Babson Magazine

Winter 2018

Always About the Team

Professor Bala Iyer, Babson’s new dean of faculty, talks leadership, family, and the lessons in life and work that he has learned from an unexpected place: football.

Professor Bala Iyer

Photo: Webb Chappell
Besides his work as dean of faculty, professor Bala Iyer has had a longtime interest in information systems and strategy. “I love reading about it. I love researching about it. I love teaching about it,” he says.

When Bala Iyer decided to come to Babson in 2006, he was thinking of his daughter.

For 12 years, he had been teaching at Boston University, but a position at Babson offered the Wellesley resident a priceless benefit: It was closer to home. That meant he would have more time to spend with his daughter, Varsha, who was then in elementary school. In particular, working near home would enable him to drive her to school.

“When you want to know what’s really going on with your children, give them rides to and from school,” says the professor of information technology management. At home, Varsha typically rushed off to play, but in the car she had no distractions. She and Iyer talked and shared time together, ride after ride, year after year. “Almost every day, I would take her to and from school,” Iyer says. “That was precious to me. Time with children is fleeting.” Varsha now attends Dartmouth College, and Iyer says committing to drive her all those years was “one of the best decisions I’ve made.”

Of course, that decision also led to a rewarding career at Babson. Last year, Iyer was named the College’s new dean of faculty, making him responsible for faculty recruitment and development. “I take this as a very high honor to do this particular job,” Iyer says. “Faculty are our most treasured resource.” Among his responsibilities, he focuses on maintaining the high quality of faculty members and encouraging research that aligns with the school’s mission. He also addresses diversity and aspires to have the makeup of the faculty match that of the student population. “It is a fantastic student body,” Iyer says. “The students want the faculty to be representative of who they are.”

Iyer was nominated for the job of dean by many of his colleagues. Previously, he was chair of Babson’s Technology, Operations, and Information Management Division, where Iyer employed a collaborative leadership style. He and the division’s faculty worked closely together to give TOIM’s course offerings a much-needed revamp. “I don’t have a hierarchical style of management,” he says. “The faculty are my peers.”

When describing his role at Babson, Iyer is apt to reference the leadership style of someone far removed from academia or business: football coach Bill Belichick. Iyer is a fan of football, and of Belichick especially. He likes the coach’s system, which emphasizes the team over the individual. “It doesn’t matter who the player is,” Iyer says. “It is always about the team. It’s never about you.”

While the TOIM chair was the first leadership position Iyer has held, he has long been intrigued by the idea of managing people. Iyer grew up in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), a large, bustling city in southern India. Every evening, his family had a “debrief,” as Iyer calls it, during which they talked about their days. Iyer’s father was a manager for a government department. “He would talk about his everyday decision making,” Iyer says. “He got me interested in management. He planted the seeds way back then, when I was in my teens.” As for Iyer, he enjoyed educating his parents about various topics during these daily debriefs. “I liked explaining things. I would go on and on. They were a captive audience,” he says. “I’m sure they knew that somewhere in my future was education.”

Iyer earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Anna University in Chennai, and, intent on a career in higher education, he went to Louisiana State University in 1986 for a master’s degree in industrial engineering. “I was determined to be an educator,” he says.

At LSU, Iyer picked up his interest in football. Working as a math tutor for the school’s football team, he was amazed that these physically imposing athletes could be so intimidated by math problems yet excel at such a brutally challenging sport. Making small talk with players, he asked them about the rules of football and attended games. He gained an appreciation for the sport and what it can teach about success in business and life. “I have never played it, but I can identify with it,” he says. “Football is strategy for me. It’s hard work. If you want success, you’ve got to be prepared.”

Iyer next earned a Ph.D. in information systems from New York University. He immediately took to the city, with its art scene and amazing restaurants and crowds, which reminded him of the energy and clamor of his old hometown of Chennai. His love of football also continued, and he became a fan of the New York Giants. When former Giants coach Bill Parcells came north to the New England Patriots in 1993, Iyer switched loyalties to a team that still has his heart today. Iyer owns DVDs of all the Patriots’ Super Bowl victories, and as he watches them together with Varsha and his wife, Priya, Iyer offers running commentary about the players.

After graduating from NYU in 1994, Iyer went on to teach at Boston University and then Babson. While he has settled into his role as dean, Iyer remains committed to teaching and research. He has had a longtime interest in information systems and strategy, and these days he’s particularly focused on the business strategies of digital giants such as Google and Facebook. For decades, he says, the auto industry of the early 20th century served as the main model for doing business, and lessons from the industry were taught in business school. That’s changing. “The way to learn now is to look at the digital companies,” he says. “The way they run their companies is the way we’ll run our companies, regardless of industry.”

Teaching, research, and his responsibilities as dean keep Iyer’s days at Babson full but fulfilling. “I dance into work every day,” he says, “because there’s nothing else I’d rather do.”