“I was in various functionaries’ offices, and they were all focused on making sure that new schools were built and children were coming to school. And I was asking – what about what happens in school and what did the children learn and how do you know and where are the results? And some people got offended.”

Barun Mohanty, former M.D. International of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, talks to us about how measuring and scaling change are as important as making it. 

Having spent a long time at McKinsey, Barun tells us about the learnings he brought to the Development Sector and how listening to people helped him learn as well.

On his learnings at McKinsey

Upon completing his MBA from Vancouver, Barun joined McKinsey and was completely taken aback by the vibrance and energy in the office. Having lived a sheltered life in India, he was completely intimidated by the talent and felt like a misfit for a while. 

“Within my first week of joining McKinsey in Toronto, there was some research to be done on a particular company and they roped me in and they had two or three other people doing it. And there was some problem that had to be solved. Growing up in India, I was, of course, quickly done and dusted within a couple of hours. I had an answer, I had a solution, I knew how to get the problem fixed. Meanwhile, my colleagues were like, oh wow, you finished early. That must be really good. But they said, we’re not ready. And so these guys took another couple of days just to come back with some solutions I never thought were possible. And I learned – I mean, that was one of the many times – how do you actually look at a problem from a variety of different ways?”

One of his colleagues and mentors at McKinsey also gave him a priceless tactic. “Tino is a very smart guy, but taught me one very interesting thing, which is no matter how complex a problem, simplify, look at it in a very simple way and all your confusion will go away. And I’ll give you an example. When we were doing a proposal for a very large bank in the country and none of us knew very much about banking and I remember asking him – Tino, there’s so many problems here. And he said banking is very easy, borrow cheap and lend dear and all your problems will go away. And, you know, at one level that’s a bit facetious. But I think the message is right. And I always try, any time I’m debating something and I’m saying I don’t really get it, go back to the basics, go back to the fundamentals, and then things become clear.”

On using management skills to head an organization he knew nothing about

Barun not only brought McKinsey to India, but was also the man behind the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation in the country. He had a clear idea that he wanted to do something for his country. And so when the Foundation was looking to venture into India, he jumped at the chance.

However, he knew nothing about the social sector. He did not let that deter him and instead, used his management skills from McKinsey into heading the operations. 

“When we started the foundation’s work in India in around 2005-2006, I had the privilege of actually being the employee number one, but I also had a bit of a baggage of not knowing absolutely anything about development. And I think therein lies a little bit of how the foundation got going. I used a little bit of the management type principles that I had learned through my work at McKinsey. So things like if you do something, there has to be a result. I mean, this is stating the absolute obvious, but then how do you know what results you’ve had? And so I was fired by that for a lot.”

On measuring results being as important as executing them

Education is the cornerstone of the Dell Foundation and Barun and his team recognized early on that simply making a change was not enough. Change had to be made on a large scale to truly create impact, and then measured to study its effectiveness. In a country like India, where inequity runs deep, another problem was to create change that stuck. 

“I think the concept that you measure something, whatever be the measure, immediately is half the battle won, when people know that there is some measurement going on. Let me step even further back. If I look at our society, accountability and taking responsibility for oneself is not the most shining example that comes to mind in India. Translucency, opaqueness is something that, sadly, many of our people have hidden behind. And I think the central question. So Indians are really smart.. There’s a lot of really good qualified teachers out there. Extraordinary administrators. So why isn’t that all working? You can have lots of different theories about it, but if you start to peel the onion there and there’s many layers in the education system, in many other systems, it’s not that difficult to understand that it’s accountability. And today, I think one of the things that we have helped contribute to is that people are asking more about what happened, what is the outcome, what was the quality.  And then early on in some of our NGO work, I was insistent that when we give money to an NGO for anything, for the best of worlds, we need a third party objective scientific assessment. I didn’t know what it was. I had no idea. And my and the foundation’s philosophy was very much – let the experts tell us. If we’ve used the wrong measure in the past, we’ll change it. We’re not tied to anything. We’re tied to best practice that’s available. Let’s use it. But let’s absolutely measure how people are improving.

On what failure means to him

Barun’s father was an open-minded person who always encouraged him to listen to others before forming opinions. His time spent in the west has also, in his opinion, made him softer towards failure than in a country where people try to constantly step on each other to get ahead.

“I’m all about failures and have failed more often than I care to always admit, even to myself. On the topic of failure, very briefly, I remember we had a session with one of the top economists of the world, and he described the whole thing about failure. And he said, why do you think so much innovation comes? His point was pretty much the same, that if you go farther east, people are killing themselves if they fail. In Europe it is sort of tolerated, whereas in America you wear it as a badge of honour. That stuck with me. And so I’ve always looked at failures as something that you should take something away from and never repeat it, but celebrate it and talk about it.”

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