10 June 2015 13:32:32 IST

From IIM to IFS

Management skills picked up at India’s top B-school were not foreign in the Foreign Services

Reflecting on the 25 years since I passed out from IIM-A, it struck me that negotiating with other Governments, which has now become second nature, was something I had picked up at the institute. Several theoretical frameworks for negotiation which were part of the ‘Managing Negotiations’ course, aided me every time I sat across a negotiating table with diplomats from other countries.

So what, other than my interest in international relations, made me look to the civil services as my time at IIM-A came to a close? The ‘bureaucracy’ at the Delhi office of Hindustan Unilever Ltd, where I did my summer training, was definitely a push factor. While the experience in sales and distribution was a fascinating one (it took me to the small towns of semi-rural northern India), I began to question the organisation’s procedures and hierarchies. These were similar to what the government gets flak for.

So I thought, why not just deal with the paraphernalia of the government and go with my real interest — international affairs. IIM-A’s offer of ‘deferment of placement’ on the grounds that I was writing the civil services helped me make this choice. This option provided by the institute put paid to any suggestion that it is focused only on producing managers for the corporate sector.

Serving in the IFS

The journey began when I joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1990. My first overseas posting was Moscow. It was a tumultuous time for the countries of the former Soviet Union, a time of continuing perestroika. I saw the bombing of the Russian Parliament and several dramatic changes take place in Russian society. For Kyiv (Ukraine), just 120 kms from Chernobyl, day-to-day living was quite an ordeal. As Second Secretary for Economic Affairs, my efforts were directed towards helping Indian businessmen make inroads into the Ukrainian pharmaceutical and other markets.

By 1997, I had ‘earned’ my way to an English-speaking place! In London, as First Secretary (Political) and Special Assistant to the High Commissioner, I had the opportunity of working on all aspects of India-UK relations. Dealing with the British media, when we conducted our nuclear tests in 1998 as well as during the Kargil war of ’99, was a particularly trying but enriching experience.

Books, bars and friends

On completing my stint in London, I took a sabbatical and did a Master’s in International Political Economy from the LSE in 2000. After a decade in the Service, it was back to books, bars and friends. A year I cherished not just for the knowledge gained but also for the connections made with people from many countries.

On my return to Delhi, I landed in the hub of activity with 12-15 hour workdays and six-and-a-half day weeks. For three years from January 2002, I was in the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with issues of national security and energy security and worked closely with the first two National Security Advisors of the country. In addition to the Ministry of External Affairs, I also dealt with the Departments of Atomic Energy, and the Ministries of Power and Petroleum & Natural Gas. It was here that I got a holistic view of the Government’s working.

Subsequently, I went on to do trade negotiations for the government at the WTO in Geneva. I dealt with issues like intellectual property rights, regional trade agreements and broader trade and development agendas. I recall, in particular, the campaign by the Big Pharma from the US, against my Brazilian colleague and I, following our efforts to introduce an amendment to the TRIPS Agreement to bring in protection for ‘traditional knowledge’ of bio-diverse, developing countries.

An advertisement in The Economist that I responded to, briefly took me away from the government to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. As Head of Asia/Europe in the Political Affairs Division, I worked in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Leading the Election Observation Teams of the Commonwealth to Bangladesh in 2008 and Sri Lanka in early 2010 (soon after the civil war), were experiences of a very different kind.

By July 2010, I was back on ‘home ground’. After a brief spell heading the SAARC division, I moved to dealing with UN Political issues at the MEA. This was an exciting time with developments in West Asia and North Africa and other parts of Africa on the Security Council agenda. With India being a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council during this period, it made the country part of the high table parleys and decisions.

Reflecting back after all these years on the learning at IIM-A, I think my main takeaway was not the financial management techniques or marketing principles, but time management, dealing with work pressure and a structured way of thinking and presenting (yes, WAC* and MOC**!) — crucial skills for any job.

The experience of living and working in different countries, learning different languages and having new assignments every three years never lets me tire of my job. And as my three years in Delhi c​ame to an end, it was once again time to move on, this time as an Ambassador, to new learning fields.

Post Script: Being in the government has never made me feel any less an alumnus than my colleagues in the corporate sector. And frankly, I don’t feel a stranger in the government either. I have several colleagues in my service from the IIMs, including a third of my own batch!

* Written analysis and communication

** Managerial oral communications

A version of this article was published earlier in the IIM-A alumnus