03 Jan 2021

Playing the Long Game: How Dean Datar Came to be at HBS

Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva.

by Shona Simkin

It’s January 1984, and Srikant Datar, new to the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University, is navigating his first snowstorm—and first winter—amid a warren of snow-laden highways in Pittsburgh. He and his wife, Swati, had arrived from Stanford days earlier, and his car had just been delivered to the meeting point necessitated by multiple street closures. His taxi driver departed, the delivery truck drove off, and he realized he had no idea how to get home. He drove a few blocks to get his bearings, and stopped on a small side street to look at street signs and consult his map. After several walks up and down to check cross streets, he was examining his map in the car when a man emerged from a nearby house. “Is everything ok?” he asked with a knock on the car window. Datar replied that he was new to town and hopelessly lost. “No problem,” said the stranger. “Your house isn’t far, but it’s a tricky route. Follow my car, and when you know with certainty that you can get home, honk three times and I’ll head back.” And he did. “To this day I have no idea who this person was, I have no idea where he lived, but that act of kindness and generosity is one that I remember and try to emulate each day,” said Datar.

That act of selfless kindness made a lasting impression on Datar, and echoed life lessons from his childhood in Mumbai, India. “My brother and I grew up with a lot of awareness of community, and of individuals who were less privileged,” said Datar. “My father, as a professor himself, would always ask us how we gift the knowledge we have to others.” As a social worker, Datar’s mother was responsible for bringing water into each home in the slums around their home in Pune (then Poona). Those priorities, and the commitment to community and individuals, have led Datar from Mumbai to Stanford, to Pittsburgh, back to Stanford, and eventually to Harvard Business School.

Datar became the 11th dean on January 1 after 25 years as a faculty member and multiple leadership positions at the School, but seeds of the role that HBS would play in his life, and he in HBS's, were planted decades earlier as a graduate student in Ahmedabad, India.

After earning a mathematics degree from St. Xavier’s College, Bombay University, Datar attended the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, a school founded with the support of HBS. He quickly became enthralled with both the case method and management studies, and took a position with Tata Administrative Service (TAS) upon graduation. His first assignment as a TAS officer was with Ratan Tata (AMP 71 and namesake of Tata Hall) working on the tension between risk and incentives, which would lead to his eventual doctoral thesis.

Datar’s brother in law, visiting from the US, suggested that Datar take advantage of the generous TAS study leave policy to continue his education in the US. Though direct admission from India was rare at the time, Datar had two advantages: a glowing recommendation from a former Ahmedabad professor who had worked with legendary HBS professors John Dearden and Bob Anthony; and a Stanford professor’s familiarity with Ahmedabad’s rigorous standards. In 1980, he and Swati departed India for the first time and moved to Stanford.

At Stanford, Datar dove headfirst into his studies and the informal educational style, reveling in close relationships with faculty and fellow students and the concept that good ideas come from anywhere. By his second year at Stanford he decided to pursue an academic career. Three years and three degrees (statistics, economics, and business) later, Datar entered the pool for faculty positions, and met the man who would eventually bring him to HBS: Bob Kaplan. Kaplan’s last act as dean of Carnegie-Mellon University was extending an assistant professor offer to Datar. Kaplan took on a joint professorship appointment with HBS and Carnegie-Mellon, meeting with Datar every few weeks in Pittsburgh to confer and collaborate on his work with manufacturing and information systems.

“Bob Kaplan helped me understand areas of my work that I wouldn't otherwise,” said Datar. “When people say that mentorship is important and valuable, I know firsthand that that is true. My goal as dean is to make sure that every single individual at HBS is able to do their best possible work. That ideal comes from several of these experiences in the early part of my career.”

In 1989, Datar returned to Stanford, having narrowly chosen its offer of a tenured professorship over a competing offer from Carnegie Mellon.

HBS Initiative Director Laura Moon was one of Datar’s students at Stanford during that era. “He was far and away one of my favorite professors,” said Moon. “One of the things I remember most about his teaching, aside from his highly engaging demeanor, was his photographic memory. He seemed to remember every comment that every student made, to the degree that on the last day of class, he tied the content back to a specific comment that a classmate shared on one of the first days of class. We were all blown away.”

It was then, says Kaplan, that the efforts to bring Datar to HBS began in earnest. “With my joint appointment, I couldn’t poach Srikant from one institution for the other,” Kaplan said. “But once he left Carnegie Mellon, all bets were off!”

In 1993, with Datar now a full tenured professor at Stanford, Kaplan and Professor Krishna Palepu invited him to take a sabbatical year at HBS. It would be his choice, they said, if he wanted to also teach while conducting his research. “When I broached both these options, Srikant was quick to respond with his trademark exuberant laughter, saying that he wouldn’t even consider visiting if he was not able to teach,” recalled Palepu. “During the visit, it became clear what a superstar teacher Srikant is, and how much he loved the students. And of course, his students love him even more.”

Srikant Datar in his first years of teaching at HBS. Photo by Stuart Cahill.

Datar describes his year at HBS, and teaching his very first HBS section, as “completely phenomenal.” Once, he recalled, the class surprised him with a champagne toast at the publication of Horngren’s Cost Accounting, Datar’s first co-authored edition with Charles Horngren and George Foster. Datar remains in touch with those students today, he says. “They still claim, and not unfairly, that they were responsible for getting me to come here permanently.”

Datar and his family—which by that time included three children—moved back to Stanford, and efforts to negotiate a permanent return to HBS commenced. A week and a half after Kim Clark became HBS dean in 1995, Kaplan requested an appointment. “I said, ‘Kim, you have the rare opportunity to start your deanship by taking one simple action that will make HBS much better off. Let’s close the deal with Srikant,’” recalled Kaplan. “Kim knew Srikant and he said immediately, ‘This is a no-brainer; let’s get it done.’ And it got done. This was a long game that we played, but sometimes to get really high rewards you have to play a long game.”

In August of 1996, Datar and his family returned to the Boston area, this time for good. As he prepares to take on the role of dean, he sees his path as one guided by luck, fortuitous choices, formative relationships, and an abiding appreciation for change and human connection.

“The only thing that has been a bit of a constant in my journey is the number of changes that have happened; each one has been an opportunity to grow,” he said. “I believe that I am what I am because of the many players in my life; my parents, my teachers, my colleagues, and the many individuals who played important roles. Each one I remember and I have tried my best to pay it forward.”

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