society.