"Much of what I learned in my MBA was through osmosis and application"

Vinay Kamath | Updated on January 20, 2018


Ashok Leyland’s dynamic MD Vinod Dasari looks back on his MBA from the famed Kellogg School of Management

It has been one of the best years so far for truck and bus-maker Ashok Leyland. Strong sales have contributed to the Hinduja group’s flagship with net profit in the third quarter of the last financial year multiplying six times over the comparable quarter in the previous year.

The commercial vehicles manufacturer reported a net profit of ₹198.62 crore (₹32.09 crore) on a total income of ₹4,085.34 crore (₹3,360.99 crore) for the quarter ended December 31, 2015. The man driving its growth is 48-year-old Vinod Dasari, Ashok Leyland’s Managing Director. In this interaction, Dasari replies candidly to questions on his MBA and how useful it has been to him in corporate life.

Where did you get your basic degree from? And your MBA?

I got my basic degree (BS in Engineering) from University of Louisville’s Speed Scientific School in 1988. While going to undergrad school, I was also working practically full-time, sometimes even at nights, at GE’s Appliance Division, especially during the last two years of engineering school. After graduation, I joined GE’s Manufacturing Management Programme as I wanted to pursue my passion in manufacturing.

After completing the programme, I joined Kellogg’s MMM Programme in 1990, which offers a dual degree in MBA (from Kellogg School of Management) and Masters in Engineering Management (MEM) from McCormick School of Engineering, both of Northwestern University. I was in the first batch of this unique programme that was focused on those who wanted to build a career in the manufacturing industry.

So why did you choose to do an MBA?

The honest answer is not something I ever told the recruiters! I was getting married at the age of 24 and needed a quick way to double my salary so that I could take proper care of my wife. I was told the best way was to get an MBA from a top school! I started work the day after I finished my MBA because, by the time I graduated, we had a son too!

How has your MBA helped in your corporate life, if at all?

I always believe that just having talent does not mean success. Kellogg not only nurtured and enhanced the talent or calibre, but also helped match them with the right opportunities. The Kellogg brand helped open many doors and provided the semblance of credibility that is required early on in one’s career for an organisation to take bigger risks with a person. Beyond anything, Kellogg provided a valuable stepping stone. Obviously, the rest depends on how one performs with each opportunity that is presented.

What have been the key learnings from your MBA for you?

Much of what I learned in my MBA, I came to realise many years later, is through osmosis and application. Also, because of Kellogg’s unique (and sometimes painful) approach on doing all case studies in groups, it provided a great platform from learning from your classmates and their experience, managing a team where someone may not participate actively, and so on.

These were all additional learnings to what the class taught. In corporate life also, we often have to take decisions in a team and find ourselves in situations where some team members do not contribute. As such, the informal application of what we learned in organisational behaviour classes truly helped later on in life.

I also feel that I learned how to take a large complex problem, and break it down into bite-sized pieces so that we can attack them one at a time. More than anything, I believe the education and the experiential learning, gave me tremendous confidence.

If you had to re-visit your MBA what would you have liked to see as part of your course?

I would have liked more futuristic tech stuff. I sometimes feel like we are a generation stuck between the landline and the digital world! We had many great inspirational speakers coming to campus. Learning from their experiences was brilliant. I wish there was much more of this.

What have been the chief ingredients in your success / road to the top as Ashok Leyland’s MD?

I believe three things helped: a) the MBA/MEM degree, which helped open many doors; b) awesome mentors who guided me at all times, and c) a bit of luck to be in the right place at the right time.

What were your best and worst moments during your MBA?

During my MBA, the toughest thing for me was to manage my time. With every class to be done in a team-based environment, simply scheduling slots for meetings was a pain. I don’t think I have ever been so organised with my calendar. On top of this, I was newly married and needed to devote time to my wife, who had just moved from India and was studying for her Medical Licensure exams. And then we had a son in the second year of my MBA. To top all this, we had no money. We used to joke that it cost us $0.25 every time my son needed a diaper change!

However, I think the tough times with lack of money actually brought our family closer. Obviously, the family being with me, and support from parents, was my biggest strength during the MBA and beyond.

What would be your advice to young MBAs who are joining the corporate sector?

The biggest mistake that top school MBAs make is that they have a chip of their shoulder about their degree. They often forget that learning never stops and, once they enter the real world, much of the learnings will have to come from seniors or experienced folks in the organisation.

My advice would be follow the age-old Indian tradition of respecting elders and they will go out of their way to help you learn and grow. Please lose the tag of a ‘hot-shot MBA’!

Are you happy with the way the MBA is structured / taught today?

I don’t think any MBA should be taught to students who do not have 3-5 years of work experience. Half of the learning in the classroom happens from fellow classmates, their experiences, and their unique perspectives on a particular problem.

Also, without experience, one cannot relate to what is being taught in the class. Secondly, I believe that MBA students should be exposed much more to entrepreneurs and corporate leaders to learn how they are innovating in a fast changing world.

What would you advise young MBAs to read?

I read a lot of business magazines, short articles and books that are definitely not purely theoretical. I couldn’t even read theory books in college, and I can’t survive them now!

Published on April 14, 2016

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