UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


New associate dean for MBA program lays out strategy for program, details leadership style


MBA students at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School should attain a “transformative experience,” says Sridhar Balasubramanian, the new associate dean of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Program.

That can be accomplished, in part, by exposing students to top-notch professors who care about and invest in the growth and development of each MBA student. As part of their studies, MBA candidates at UNC Kenan-Flagler receive training through cutting-edge courses, leadership development, international programs, team exercises and other career-enhancing tools, adds Balasubramanian, who is popularly known as “Dr. B” at the business school.

As he sees it, a successful MBA program should attract the best possible students. This not only includes candidates with high GMAT scores and GPAs, but also students “who are smart, eager to learn and fit in well with the unique culture of the School,” he says. The MBA program also must help prepare students for career paths that best meet their unique strengths and skills, and aspirations.

“We need to provide MBA graduates the opportunities to interview with the companies of their choice and prepare them well for their career search,” says Balasubramanian, who is the Roy & Alice H. Richards Bicentennial Distinguished Scholar of marketing. “We can’t “place” them – that ultimately depends on how it works out between the student and the company. But we can empower their career search in a way that fits their passions and aspirations.”

Delegation and Empowerment

In describing his own leadership style, Balasubramanian says he’s a firm believer in delegating authority and empowering people. “I believe in getting the best program personnel in place in terms of their capabilities, dedication, and motivation and then empowering them to do their jobs,” says Balasubramanian. “I want them to be able to themselves delegate effectively and to take initiative. I have the pleasure and privilege of working with a great team of faculty and staff at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.”

“I also believe in very honest and open communication,” he says. This starts with the need for students, staff, and faculty alike to be willing to engage in rigorous debate on key topics. They should also be willing to explore and respect different points of view. “But once we decide on a route and the stagecoach leaves the stop, it’s time for everyone to get on board,” adds Balasubramanian.

One of the key tenets of an effective MBA program is a desire among faculty and administrators to strive for continuous improvement. “The world is changing continuously and rapidly and our MBA program recognizes this,” says Balasubramanian. “We need to both think strategically and execute tactically, and we need to learn to be great listeners,” he adds.

As such, it’s important for UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty, staff, and students “to challenge ourselves every day to try new and different things,” says Balasubramanian. People have a tendency to rely their core competencies and long-held perspectives, he says. But relying too much on one’s existing strengths in a dynamic environment “can quickly degrade those strengths into liabilities that fetter us instead of empower us,” he adds.

Of course, another critical component of leadership is a willingness to work hard. “We can have all the vision that we want,” says Balasubramanian. “But nothing compensates for hard work. When we work hard, the students appreciate it, the organization appreciates it, and it goes back to how fulfilled we feel at the end of the day.”

“I like the phrase `absolute professionals’,” says Balasubramanian. UNC Kenan-Flagler’s students are known for their outstanding technical and functional skills, but also for their ability to work well in groups, lead from the front, and ultimately, to get the job done. It’s that duality of excellence that enabled 84 percent of the graduating class of 2010 to receive job offers within three months of graduation, says Balasubramanian.

The success of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Program is a reflection of the willingness of its students and faculty members to constantly challenge themselves as well as components of the program, says Balasubramanian. “We need to be quick to react and respond. It’s only when we reach for the stars that we can even reach the tree tops.”

Balasubramanian also values how his role as a marketing expert and researcher enables him to work with the MBA program staff to develop new and innovative ideas for the MBA program, keep a finger on the pulse of the outside market for MBAs, and collect and quickly act on feedback from students, alumni, and faculty. “These actions come naturally to me on account of my research and teaching background,” he says.

Creating Global Leaders

The international focus of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Program is an imperative in today’s fast-changing global economy. Balasubramanian has researched business strategies and conditions in emerging economies such as India, Brazil and China, and he offers some key insights to MBA students based on his findings.

For instance, when many multinational enterprises first enter the Indian market, they typically approach it as an environment “that’s ripe for the picking,” says Balasubramanian. But that’s a short-sighted mind-trap, he says. In reality, business in India can be brutally competitive across many industries. “People read about the success of companies like Philips and Unilever but these are multinationals that have operated in the Indian market for decades,” he adds.

Balasubramanian worked as area sales manager for India's leading food manufacturing and marketing company before he began his academic career and has consulted with many startups and established firms. He received his PhD from Yale University, an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management and a bachelor's degree in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology.

Western business leaders are correct in identifying India as a growth market, says Balasubramanian. Nonetheless, it’s important for observers to recognize that it’s still a relatively small market by western standards, he adds.

“Even if your business does well in India, it may not make a big dent in a company the size of a Wal-Mart,” says Balasubramanian. For instance, he points to how, even recently, the combined revenues for the 15 largest Indian firms represented less than half of the revenues for the world’s largest company, Wal-Mart. “So when it comes to investing in India, don’t expect the profit needle to move dramatically today. What you’re doing is investing for the future,” says Balasubramanian. He also recommends that western entrepreneurs consider partnering with an Indian firm to leverage existing resources and knowledge.

It’s also important for people to recognize that business strategies which may be successful for a company in the U.S. might not work in India. For instance, U.S. consumers make extensive use of online and catalog shopping but these channels are not well developed in India, says Balasubramanian. For example, Indians are accustomed to purchasing clothes in retail outlets after carefully examining the materials and considering how they fit. An Indian customer could examine well over 100 saris, often in the company of relatives and friends, before choosing one. For Indians, buying clothing online “is a new practice that goes against this tradition,” says Balasubramanian. The transportation and logistical infrastructure that is required for such channels to work smoothly is also not well developed, he adds.

It’s very important for UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA students to embrace the dramatic changes that are occurring in the global economy and to take advantage of the international breadth of the educational opportunities available to them.

“Brazil, China, India and other developing countries are going to be the growth drivers of the global economy for the next 30-to-40 years,” says Balasubramanian. “Companies follow profits, and profits follow growth. Students who develop experience in these economies position themselves for promising international careers.

While the United States remains a “great destination” for budding business leaders, says Balasubramanian, “after earning the MBA degree, it’s exciting and rewarding to place yourself on the global stage and seek that kind of international experience .”